Monday, January 04, 2016

ET9: Capital punishment should be reserved for extreme circumstances, if used at all.

This is the ninth post on Christian ethics in an ongoing series, theology in bullet points. The first unit in this series had to do with God and Creation (book here), and the second unit was on Christology and Atonement.

We are now in the third and final unit: The Holy Spirit and the Church. The first set of posts in this final unit was on the Holy Spirit. The second set was on the Church. The third set was on sacraments. This final section is on Christian ethics.
Capital punishment should be reserved for extreme circumstances, if used at all.

1. It is obvious that no Israelite understood the sixth commandment to address capital punishment, death as a penalty for wrongdoing. The Law repeatedly calls for death as a punishment. As a small sampling:
  • Whoever strikes their parent is to be put to death (Exod. 21:15)
  • A witch is to be put to death (Exod. 22:18).
  • A man who has sex with his father's wife is to be put to death (Lev. 20:11).
  • Two men who have homosexual sex are to be put to death (Lev. 20:13).
  • A stubborn, disobedient son is to be put to death (Deut. 21:18-21).
There was even a law about how long the body of someone punished by hanging should remain on tree: "When someone is convicted of a crime punishable by death and is executed, and you hang him on a tree, his corpse must not remain all night upon the tree; you shall bury him that same day" (Deut. 21:22-23).
So it is clear that no Israelite connected the command not to kill with capital punishment.

2. We do not apply these punishments today. For one thing, Christians are generally not in a position to decide the punishments for crimes. We belong to governments that are elected and run on principles that allow for a constituency much larger than those who might be Christians within them. The New Testament itself was written under similar conditions.

Indeed, it is significant that the New Testament largely ignores or even opposes these sorts of punishments, even in instances where the same ethic continues. The apostle Paul condemns homosexual sex (e.g., Rom. 1:27) and the sex of a man with his father's wife (1 Cor. 5:1). But he does not in any way suggest that the Corinthians find a way to put this man to death. And while he says that all of the sins of Romans 1 are worthy of death--from idolatry to gossiping (1:32)--Paul does not in any way suggest the implication of this principle.

After all, "all have sinned" (Rom. 3:23). We all stand worthy of death because "the wages of sin is death" (6:23).

Indeed, the only place in the New Testament where death is suggested as a punishment is in John 7:53-8:11, the story of the woman caught in adultery. We should be somewhat cautious of this story, because it does not appear in the earliest manuscripts and was not likely part of the original text of John. Nevertheless, the story strongly resonates with Christians and some have suggested it may contain authentic historical tradition.

In this story, men bring a woman to be stoned for adultery. Jesus suggests that the person who has never sinned among them should throw the first stone. One of the main take aways seems similar to Romans 3:23. Since everyone has sinned, everyone is worthy of death. But Jesus is more interested in redeeming people than punishing them.

3. Dare we say that there were contextual dimensions to the punishments of the Old Testament? Punishments that we would consider extreme or even inhumane today were business as usual in the Ancient Near East (ANE). In fact, the trajectory of the Old Testament in its context is toward limiting such punishment.

The command to take a hanged body down prevents the kind of long term shaming and gloating over the death of another person that takes place when a body or head is left on public display indefinitely. The "eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth" rule was originally meant in the ANE to limit revenge. In other words, you cannot take two eyes if the person who wronged you only took one of yours.

How does one quantify the dishonor of a spouse who has an affair? In the ANE, it was equated with death. An eye for an eye meant death for disgrace. That is not an equation in almost any context today.

4. Christians today are increasingly opposed to the death penalty, even for crimes like murder. Right or wrong, we must admire the spirit of such individuals. If we are to err on the side of justice or mercy, clearly the New Testament calls us to err on the side of the latter, for "mercy triumphs over judgment" (Jas. 2:13). The Spirit of Christ is a spirit of forgiveness, not a spirit of vengeance (e.g., Rom. 12:19-21).

Still, Paul seems to assume that one legitimate function of Roman government is capital punishment. He writes that "authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer" (Rom. 13:4). Presumably Paul has punishments for crimes like murder in view. At least Paul did not understand the law of love to contradict capital punishment in some circumstances.

We should also distinguish between the functions of government and the personal ethic that Jesus taught. Jesus taught that the default Christian attitude should be one of turning the other cheek, of submission to those who oppress us (e.g., Matt. 5:38-42). But governments are protective structures that function differently than individuals. If Christian individuals ask "What would Jesus do?" governments more ask, "What would God the judge do?"

5. So we find ourselves once again applying the three purposes of justice to the question of capital punishment: 1) justice for redemption, 2) justice for protection, and 3) justice by removal.

It is a hallmark of modern society, heavily influenced by Christian values, that penal systems have sometimes been viewed as places of rehabilitation as much as places of punishment. To be sure, the lower, less mature view of prisons as mere places of punishment does surface frequently. It may indeed be the unexamined assumption of most.

But a Christian view of "discipline" sees penalty strongly through the lens of redemption. Hebrews 12 strongly suggests that God's discipline primarily works to reform us, to steer us in the right direction. Even in the case of the man who was having sex with his father's wife--an act the Old Testament punishes with death--Paul indicates that the purpose of handing him over to Satan is so that he might be saved in spirit (1 Cor. 5:5). [1]

6. Of course one of the principal motivations for discipline is also protection. If someone is liable to murder, then he or she must be removed from society in some way to protect society. If someone is liable to steal, then that person needs to be removed from a context where he or she can steal.

Redemption and protection do not have to contradict. They can both work at the same time. Nevertheless, the protection of the many is a higher priority than the redemption of an individual who refuses to be reformed.

7. Penalty can also serve a higher function still. It can serve as a deterrent of further wrongdoing. If a person cannot be prevented from wrongdoing for higher reasons, many can be deterred because of fear of punishment. We must reckon seriously with the possibility that the lighter the penalty, the less motivation not to do wrong.

This dynamic gets at a systemic issue. Government should normally enact punishment without mercy. Individuals show mercy, and some mercy can be shown in the dispensation of punishment. But the existence of penalty for crime is essential to the order of society. A person's soul can be redeemed but it still be important for them to experience consequences for the good of the stability of society at large.

So a person convicted of a heinous crime may be forgiven by God and yet still need to live out his or her sentence for the good of society's stability.

8. Is there a place for capital punishment? On the one hand, someone might argue that a person should be given as long as possible a time to repent of his or her sin. A life sentence, one might argue, provides a greater likelihood that a person will be redeemed than a death sentence.

It is not clear that this idea is true. A death sentence provides a framework for repentance, whereas a life sentence may simply foster indifference. Similarly, those whose hearts are truly hardened are not likely to ever repent.

There are some crimes, it seems, that are so heinous, that the very existence of the person seems to be an affront to the love of God and neighbor. Those who planned and implemented the Holocaust, serial killers, leaders of genocide--the very existence of these sorts of individuals are the very stuff that hell is made of. If hell is a reality, then "justice by removal" does not contradict love of God and neighbor in such instances.

9. Yet we should have strong caution here. We are speaking of a relatively small number of situations. And we should remember that some of those who have been put on death row or even put to death have turned out to be innocent. We cannot say with confidence that our legal system is fully reliable. This doubt in itself suggests that the death penalty should be used very sparingly.

Further, it may be that the Church is increasingly moving away from the death penalty. If God does indeed allow the church to "bind and loose" certain teachings (cf. Matt. 16:19), this may be one teaching that the Church is increasingly "binding." Who is to say that this trajectory is not of the Holy Spirit. It may be that Christians in a generation will nearly unanimously consider it unchristian to favor the death penalty.

Next Sunday: ET10. Violence in self-defense can sometimes be justified.

[1] Some scholars would suggest that prescribed punishments and laws in the Ancient Near East often served more as statements of values and ideals rather than actual practices. If that is true, then the Old Testament laws were never actually a matter of regular practice.

1 comment:

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks for doing this series!