Thursday, May 1, 2014

Why Christians Should Not Support the Death Penalty: A Response to Rev. Albert Mohler

"Don’t try to get revenge for yourselves, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath. It is written, Revenge belongs to me; I will pay it back, says the Lord." -Romans 12:19 (Common English Bible)

This verse is not an invention solely of Paul's as he writes to the Christian Church in Rome.  He is quoting--verbatim--part of Deuteronomy 32:35, which then continues into verse 36 by stating in part, "But the Lord will acquit His people, (He) will have compassion on those who serve Him."

And upon these verses, a Judeo-Christian case against the death penalty can be very strongly and soundly made.

In the wake of a brutal botching of the execution of Clayton Lockett this week in the state of Oklahoma (his vein burst, affecting the delivery of the life-killing drugs into his cardiovascular system, and even though the execution was eventually halted, he still ended up dying of a heart attack), the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary's president, Rev. Albert Mohler, penned a lengthy column explaining how Christians can--indeed, for him, should--support capital punishment.

I disagree.  And I think that Paul would, too.  Dare I say it, I think Jesus Christ would as well.

Mohler profoundly misinterprets Paul's statement in Romans 13 that the government does not wield the sword in vain: we know from simple human experience that this is not true.  Governments throughout history have unnecessarily killed people, if in no other way than in the realm of warfare with the summary executions of civilians and prisoners of war.  Moreover, interpretation of Paul in this way is remarkably cognitively dissonant coming from a theological and political conservative like Mohler, as conservatism is built in no small part upon profound skepticism of governmental power.

These are largely digressions from a larger point here, though: that Paul isn't talking about the death penalty at all in Romans 13.  Sister Helen Prejean did a fantastic exegesis of this passage in her 2006 book The Death of Innocents, and while I cannot replicate the prescience and lucidity of her argument , I can at least summarize it: Paul uses the Greek word makaira, which we translate as "sword," but which more accurately is a short sword, large knife, or even a dagger, which stands in contrast to the rhomphaia.  Why, then, does Paul not use the term that refers to a known means of execution if that is what (Mohler infers) Paul is referring to here?

I would concur with Mohler that any society which uses capital punishment needs a high bar for its use upon an individual.  That being said, the Bible is hardly full of just examples of this, even though Mohler cites the Bible's endorsement of the death penalty as why he himself supports the practice.  Bear in mind that under Levitical law, King Ahab was able to have Naboth unjustly executed (1 Kings 21), and Jephthah is able to unjustly execute (through child sacrifice) his daughter (Judges 11).  Even in a country ostensibly governed under Biblical law, innocent persons suffer and are executed.

And most significantly, Jesus Christ Himself was bound over for execution by the temple authorities under the auspices of that same Old Testament scripture.

We follow a Messiah who was Himself unjustly executed, how is that not reason enough to reject the use of capital punishment in our world today?

*This* is why how Paul interprets Deuteronomy 35 in Romans 12 matters so much.  The temple authorities did not leave room for the wrath of God when they bound Jesus over to Pilate--and, of course, there would have been no such divine wrath, for as God said after Jesus' baptism, "This is my Son, with whom I am well-pleased."  But the temple authorities either did not know that or (more likely) just did not care.

This is not to say that God is as well-pleased with the murderers currently on death rows throughout the country as He was with Jesus.  I'm willing to wager God is nowhere near as well-pleased with them.  But by killing them ourselves, rather than leaving room for God's own punishments, we play God.  We take His sovereignty from Him.  We, in essence, re-create the original sin of Adam and Eve by purporting to take from God that which does not belong to us.  With Adam and Eve, they took the knowledge of good and evil.  With the death penalty, we take the ability to extinguish God-given life itself.

To oppose the death penalty can be a secular belief, but it does not have to be, as evinced by a multitude of Christians (myself included).  Contrary to Mohler's concern, growing opposition to the death penalty is not coming from *only* the unchurched.  It is coming from Christians as well.

I *do* welcome Mohler's strongly-worded condemnation of the racial injustice that exists in how America applies the death penalty, which he puts thusly:

Furthermore, Christians should be outraged at the economic and racial injustice in how the death penalty is applied. While the law itself is not prejudiced, the application of the death penalty often is. There is very little chance that a wealthy white murderer will ever be executed. There is a far greater likelihood that a poor African-American murderer will face execution. Why? Because the rich can afford massively expensive legal defense teams that can exhaust the ability of the prosecution to get a death penalty sentence. This is an outrage, and no Christian can support such a disparity. As the Bible warns, the rich must not be able to buy justice on their own terms.

The easiest and most straightforward way to remedy this "outrage" would, of course, be to simply ban capital punishment.  It doesn't solve the problem if the larger systemic works of injustice which Mohler highlights, but it at least ensures with absolute certainty that said systemic injustice doesn't end in being murdered via capital punishment.

This is also to say nothing of the concern about wrongful conviction, something Mohler fails to tackle with the same vociferousness, even though a new study out estimates that just over 4% of capital punishment victims were, in fact, innocent of the crimes for which they were killed.  1,378 people have been executed since the death penalty was reinstated by the Supreme Court in 1976.  You do the math.

Execution of an innocent person--like Naboth, like Jephthah's daughter, like Jesus--is a profound sin and violation of the "thou shalt not murder" commandment.

But even more than that, the execution of any person is an affront to God because we violently take from Him that which should not have been ours to begin with: acting as an ultimate judge of one made in God's image--one whose life, no matter how wretched and ruled by evil, is not ours to take.  That is God's province, and His alone.

We should return that to Him.

Yours in Christ,

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