What people on both sides of the Death Penatly debate often overlook

A few years ago during Presidential campaign season, two issues arose at around the same time which really got me thinking about the issue of Capital Punishment in our society, and more particularly, how Disciples of Jesus should view it.

The first was the rousing ovation that Texas Governor Rick Perry received during the Republican Primary debate after stating that he had ZERO reservations about the hundreds of people executed during his tenure as Governor (which I found very disturbing). The second was the controversy surrounding Troy Davis, who was executed in my birth-state of Georgia not long after. The controversy had arisen as a result not only of multiple witnesses changing their testimony, but also there being no actual physical evidence of Davis’ guilt.

In both instances, as well as countless others like them throughout our country's history, Christians have been divided on the issue--some praising capital punishment as the God-ordained right of a government to punish those guilty of the most heinous crime with ultimate temporal justice, and others pointing to Jesus’ own teachings on the need to “turn the other cheek” and “pray for those who persecute you” as in essence overturning the whole concept of capital punishment entirely in the age of the New Covenant. Who is right? Is there a consistent Biblical view when it comes to capital punishment? Or is the follower of Jesus left to simply pick their favorite proof-texts based on their political and/or emotional makeup?

I confess, Dojo readers, that I find myself somewhere in the middle on this issue.

Firstly, I do not believe that Jesus ANYWHERE overturned ANY spiritual truth contained in the Hebrew Scriptures (or “Old Testament”, as most Christians refer to it). Jesus came to FULFILL Torah, but not by ABOLISHING it:

 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” (Mat 5:17 NRSV)

So the Christian must take VERY seriously the purposes and teachings of the Hebrew Bible, even though as a Covenant it was completed by Jesus at His death and Resurrection. With Pentacost, the Mosaic Covenant ceased to be binding on God’s people as it came to its God-ordained completion and the New Covenant, marked by the giving of the Holy Spirit upon all God’s people, was inaugurated:

“The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt– a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the LORD. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”
(Jer 31:31-33 NRSV)

Peter himself declares this to be the case in Acts 2, and the entire New Testament (which literally means “New Covenant”) is testimony to the fact that we live no under the Covenant of Sinai, but under the Covenant of Golgotha.

[For more on this basic fact of Christian theology, see my video: “Do Christians Keep the Ten Commandments?” which can be viewed HERE.]

However, everywhere in the New Testament, the Apostles and even Jesus Himself appeal to the Hebrew Scriptures as reflecting the nature and character of God, and cite it authoritatively even to those who were never under its Covenant (i.e. Romans, Galatians, etc.). The message is clear: We learn of God’s nature primarily through His self-revelation to His people in Scripture…and for the earliest Christians, that Scripture consisted only of the Old Testament.

Therefore, contrary to some claims by anti-death-penalty Christians, it is not callousness, bloodlust, or hatred that leads pro-death-penalty Christians to uphold capital punishment. Often, it stems from a desire to take God’s self-revelation through His Scriptures very seriously (without, as the common charge goes, taking it completely literally).

Jesus Himself upheld the nature of God and His Word to His people through upholding the Old Testament during His life. In fact, Jesus’ teachings pushed past the outward, surfacey, lip-service adherence to Torah that many of his contemporaries had adopted and called Israel back to observing the HEART of the Old Testament’s teachings. Jesus rightly recognized that the Spirit who Inspired the Old Testament was the same Spirit who was soon to be poured out on the New Covenant Israel–both Jews and Gentiles united in Jesus as Messiah–and He was preparing His people to live out the intention of Torah by placing it, as Jeremiah and Ezekiel and Joel had foretold, in their hearts and minds rather than on tablets of stone kept in a sanctuary ark.

Thus, nowhere do we find Jesus repudiating the Old Testament concept of the death penalty.

The most common passage used to argue that Jesus overturned the death penalty is John 8’s account of the woman caught in adultery, as popular Christian author/speaker Shane Claiborne recently did. However, there are a number of reasons NOT to see this as such:

First of all, and most importantly, the entire episode was NOT originally part of the Gospel of John. This always comes as a surprise, and to many a shock, when I teach on it in "Bible for the Rest of Us" [Coming Soon!!]. But go ahead, read the footnote in your Bible regarding John 7:53-8:11 for yourself. Even conservative and Evangelical scholars readily recognize that this passage is not part of the Gospel. For instance, the translator note on this passage in the NET Bible alerts the reader to this fact:

“This entire section, 7:53–8:11, traditionally known as the pericope adulterae, is not contained in the earliest and best MSS and was almost certainly not an original part of the Gospel of John. Among modern commentators and textual critics, it is a foregone conclusion that the section is not original but represents a later addition to the text of the Gospel.”

So it is not legitimate theologically to build a doctrine based largely upon a passage of Scripture that is not, in fact, a passage of Scripture.

Secondly, even if John 8’s account of Jesus rescuing a condemned adulteress from the death penalty WERE Scripture, it still does not overturn the death penalty under Torah…precisely because the entire “trial” of the woman was a blatant violation of Torah itself! Here’s why:

1) According to Torah, in order for adultery to be punished, BOTH parties had to be present and on trial (Lev. 20:10)…yet in John 8, only the woman in brought to Jesus. There is no mention of the man whatsoever.

2) According to Torah, capital cases had to be tried by an official Judge of Israel (Deut. 25:1). This was a mob of religious laypersons bringing an accused person before an itinerant prophet/teacher. Nothing under Torah would allow such a “trial” to be valid.

3) Under Torah, a person could not be put to death except on the EYEWITNESS testimony of AT LEAST TWO WITNESSES (Num. 35:30, Deut. 17:6). Furthermore, witnesses in capital cases were liable to be punished with the same penalty the accused was being tried for if they were found to be lying. This is what the Commandment “You shall not bear false witness” actually means (rather than a blanket prohibition on lying in general). And under Torah, such eyewitnesses were to take an active part in administering the death penalty by ceremonially casting the first stone (Deut. 17:7). The fact that in this story all of the accuser dropped their stones and walked away shows that none of them bothered to press Jesus on the issue because none of them were in fact willing to stake their life on upholding Torah law.

However, I must again stress the fact that this entire account is NOT part of Scripture, and therefore we cannot read into it much detail either way.

The other line of argument Christians who oppose the death penalty often take is to quote Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount:

 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.”
(Mat 5:38-41 NRSV)

This is argued as clear proof that Jesus overturned the “eye for an eye” law of Torah (Exod. 21:23-24; Lev. 24:19-20; Deut.19:21). However, this is not an iron-clad prooftext by any means. Why not? Because Jesus is speaking about PERSONAL reaction to PERSONAL provocation or oppression by others. He is not speaking about the role of Israel’s government in administering Torah; He is speaking to Jews who are living under Roman occupation and suffer daily harassment and provocation, which leads to in-fighting, a vengeance mindset and all personal/family pride within an honor-and-shame society such as 1st century Palestine in fact was. At that time (and throughout history!) people would justify using all manner of retaliation against their enemies by appealing to the Lex Talionis (Law of retaliation, i.e. “eye for eye”) found in Torah…totally ignoring the fact that Torah’s “eye for eye” law was put there to LIMIT retaliation and CURB acts of vengeance. In the rest of the ancient Near East, it wasn’t “eye for eye”; it was “life for eye”! In other words, if you injure or insult me, I kill you and possibly your family!  In its original context, “eye for eye” was put in place to keep Israel from being a retaliatory, vengeance-based culture.

In fact, according to Torah, the primary purpose of the death penalty was prevention, not retaliation. Over and over we read that Israel was to use the death penalty (justly and never without 2 or more witnesses who staked their own lives on their testimony!) to demonstrate the seriousness of capital crimes, particularly premeditated murder (manslaughter did not carry a capital sentence) and to serve as a reminder that life is SO PRECIOUS that only God has the right to take it…and God authorized the government of Israel to act as His agent in carrying it out. And in his letter to the Roman Christians, Paul seems to imply (if not directly state!) that this is also a function God has granted even to pagan governments, so long as they are using it justly:

 “…rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer.

Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. Pay to all what is due them– taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due. Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”
(Rom 13:3-8 NRSV)

This is why, according to Scripture, one cannot properly call capital punishment “murder.”  The word “murder” is never used to describe capital punishment in the Bible. Thus modern Christians who oppose the death penalty for whatever reason should not give in to the temptation to deem all capital punishment as “murder”, no matter how rhetorically effective it may seem.

In fact, many Christians who support the death penalty in theory do so PRECISELY BECAUSE they believe in the sanctity of life. They point back to Genesis, back before Torah was even given, before there were even such a people as the Israelites, before Abraham was ever born…to the time of Noah. God flat-out declared:

 “For your own lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning: from every animal I will require it and from human beings, each one for the blood of another, I will require a reckoning for human life.

Whoever sheds the blood of a human,
by a human shall that person’s blood be shed;
for in his own image God made humankind.

And you, be fruitful and multiply, abound on the earth and multiply in it.””
(Gen 9:5-7 NRSV)

This is the very first mention of capital punishment in all of Scripture…and it comes at God’s command as a sign of how sacred and valued all human life is to be seen as.

In theory, the death penalty is God’s idea.

However…

I say all of this fully realizing that our society does not uphold the standards by which God originally intended capital punishment to be carried out. Torah ABHORS the idea of false witnesses, lack of eyewitness testimony, and corrupt or inept Judicial systems when it human life is on the line. God Himself takes “no pleasure in the death of the wicked”…yet all too often proponents of capital punishment seem to delight in it!

In our society you never hear of rich, famous, or powerful people receiving the death penalty. It is neither consistent or fair in how it is applied. Furthermore, it is “sanitized” so that it becomes nothing more than a “medical procedure” that is done behind closed doors. A “problem” is swept away out of sight of all except a handful of witnesses. This is a far cry from any Biblical concept of capital punishment as having the purpose of acting as a deterrent to a watching society. Capital punishment is a HORRIBLE thing. It is ALWAYS a tragedy. It is NEVER supposed to be cheap, clean, or emotionally-uninvested. I have a feeling if capital punishment (as well as abortion!) were witnessed by more people in society, it would have FAR fewer supporters.

As mentioned before, with the arrival of the New Covenant, things did change in many respects. Thus, I can recognize that Spirit-filled followers of Jesus could oppose capital punishment altogether, and I respect their position. I am somewhat persuaded by the argument that restoration and reconciliation are what we should strive for at all costs.

But unlike many opponents of the death penalty, I cannot outright entirely condemn a practice that God Himself instituted, both before and under the Covenant at Sinai, and I reject sloppy Biblical interpretations that pit Jesus against the Hebrew Scriptures He upheld until His death and saw Himself as bringing to fulfillment. Jesus is “the Word made flesh”…thus we do Him a severe disservice when we suggest that He offers a “more Godly” teaching than what God Himself set forth for His People under the prior Covenant. The Old Testament may contain things that we have a hard time reconciling as Godly and in harmony with the message of Jesus…but Jesus Himself never hinted at having such difficulties Himself. Thus, we must remain very humble in how we approach the Old Testament. It is every bit as Inspired as any New Testament teaching, even the stuff printed in red letters!

In short, I see the purpose–the Biblical and Godly purpose–of the death penalty in a society…but I do not see any society, especially our American one, that practices it in a way that measures up to its intended standards of justice. Therefore, I oppose it in practice under our current system. And until our system is completely reformed, the death penalty is not a valid option.

All other arguments based on logistics, economic concerns or victims’ rights, while they may be compelling in many respects, must take a back seat to the issue of justice for the accused when life and death are at stake.

In cases of the death penalty, we can’t afford to get it wrong.

Yet as history has shown, sadly, we have gotten it wrong time and time again.

I welcome readers’ thoughts in the comments section below. Feel free to share, discuss, challenge or critique me on this. As I said at the outset, I’m not completely settled on the issue. I’m merely voicing where I stand in light of what I find in Scripture and what I see in our society.

JM