Another Perspective

Jesus and the Death Penalty

A debate that post-Oklahoma will only intensify.

By 5.3.14

UPI
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Recently religious pacifist Shane Claiborne confronted Tennessee’s governor on the street to tell him what Jesus thinks about capital punishment.

Jesus did notably stop the execution of a woman accused of adultery by asking her accusers first to ponder their own sins. But nobody in Tennessee faces the death penalty for adultery. They are on death row for murder.

What does Jesus think about the proper response to murder? Christians believe Jesus is divine and therefore God’s instruction to Noah in Genesis is pertinent: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.”

Unlike the later civil punishments of the Mosaic law, which are no longer considered binding, Christianity has traditionally regarded this command as having universal application.

There is also in the New Testament the admonition from Jesus’ Apostle Paul that God ordained the state “not to bear the sword in vain” and is an avenger who “carries out God’s wrath on the evildoer.”

These Bible passages are never popular with church pacifists who oppose all violence. And this opposition raises the question: Is imprisonment of murderers, rapists, robbers and other dangerous persons morally acceptable if it involves armed guards prepared for lethal force? Should imprisonment instead be voluntary and therapeutic? Church pacifists typically are vague on law enforcement and protecting the innocent.

Claiborne, while in Tennessee for his protest, met with death row inmates and was “stunned” when the inmates told him they’d welcome the chance to pray with their Governor. “It would be like Jesus inviting Pontius Pilate over for dinner,” Claiborne exclaimed, although kindly clarifying he didn’t think the inmates were Jesus.

That’s right, because Jesus was actually innocent. Claiborne presumably accepts the convicted murderers are guilty, although the details of their crimes and their victims don’t merit mention in his column, even if they are an essential part of the story. Rather than pray with the Governor, perhaps the inmates should instead offer to meet with the families of their victims, proffering their apologies, and admitting their horrific crimes merit their sentence.

It’s right that clergy and other persons of faith visit the imprisoned, including murderers, to remind them of God’s grace and mercy, which atones for sin but doesn’t absolve from earthly responsibility for the consequences of their deeds. It seems odd for Christians to visit convicted murderers to tell them their punishment is unjust, unless these visitors have evidence of their actual innocence. Jesus on the cross did not tell the thieves executed at His side that they were victims of injustice. Instead He offered eternal salvation to the one who repented.

Too often religious opposition to the death penalty ends up minimizing or ignoring the horror of murder, or equating execution by the state after due process with the shedding of innocent blood. Sometimes opposition to capital punishment is equated with “pro-life,” as though a convicted murderer has the same status as an innocent unborn child.

It’s often forgotten that the Roman Catholic Church as a matter of intrinsic doctrine teaches the state’s vocation for lethal force, including capital punishment, even as the last three popes, without of course disputing their church’s teaching, have expressed hope that modern wealthy societies would instead choose life imprisonment whenever possible.

As a Protestant, I don’t fully share that papal perspective but respect its careful reasoning, which doesn’t resort to moral confusion or sloppy sentimentality common among many Protestant and Catholic opponents of capital punishment. Too often, these opponents, like Claiborne, simply imagine everyone should reconcile and move on. The Religious Left, which primarily envisions the state as a cornucopia of entitlements, is not comfortable with the state’s more central punitive vocation for upholding justice and punishing the wicked.

The Religious Left of course mirrors a growing segment of secular society that opposes capital punishment, fed partly by media accounts of stories like the recent botched execution in Oklahoma. These accounts omitted the details of the murderer’s crime. He shot a teenage girl after gang raping her and had buried her alive. And the reports often ignored how opponents of the death penalty had inhibited the availability of lethal injection drugs that could have avoided the mishap.

There is a frequent widespread desire by secularists and the Religious Left to minimize the impact of individual evil by instead focusing on broader systemic injustice. Admitting that humanity is intrinsically sinful and often quite wicked is difficult for many in a therapeutic age of self-affirmation.

Many Americans have also forgotten the surging crime wave of the 1970s that inspired tougher sentencing, wider incarceration and a greater return to capital punishment after more liberal public attitudes in the 1960s, when, at least briefly, most rejected the death penalty. The relatively safe streets and wonderfully reduced crime rates of recent years have invited complacency.

In a very helpful recent CNN column, Southern Baptist Seminary President Albert Mohler succinctly explained capital punishment theologically: “God affirmed the death penalty for murder as he made his affirmation of human dignity clear to Noah. Our job is to make it clear to our neighbors.”

Religious opponents of capital punishment should at least acknowledge Christianity’s historic teaching and offer morally serious arguments that recognize humanity’s deep, pervasive capacity for evil.

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About the Author

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth CenturyYou can follow him on Twitter @markdtooley.