Monday, January 15, 2007

Grisham's "The Innocent Man". Is Capital Punishment Biblical?

John Grisham has made his fortune writing legal thrillers. Some eighteen of them. Up until his most recent work, "The Innocent Man" (Doubleday, 2006), which is yet another legal tale, he had never attempted writing a work of non-fiction. But the story of Ron Williamson and his friend Dennis Fritz, both wrongfully convicted of rape and murder in Ada Oklahoma in the 1980s was too powerful too resist, apparently.

In his personal comments at the end of the book he admits that this particular case, where a mentally ill person is convicted of a murder he never committed, brought him into the seamy and unseemly world of 'legal' injustice. He puts it this way "The journey also exposed me to the world of wrongful convictions, something that I, even as a former lawyer, had never spent much time thinking about." (p. 356)

This is a surprising admission considering that Grisham is both a former lawyer and also a Christian. Surprising because of course we know how fallible humans are, and so lacking in either omniscience or even good judgment about so many things, including life and death matters. But perhaps it is not so surprising since conservative Christians are often some of the staunchest proponents (and opponents) of capital punishment. Obviously the pursuing of the writing of this particular book was something of a wake-up call for John Grisham. My hope is that it would be a wake-up call for all Christians, especially in the wake of yet another highly publicized case of a total miscarriage of justice on '60 Minutes' last night-- I am referring to the prosecution of three Duke Lacrosse players, whom the DNA evidence exonerated from having raped the plaintiff, an 'exotic' dancer. In the end it was the DNA evidence which exonerated Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz as well.

Any time this kind of mess happens, where there is such a huge miscarriage of justice, it raises the question about capital punishment in general, especially when the statistics suggest that many, many cases exist of persons on death row who are not there because they are guilty of the crime. What they are guilty of is having bad legal representation, or even worse they are guilty of being poor or mentally incompetent to defend themselves. Sometimes as well, they are 'guilty' of being the wrong race in the wrong place at the wrong time.

And here is the moral dilemma put bluntly-- Is it ethically a worse thing to have a criminal justice system that lets a guilty felon go unexecuted (being given instead perhaps life in prison without parole) or to have a system which regularly executes people who are not guilty of a capital crime? Which is a worse miscarriage of justice, the former or the latter?

In my view, condemning even one innocent man or woman to death is frankly one too many. It cannot be written off as collatoral damage or just the price of swift justice or the like. It is a horrible sin and crime, perpetrated by a 'justice' system itself against some of its own innocent citizens, and as the Bible says, such innocent blood cries out to God for redress of this situation. Never mind that the criminal justice system is supposed to uphold 'justice' for all, even the poor, even the mentally ill, even those who are not of the same ethnic group as most Americans. As so many statues of Lady Justice remind us, justice is supposed to be blind to any considerations which might skew justice being done. Justice denied to anyone, is justice denied potentially to everyone. And it is perfectly clear to all who are observant that those with more money and better lawyers have much better chance of being exonerated of a crime than those who have neither, whether the exoneration is just or injust.

At this point you may be objecting and saying-- "But now we have the hard scientific evidence of DNA which eliminates the guess work in capital cases". Under these circumstances shouldn't we think that capital punishment becomes more infallible and permissable a kind of punishment? On the one hand, while DNA evidence can provide conclusive evidence that someone DIDN'T do something, it cannot prove that someone DID do something. Take for example the classic case of a prostitute who is raped and murdered. DNA testing can show who did not have sex with the woman in question near the time of her death, and it can also show who did. But the person who has sex with a person may not have killed her. DNA doesn't prove who the killer necessarily is unless there is other evidence as well.

Suppose, as in the Duke case the testing shows multiple persons had sex with the woman in question, some of it consenual and even legal, some of it not? Suppose it shows that none of the accused had sex with her. That should exonerate the accused from the crime, but it does not necessarily incriminate all those who did have sex with her. In other words, there are very few clear cut cases where the DNA can nail one and only one person for the crime committed. Hair samples are also notoriously unreliable evidence, as are saliva tests as well in at least 20% of all cases (read Grisham's book). In other words, there is rarely a slam dunk case on the basis of such 'scientific' evidence, even today. Juries can be blinded with science and rush to judgment, but Christians need to think things through thoroughly and carefully and prayerfully.

But what exactly does the Bible say or suggest about such issues? If one examines the Mosaic Law code, two things are clear. The lex talionis "an eye for an eye, a hand for a hand,... a life for a life" was a law given, as Jesus was later to suggest, due to the hardness of the human heart. In context the law was meant to limit revenge taking not license it. In other words, the phrase in question could be translated "only an eye for an eye, only a hand for a hand.... only a life for a life". The issue of capital punishment then, as now, was taken as a separate issue from war, and the killing that happens during a war. Capital punishment has always been part of a system where the basic assumption is that the society in question is at peace and under the rule of law, but has problems with some isolated individuals who are criminals who had to be dealt with.

But the second thing to be said about the Mosaic law code when it comes to this issue is that the ten commandments make perfectly clear that God's highest and best for his people was 'thou shalt not murder', a commandment that Jesus reiterated. In context this commandment refers to pre-mediated murder or execution by one of God's people. It does not refer to accidental killings, nor does it refer to actions of war. It refers to God's people pre-mediating and carry out a killing, whether one is a private citizen or a public official. For either such person, this banning of murder is absolute. And of course capital punishment, it must be admitted, is indeed a form of pre-mediated killing. It falls within the Mosaic ban, whether we are happy to call it murder or not. It is just one legally sanctioned form of killing in some places in the world by some legal systems.

And that brings us to what Jesus requires of his own followers in these matters. The issue for the Christian is not what is 'legal' or 'permissible' for some secular government to do which is not obligated to follow the Gospel. The issue is what should Christians do who are so obligated.

Here dictums like turn the other cheek, practice non-resistance, love your enemies, follow Jesus' own example, remember Jesus said that those who live by the sword die by it, and so on, come into play. But lets take one particular teaching of Jesus-- his teaching about forgiveness. The issue is how Christians should respond to being wronged, even criminally wronged. Paul is clear and succinct about this matter in Rom. 12.17ff.-- "do not repay anyone evil for evil...Do not take revenge, my friend but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written 'It is mine to avenge; I will repay,' says the Lord." Paul then goes on to quote Prov. 25.21-22: "If your enemy is hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink, In doing this you will heap burning coals on their head." This is sometimes called killing them with kindness, but in fact what it is is breaking the cycle of revenge-taking by blessing someone who curses or harms you. Paul's final warning is "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good." Of course this is not a natural human response of a fallen human being. But it is one that a Christian by grace can practice.

Jesus is equally emphatic on this point in Mt. 18.21-22. Peter asks whether he should forgive someone who sins against him, and he magnanimously suggests up to seven times. After all its a good big Biblical number for perfection. Surely seven times would be enough.

Jesus answers "not seven times but seventy seven times." Now what is not normally noticed about this is Jesus is alluding to the famous dictum of Lamech in Gen.4.24 which reads "If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times." In other words, Jesus is saying his disciples should practice as much forgiveness, in effect infinite forgiveness, as Lamech swore he would practice revenge taking.

The basic principle is this-- vengeance should be left in the hands of God. And perhaps it needs to be said that what this means is that Jesus disciples should not take revenge on anyone. Those to whom God has forgiven everything unconditionally should practice unconditional forgiveness as well. And of course it needs to be said that sometimes revenge taking has nothing to do with justice. Sometimes it is just a retailiation against someone, anyone, for being wronged or harmed in some way. There is a reason why Jesus requires us to pray "forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us". The lack of doing the latter can impede our receiving the former. The two dimensions of forgiveness, received and offered, vertical and horizontal, are intertwined.

One can also argue on the basis of what follows Rom. 12, namely Rom. 13.4 that while individual Christians should not take revenge, non-Christian governments can be the instruments of God's wrath. This is true enough, but what Paul is talking about there is not capital punishment at all but rather the right of the tax police to carry a defensive weapon, and indeed to enforce the law. Nothing is said here about the use of lethal or deadly force, even in the case of the government.

How do I sum up the Biblical evidence? First it must be freely admitted that different Christians and equally good scholars will weigh these texts, and which ones seem more important, differently. That is true.

In my view following the example of Jesus (who would not even sanction one of his disciples chopping off the ear of someone prepared to lead him off to an unjust crucifixion) means that we must take the Sermon on the Mount, and teachings such as we find in Rom. 12 with utmost seriousness as commands of the Lord and of his apostles. In other words, the commitment not only to non-violence, but the commitment to forgive and do good to those who harm us is top priority.

We need to leave vengeance or justice in God's hands. We are supposed to be agents of grace and forgiveness in a world already too prone to using violence to solve its problems. And for me, this means I cannot support, nor could I participate in an act, whether legal or personal, which involves taking away another person's life and thereby probably taking away their opportunity to repent, be forgiven and be saved.

Whatever your views on this matter, read and ponder Grisham powerful book. It reveals how sin and self-centered behavior and our obvious lack of omniscience plagues even the best of human institutions.

65 comments:

Terry Hamblin said...

The idea that Christians should be against capital punishment and that 'thou shalt do no murder' includes judicial execution is a very recent one.

Jesus was in fact witness to a judicial execution and made no protest about it. Luke even quotes without dissension the repentant thief's words, "We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve."

Nor did Jesus himself interpret the command to turn the other cheek as a universal injunction. When struck in the face before the High Priest he did not offer the other cheek, but instead protested, "If I said something wrong testify as to what is wrong. But if I spoke the truth, why did you strike me?"

The most cogent argument against capital punishment is the error rate. I agree that executing one innocent man is unacceptable, but hard cases make bad law. There are many murders where the guilt of the accused is not in doubt. In some circumstances - the murder of a prison officer by a prisoner serving life without parole, for example - there is no suitable sanction remaining.

Over my lifetime I have seen the law change in the UK. Capital punishment was always rare. To my mind the change has coincided with a diminishing of respect for the law and an increasing lack of concern for personal sin. The execution of evil men used to be a constant reminder that the wages of sin is death. Today, the wages of sin is seen to be 9 years detention in a single room with private WC, color television and awful food
.

Ben Witherington said...

Try reading this book and see what you think Terry. You just made two arguments from silence-- silence before the high priest (Jesus didn't protest) and silence on the cross when someone else said something. Not compelling at all since these are edited accounts anyway.

And frankly, capital punishment is no deterrent, so that argument doesn't work either. Wicked people are going to do wicked things with or without capital punishment. So the sanction notion, if by sanction you mean deterrent, is not compelling.

It is interesting that in Roman jurisprudence prison was never a punishment, always a holding tactic until decisions were made-- exile, financial punishment, corporal punishment, and yes capital punishment.

elizabby said...

Amen, Amen! I truly do NOT understand how so many Christians can support something as awful as capital punishment! (Then again, we don't have it in Australia and I guess it is easier to be horrified from afar.) But I also don't see how Christians can feel violence is justified in opposition to the very good points you have made about the Sermon on the Mount. I've been reading Richard Hays "Ethics of the NT" and I just wanted to add my Amen!

Art said...

Amen, very excellent thoughts in your post!

himself said...

Great post indeed. Ben, a question if I may. You note 'We need to leave vengeance or justice in God's hands'. I agree.

However, is not incarceration still a form of vengeance or justice?

Also, a similar question - very much interested in a scriptural opinion here - as per the teachings of Jesus and his example, should a Christian resist with violence someone attacking them?

Ben Witherington said...

The issue of justice of course does not always involve violence or the taking of revenge, so of course as Rom.13 suggests the state has some obligation when it comes to justice. For example, tax fraud is really a disenfranchising of all sorts of people who rightly benefit from the collection of taxes-- namely all of us when we think of things like roads, a Social Security service, etc. Those who have contributed to a society may expect a fair treatment in return.

And it is important to distinguish between the use of force, and the use of violence or excessive force, even lethal force. For example, there were times when Jesus was pressed hard by the crowds, and indeed was about to be thrown off a Nazareth cliff at one point. Clearly enough he used some force or power to break free in those situations. And we can also point to the use of force in the Temple or the withering of the fig tree. Nowhere however, and I do mean nowhere does Jesus ever use violence or lethal force against another human being. Indeed, when such force is used against him when he is brutally flog and then crucified, he does not respond in kind. Now one may say that he was on a unique mission at that point to save the world-- a mission we do not have in the same way. Yet he clearly instructed his followers to put away their swords, to turn the other cheek, to love their enemies which did not mean love them to death at the point of a gun.

But again suppose someone directly attacks you, what should you do-- How about run away? Or suppose someone attacks your children? You can get in harm's way, and you can use non-lethal force to stop it. Even if you feel compelled to use a weapon in such a situation you can shoot somebody in the leg and not shoot to kill. You can temporarily disable someone without seeking to do them permanent harm.

Read again the ironic discussion in Lk.22.35-38. You notice that Jesus here is interested in the fulfillment of Scripture-- namely that he be numbered with the transgressors. The way his disciples are said to become that sort of person is by selling personal property and buying weapons!!! This idea stands in the long Jewish tradition that when one becomes a 'man of bloods' as David did, this makes one unclean, defiled, unholy. This is precisely why David was not allowed to build the Temple. Killing is defiling, indeed deliberate killing is a transgression in Jesus' and God's eyes.

Jesus is also being ironic in that passage. The disciples think he really means for them to get ready to rumble by arming themselves, and they say they already have two weapons. Now remember the minute Peter uses one of them to try to prevent Jesus from being taken away, Jesus puts an immediate stop to it and even heals the slaves ear! So what do we make of Jesus' final remark in Lk. 22.38-- Clearly if we translate it "that's enough" Jesus is being purely ironic. What would two weapons be in the face of an armed Roman cohort?

It is far more likely and the Greek suggests that we should translate the phrase "Enough of that!" Jesus is angry because his disciples haven't learned anything about violence even after all his teaching on the subject, after saying in so many ways violence just begets more violence. He did not want his disciples who were supposed to be taking up crosses and following him, not taking up weapons to respond as they did and so become 'transgressors', but he saw it as the inevitable fulfillment of Scripture. Yet, however inevitable still he is disgusted at the end with their denseness and simply cuts the conversation off all together. This makes sense as only shortly there after the same man is going to not-resist arrest, flogging, crucifixion, and even is heard forgiving his tormentors from the cross! If this is not a powerful statement against Christians using violence, I don't know what is.

BW3

Dan said...

Thanks for your good words on this issue. This is something I'm really wrestling with. I have a friend who said the only reason he still supports capital punishment is because of the covenant God made with humanity through Moses.

"Whoever sheds the blood of man,
by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man."

Do you have any thoughts on this?

Terry Hamblin said...

Ben,
The failure of Jesus to contradict the repentant thief who endorsed capital punishment is certainly an argument from silence, but on the contrary Jesus did protest about being struck in the face, the point is that he didn't turn the other cheek, but protested about his treatment.

I am not sure how you make Romans 13:4 about the right of the tax police to carry a defensive weapon. Certainly the passage from verse 6 onwards is about the right of authority to impose taxes, but this is an "also", i.e. it stems from the government having authority; it is not the cause of the government having authority.

The argument that Paul means that the ruling authority only wields military power to quell rebellion in a defensive capacity hardly does justice to the context which refers to wrong-doers in general, not only to rebels.

I know the argument that the 'sword' referred to in verse 4 is a short defensive weapon - Strong gives 'knife' or 'dirk' as a possible translation, but he also gives 'judicial punishment' as a figurative meaning, which is surely what is referred to here. The word is the same as is used in Acts 12:2 when referring to the death of the Apostle James.

The Biblical view of capital punishment derives ultimately, not from Mosaic Law, but from Genesis 9:6 - which must prove that judicial killing is not murder.

As for the question of deterrence, not only would I disagree with you over its efficacy, I would claim Biblical warrant. 'Deterrent' has the same root as 'terror'. Romans 13:3 talks about the terror that rulers hold for the wrongdoer. Verse 5 demands submission to the authorities both because of possible punishment (deterrence) and because of conscience (ie because the ruler is God's agent) just as Genesis 9:6 demands that man shed the blood of a murderer because man is made in the image of God.

In practical terms homicides ran at around 160 annually in Britain before capital punishment was abolished whereas now there are about 900. Of course, historical controls are not very valid, but then there has never been a randomized controlled trial. Comparisons between different States in America are no more valid.

I realize that in America there are special circumstances applying. The criminal justice system is heavily weighed against African-Americans; there is a gun culture that doesn't exist in the UK; there are huge extremes; it isn't a unified society; there is huge political polarization; so my arguments for what is suitable for the UK may not hold in the US. Nevertheless, the UK is becoming increasingly secularized and I believe this is largely because we have lost sight of the God who is to be feared and replaced Him by the wimp in the white nightdress – a caricature of Jesus that our prelates seek to imitate.

Neil said...

I really appreciate your blog, and I usually follow your Biblical reasoning . . . but not in this case.

Of course I agree that God loves justice and does not want the innocent punished or the guilty unpunished.

When Paul said that the government doesn't bear the sword for nothing, the context and original language make it pretty clear that he was talking about capital punishment, not corporal punishment. Yes, vengeance is in the hands of God. But he has delegated responsibilities to governments which include punishing the guilty.

Notions like "turn the other cheek" have nothing to do with capital punishment. Nothing. They are about personal insults. Jesus specifically mentions the right cheek, which for 90% of us would mean a slap with the back of the hand. Turning the other cheek when you are insulted may be noble and Christian, but turning the other cheek when innocents are being harmed is cowardice.

The notion that capital punishment is not a deterrent is one of those oft-repeated but still incorrect sayings. Of course it isn't a perfect deterrent, but ask yourself this: If speeding tickets only cost a nickel, would people alter their driving behavior? How about if they carried automatic jail sentences and there were radar guns and cameras at every street corner? Of course stiffer penalties have some amount of deterrent effect.

The "eye for an eye" passage is immediately followed by this line: "If a man hits a manservant or maidservant in the eye and destroys it, he must let the servant go free to compensate for the eye." It is clear that it isn't a literal eye for an eye, but a proportional punishment to a crime or payback for an accident.

I realize you are pro-life, Dr. Witherington, but I always like to remind the anti-death penalty / pro-choice crowd that we have an average of ONE capital punishment in the U.S. per week on someone who is almost certainly guilty vs. the murder of TWENTY THOUSAND who are completely innocent. If someone wants to protest the fairness of the application of the death penalty, I see no problem with that. But if they aren't pro-life then they are wildly inconsistent with a Biblical model of the value of life.

The notion of forgiveness (once, 7 times or 490 times) does not apply in this case. For one, you don't have standing to forgive the murder of someone you didn't even know. More importantly, consider the logical consequences of that argument. If forgiving means avoiding the death penalty, what sentence would you suggest? Life in prison? Ah, but what about forgiveness? Jesus would forgive, right? So how about 20 years? No, Jesus would forgive. And so on, until no is punished for anything because Jesus would forgive. Yes, we should forgive those who sin against us, but that doesn't mean that punishments don't still occur.

The notion of loving your enemies doesn't apply, either. Remember, you have to love you enemies AND your neighbors. And loving your neighbors may mean incarcerating (or possibly applying capital punishment to) your enemies. That doesn't mean you don't love them. Murderers sometimes kill again - in jail or outside it - while those put to death hardly ever kill again.

The death penalty was God's idea (Genesis 9) and there are no Biblical arguments that overturn that principle. However, we've lost the Biblical model for witnesses. Perjury about an alleged murderer was a capital offense according to God's Word. Perjury in our system is practically ignored. I know because I was on a jury and saw obvious perjuries on both sides that weren't addressed.

I addressed Biblical arguments for and against capital punishment here.

Matthew Miller said...

Dr. Witherington

Are you against capital punishment because as you say the innocent suffer of are you against it in principal only? From your post the former seems the major issue. But what of punishment in general? I agree that minorities, the poor and the mentally ill are suffering at a higher rate then their counterparts. They cointinue to suffer unjustly in jails and prisons all across the world? But you say nothing and I beleive you intend to saying nohting about ending our pison system. It appears therefore that you have less of a problem with the unjust suffering then you do with captital punishment in general. I beleive if your issue was the suffering of the innocent you would write of a plan to fix the injustices of our justice system rather then simplistically ending captial punishment.

Respectfully
Matt Miller

Ben Witherington said...

Excellent, now we've got some decidedly different views on this subject on offer here and some good points made by Terry and Neil and Matt.

In the first place Gen. 9.6 has nothing to do with judicial punishment by a government! There were no such entities in Noah's life.

This saying is a poetic one and it probably has the same sense as the saying Paul cites in Gal. 6-- 'whatsoever a man sows, that also shall he reap.' God is reassuring Noah that he, God, shall demand an accounting if someone sheds his blood. Indeed God shall. What vs. 6 is speaking about is that there is a moral structure to the human universe which God created, and in due course a person will reap what they sow. This particular saying refers to humans being recompensed by other humans. Nothing is said about some human beings who are assigned this task by some government. It is a statement about how God works all things together for good, about his sovereignty, it is not a statement about judicial executions.

Even if you disagree and saw this as an example of capital punishment, which it is not (nothing is said about any offficials of anything being involved) it is of no relevance to our discussion as we are not under the Noahic covenant! We are under the New Covenant, and different covenants definitely have different requirements and stipulations. It simply won't do to read the Bible without a concept of progressive revelation and progressive covenanting. This is clearly enough how Paul reads it, and he is quite clear both in Gal. 3-4, 2 Cor. 3 and Rom. 10-- Christ has fulfilled and brought an end to the Mosaic covenant, indeed to all previous covenants. The followers of Christ are now under the Law of Christ, and nowhere but nowhere does Christ or any other NT writer affirm judicial executions.

We can debate Romans 13, but in fact all legal terminology, and the reference to particular types of officials, namely tax police, as well as the discussion of the taxes there make evident the context and the context is not a discussion of capital punishment. See my Romans commmentary. I am sorry but the more general definition in Strong's concordance does not suit this context at all where Paul is dealing with a specific issue-- namely Jewish Christians and Gentiles paying their taxes or suffering the consequences.

Matt you make a fine point about injustice in general. I am certainly in favor of fixing injustice in the prison system in general as well, and therefore not only in favor of the reform of the judicial system but of the improvement of our prison systems as well, whether people are in there for small or big reasons. This post however is not about that broader subject.

Neil, I am frankly stunned at your attempt to marginalize the teaching of Jesus as well as his conduct when it comes to modeling things for Christian behavior. I am sorry but loving one's enemy is not overruled by loving one's friendly neighbor. And it is quite missing the point to say that I don't have the right to forgive somebody who has commited a sin against someone else. No indeed, but this is not the issue.

The issue is how Christians should behave when they are wronged, and I have every right to explain to Christians they have an obligation to forgive as Christ has forgiven. I am not talking about governmental policy, I am talking about Christian ethics, which of course should effect which governmental policies we support, if we are not ethically schizophrenic.

I do not expect the government to live on the principle of unlimited forgiveness, but I do expect the government to be fair, and I expect Christians to live on the basis of unlimited forgiveness. There is a major difference.

Therefore, Christians should not use violence to solve problems, should not participate in abortion, capital punishment or war. They should have a consistent life ethic across the board.

Blessings,

BW.

Neil said...

Hi Ben,

I am stunned that you accuse me of marginalizing Jesus' teachings. Jesus is God and the Bible is the Word of God, so the whole thing is God's Word. I am making a serious attempt to read all the words - including the red letters - in context.

Frankly, in this case, I think you are uncharacteristically proof-texting with attempts to use "turn the other cheek" and the like to relate in any way to capital punishment. That passage is about personal insults. It isn't about violent crimes committed against you and it definitely isn't about how to react when someone else is murdered.

Simply put, capital punishment for murderers was God's idea (Genesis 9), this came before the Israelites and the Law and there are zero verses that clearly overturn this.

I am not saying it is un-Biblical to oppose capital punishment. If you think it is unfairly applied, then feel free to protest it. But please don't claim that Jesus is against it in principle when it was his idea to begin with and there are no verses that clearly (or even un-clearly, in my opinion) reverse this.

I didn't claim that loving one's enemy was overruled by loving one's neighbor. I just pointed out that we need to do both. If you want to forgive someone who rapes you, that may be a Christian thing to do. But if you don't press charges and put the rapist behind bars then you aren't exactly loving your neighbor who is the next victim.

I don't think I missed the point about forgiveness. We agree on the point that Christians should forgive those who sin against us. The question is whether that removes all societal consequences against the perpetrator.

Just because we forgive someone who wronged us doesn't mean that we shouldn't call the police if a crime was committed. As God showed repeatedly, He will forgive us but not necessarily remove the consequences.

I'll leave it to the other readers to assess whether Romans 13 is just about taxes (the words "terror," "wrath," and "sword" lead me to believe otherwise).

I agree that Christians should operate on a principle of unlimited forgiveness, but I think that is confusing the issue to say that has anything to do with whether we should forego capital punishment for someone who murdered an individual you don't even know.

Capital punishment for murderers does make a pro-life statement: Taking an innocent human life is the greatest crime and it brings the greatest punishment.

Ben Witherington said...

Actually no Neil taking a human life is not the greatest crime a human could commit. How about failure to love and worship God? King David commited various murders. This was not the greatest sin he could commit.

And there is an inherent contradiction to what you are saying--- 'I'm going to prove how highly I VALUE life by taking another one to retaliate for the taking of the first one.' What's wrong with this picture--- now you have two dead persons instead of one. How is that sort of subtraction a value added approach to life?

That sort of action certainly doesn't show life is your highest value. It shows you value justice above the issue of life, and justice above mercy or forgiveness as well.

Perhaps you have forgotten the story of the woman caught in adultery? How exactly did Jesus respond to this woman's sin, who according to Jewish Law deserved to be stoned?

He told her he did not condemn her, and to go and sin no more! There was no proportional response justice in that! None at all! Jesus forgave her and told her to never do it again.

There is a reason for this-- Jesus is inaugurating a new covenant and the Mosaic rules are now seen as obsolete, even the ones in Genesis 9. Notice again the contrast between Lamech and what Jesus says about forgiveness in Mt. 18.

Perhaps there were elders there when Jesus said what he did to the adulterous woman, elders who were saying "how dare he forgive her? Its not his to forgive. He wasn't the person sinned against."

And here's another point Causing someone else to stumble, or failure to help a lost sinner be saved is also a greater sin I am afraid than taking a life, even if that sinner was a murderer,like Paul.

Where would Paul have been if your standard of justice had been applied to him by Christians? He would never have been the apostle to the Gentiles. The Jerusalem church forgave him, even though he eliminated some of their members. Indeed as Gal. 1-2 makes clear they extended him the right hand of fellowship.

No I am afraid forgiveness means actual forgiveness-- a not holding a person responsible for what they did wrong. It does not mean offering someone a religious platitude and then turning them over to the secular officials.

There may be consequences anyway to their actions. Indeed, if God deals with their soul there will be. But it shouldn't be because a Christian who says he forgave them then turns them over to the Law so they will get justice.

Justice is when you get what you deserve-- and frankly no fallen human being wants that because that simply means condemnation and judgment on sin, something Christ already paid the price for.

Mercy is when you don't get what you deserve.

Grace is when you get what you don't deserve-- the pure unmerited love of God.

Jesus' Gospel deals with justice on the cross. We need to let go of that therefore. His Gospel offers mercy and grace to all-- even murderers.

BW3

Neil said...

Ben,

I agree with most of what you write aside from this piece. Your recent post on the atheists was a classic. I really enjoyed your critiques of the DaVinci Code and the Left Behind series at Lakewood UMC in Houston, TX a couple years back. And I definitely appreciate your pro-life, pro-family positions and how you stand up against the liberal theologians.

But (you knew there was a "but" coming, right?) if you seriously believe that Christians not only have to forgive but also not turn criminals over to the "Law so they will get justice" then that is a profoundly un-Biblical proposition.

Consider how your position is taking justice into your own hands. You aren't letting God's instrument (the government) do the work of justice, you are dispensing it yourself (albeit with pardons for all).

I think it would be sickening and un-Christian to leave rapists, robbers, drunk drivers, child-abusers, pedophiles, etc. on the streets just because we as Christians chose to forgive them. That isn't Biblical and that isn't love.

Yes, I am familiar with John 8 (the woman caught in adultery) and I lean towards the notion that it was probably true even though not included in the earliest and most reliable manuscripts. I could probably give a couple sermons on that passage even though I am a layperson. But one thing I wouldn't do is draw the conclusion that Christians shouldn't ever call the police.

Is it unloving for people to correct their children with discipline? Would that violate your interpretation of Jesus' teaching in John 8?

You wrote: "And there is an inherent contradiction to what you are saying--- 'I'm going to prove how highly I VALUE life by taking another one to retaliate for the taking of the first one.'" But you left out a couple adjectives: The first life taken was innocent and the second was guilty. And whether the Noahic covenant is still in place or not, God said it first: "Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man." Our unchanging God seemed to think that this was an appropriate punishment for murderers even though He also has infinite mercy and grace.

We agree that God has plenty of mercy and grace, even for murderers. But that doesn't mean He expects us to live in anarchy.

Again, if you think the death penalty is unfairly applied then go ahead protest it. I think that is part of your liberty as a Christian. I just think it is unfair of you to imply that I am being un-Christian by holding the view that the death penalty is a Biblical proposition.

yuckabuck said...

I agree with the general flow here, but have some questions on a few items:

1) "And for me, this means I cannot support, nor could I participate in an act, whether legal or personal, which involves taking away another person's life and thereby probably taking away their opportunity to repent..."

Do you mean that capital punishment may be justified in some situations, but that Christians should recuse themselves from the process because of the possibility of repentance? To use an example of an obviously guilty person, if Adolph Hitler had been caught alive, Christians should have then wished to delay his execution in order to give him time to repent? Or that his execution would not have been justifiable at all?

2) "capital punishment, it must be admitted, is indeed a form of pre-mediated killing"

I was taught at Bible college that the Hebrew word for murder used in the commandment referred to pre-meditated and malicious killing, and that not only accidental or war-related killing that you mention, but also the capital punishments prescribed in the Mosaic Law were not seen by the ancient Israelites as "murder." If I was taught wrong, then how would the Israelites carry out the commands in the Law without breaking the commandment against murder?

3)"We need to leave vengeance or justice in God's hands."

This sounds like a punting to Providence. I believe that God frequently exercises his sovereignty through calling us to be faithful stewards of every opportunity (as well as gifts and/or material possession). I won't repeat my argument from your October post on the Amish shooting (found here:)
http://benwitherington.blogspot.com/2006/10/lessons-from-amish-power-of-pacifism.html
But I will repeat the story of the Bible college students arguing against euthanasia who used to quote to me Dt 32:39, "I put to death and I bring to life," and said that we should then leave things "in God's hands." My response was that God's "bringing to life" involved our responsibility to be faithful stewards of the ..uh.. birds and the bees.

It seems to me the way forward is to discern where to draw the line in these things. If the desire to see repentance draws a line short of the finality of capital punishment, then that would mean that our stewardship of God's justice ends there, with death being "left in God's hands." (Yet our stewardship does not end there, for if it is God's will for the accused to remain alive so as to leave open a repentance, than we have a positive duty to provide health care, etc. to the person until we come up against the limits of stewardship here.)

Terry Hamblin said...

Ben,

This is a super debate. It is enlightening that Bible-believing Christians can agree on most things and still find things to differ over.

If you remember, Ben, we first crossed swords (or dirks) over the question of forgiveness and this seems to be an extension of the same debate. I have to say that in between I have immensely enjoyed your blog and agreed with almost everything you have written.

It is also great to have found a new friend in Neil who to my mind has won this particular argument.

I discussed the question with my pastor this evening and he used much the same arguments that Neil has. On turning the other cheek he came up with a suggestion I had not heard before.

When meeting someone a Jew would normally offer his cheek expecting a kiss. On receiving a slap, Jesus was counselling offering the other cheek so that his assailant had a second chance to do the right thing and offer a kiss.

Ben Witherington said...

One thing that it appears most of you are missing is that the ANE and the world Jesus lived in was an honor and shame culture. To be publicly shamed was worse than death in some cases. The 'turn the other cheek' saying does indeed have to do with a public insult-- a back handed slap. This was one of the most offensive things one could do in that culture, tantamount to spitting in their face today. When you live in an honor shame culture and you yourself and your disciples hold to a value which says you not only take the shaming without a response, but you offer to take more, rather than retaliate. Then you have done something profound in a reciprocity culture. You have violated and broken the reciprocity cycle, and declined to defend your honor. A person who does this has very different values than the dominant values of that culture, and indeed I would stress Jesus has very different values from our culture as well. Life was cheap in Jesus' world, and the way he chose to show it was of sacred worth, was not by killing or advocating any kind of killing, but by dying for us all.

I am not saying that equally sincere Christians can't disagree on this. I am simply saying that one must be as consistent as possible, looking at all the evidence in their proper contexts, and when one takes all the evidence into account, it is perfectly clear Jesus doesn't sanction violence against human beings-- period and neither does Paul. This is why he exhorts Christians to suffer evil rather than to commit it.

I do not see it as the job of Christians to turn people over to the police, if they have been personally wronged by someone. I also do not see it as the job of Christians to interfere with law enforcement either. We are supposed to be agents of grace, and respect the governing officials. The former is the more important of these two activities. I personally have never had an occasion when I had to decide whether to turn someone over to the police, so in one sense the discussion is hypothetical. My hope would be that I would stick by my principles.

BW3

BW3

Barbara's Journey Toward Justice said...

Here is something that may interest you, - Who And Where Is Dennis Fritz, You say after reading John Grisham's Book "The Innocent man", Grisham's First non-fiction book. The Other Innocent Man hardly mentioned in "The Innocent Man" has his own compelling and fascinating story to tell in "Journey Toward Justice". John Grisham endorsed Dennis Fritz's Book on the Front Cover. Dennis Fritz wrote his Book Published by Seven Locks Press, to bring awareness about False Convictions, and The Death Penalty. "Journey Toward Justice" is a testimony to the Triumph of the Human Spirit and is a Stunning and Shocking Memoir. Dennis Fritz was wrongfully convicted of murder after a swift trail. The only thing that saved him from the Death Penalty was a lone vote from a juror. "The Innocent Man" by John Grisham is all about Ronnie Williamson, Dennis Fritz's was his co-defendant. Ronnie Williamson was sentenced to the Death Penalty. Both were exonerated after spending 12 years in prison. Both Freed by a simple DNA test, The real killer was one of the Prosecution's Key Witness. John Grisham's "The Innocent Man" tells half the story. Dennis Fritz's Story needs to be heard. Read about how he wrote hundreds of letters and appellate briefs in his own defense and immersed himself in an intense study of law. He was a school teacher and a ordinary man from Ada Oklahoma, whose wife was brutally murdered in 1975. On May 8, 1987 while raising his young daughter alone, he was put under arrest and on his way to jail on charges of rape and murder. Since then, it has been a long hard road filled with twist and turns. Dennis Fritz is now on his "Journey Toward Justice". He never blamed the Lord and soley relied on his faith in God to make it through. He waited for God's time and never gave up.

TBE said...

Dr. Witherington,

With all due respect, you pay short shrift to Mr. Hamblin's initial argument about Jesus' conspicuous silence with regard to Capital Punishment.

Specifically, you say that the Gospel accounts are edited, and therefore it is not surprising that we don't have a specific teaching from the Lord on this matter. This, I think, is a very dangerous argument--far more dangerous than the argument from silence that Mr. Hamblin makes. It assumes that either the Gospel writers willfully omitted a teaching of Christ that would have immediate bearing upon their own ministries, or that the Holy Spirit--Who inspired the Gospel writers--was either indifferent to our lack of knowledge about this matter or did not realize that we didn't have enough information to work with. In short, we do injustice to the reputations of either the authors of the Gospel (which is bad) or to the Holy Spirit Himself (which is much much worse).

You'll probably respond by pointing me to John's Gospel, wherein he clearly admits that Jesus said and did things that the Gospels omitted. I concede that without any problem at all, but is it really feasible for us to suppose that on a matter such as this--which touched on the dignity and value of human life every bit as much in Christ's time as it does in ours--that the Gospel authors (under the direction of the Holy Spirit) didn't think it was important enough to be included?

And by the way (unless I missed it in someone else's comments), Jesus' silence isn't the only one that's conspicuous in the New Testament--isn't it odd that Paul never comments on the morality of judicial execution, even when his own churches were having members executed for their faith? Any response that argues that Paul's letters are incomplete falls prey to the same problems with the arguments against Jesus' silence in the Gospels--it must assume either that Paul was ignorant of the moral evil of judicial execution, or that the Holy Spirit Who inspired him was ignorant of it, or that the Holy Spirit did not think it important enough to address this issue, or that the Holy Spirit's desire to address this issue was somehow thwarted by Paul as he wrote his letters. (Each of these, obviously, does great damage to the reliability of Scripture, among other key Christian doctrines.)

I have an enormous amount of respect for you, Dr. Witherington, but I think in this case that Mr. Hamblin is making a much more nuanced argument than that for which you give him credit.

yuckabuck said...

tbe,
I don't see how the silence of Scripture on a certain topic does "does great damage to the reliability of Scripture," unless Scripture is first held up to be something that God never intended it to be.

I have lately begun to see that perhaps my Pentecostal friends are more right than they realize when they say that Christians have "shut the Holy Spirit up in a book." The New Testament is a collection of narratives and ad-hoc letters, with a few homilies and an apocalypse thrown in for good measure. They were preserved, among other reasons, as a way of setting guard-rails for later Christians to stay between. The documents themselves clearly say that God Himself, through His Spirit, will help guide his people in knowing what God's will is. He never intended to give us an "instruction manual" with "trouble-shooting guide" for every conceivable problem that could arise between now and parousia. Perhaps the Apostle Paul wrote twelve other letters all dealing with capital punishment, but God allowed them to fall into obscurity.

This was the whole point of Pope Benedict's remarks on Islam which inflamed passions last fall. Christianity does not have an all-encompassing manual which provides every detail we could possibly desire, but rather a foundational book that sets the outer boundaries that we should stay within as we develope better understandings of our faith through the teaching of the Holy Spirit.

Dan Hamel said...

tbe,
I have to disagree with you in your defense of Hamblin.
I think that you are missing the point on a number of levels, but let me point out two specifically. First, lets say Jesus did speak a word against execution on the cross (which he probably would not have concerned himself with given the precarious nature of the circumstance he found himself in), this does not meant that the Gospel writers or the Holy Spirit have left the community of followers ill-equipped to handle this issue. The entire narrative of Jesus' life (which was portrayed in the gospels they were writing) was one which embodied a non-violent ethic of love, forgiveness, and reconciliation, not violence (see BW3'S previous posts). Therefore, it would not be their fault for excluding this teaching...for the entirety of their message would already have led the readers to the same conclusion. Are you under the assumption that the authors of the Gospels were required to include every bit of teaching which Jesus gave which might possibly help us better follow him? John tells us plainly that there wouldn't have been enough books!
Secondly, by the reasoning which you argued with, you have a peculiar understanding of the role which the Spirit intended the scriptures to play in the life of the community. I find it difficult to follow your reasoning that the Spirit would have necessarily led Paul to address the matter. There are many other matters which Paul did not address, yet we do not accuse him or the Spirit of leaving the Church deprived of direction. The Scriptures were given to enable the people of God to establish God's will on earth--to manifest God's character and life. Thus, simply because an issue is not mentioned, does not mean we have to point a finger at the author or the Spirit.
Furthermore, in which of Paul's letters would you have wanted Paul to address capital punishment? Which church was undergoing such challenges when he was writing to them? You suggest that they were, I think when you further investigate the historical data, you will probably discover otherwise.
Just a few thoughts, let me know what you think.
Dan

TBE said...

Dan,

Thanks for your response! Unfortunately, while I don't have time at the moment to devote to a more comprehensive response to your very good points, I can offer the following:

A) Jesus' life was indeed all that you say--but on that argument (namely, that because Jesus advocated non-violence then the State must also) we deprive the state of EVERY justification of violence--because Jesus did not resist those who struck Him, for instance, we would have to (on your logic) advocate the position that police officers must not in any sense resist criminal offenders. (It also, by the way, completely dismantles Ben's proposal as to what our understanding of Romans 13 should be, since if the State should pursue non-violence to the extent that Christ did, government agents should not be given weapons or any 'right' to defend themselves.) So Jesus' life was indeed a model for the Christian, but it would be a mistake to apply that model to the State.
Next, while I completely agree with you that the CHURCH is responsible for having a ministry of reconciliation, I would disagree strongly that this responsibility should fall in any sense to the state. Let's also not forget that the reconciliation that Jesus bought for us was not one with earthly authorities, but rather with God. So I don't at all see what that has to do with whether or not the State is wrong for its use of Capital Punishment. Obviously, it's completely possible for a hardened criminal to be fully reconciled to God by Grace through faith in Jesus Christ, and yet remain UNreconciled to the State, which could very well still demand punishment for his/her crimes. So the mere fact that Jesus modeled for us a ministry of reconciliation does not, as far as I can tell, mean that the State is somehow wrong for employing Capital Punishment.
Also, I don't recall saying that the Gospel writers were required to include every teaching of Jesus that might help us better follow Him, but I do find it odd that if, in the fullness of time, Christians were intended to exert influence of some sort over civil government (which Ben's argument, as well as yours, presupposes), then I find it odd that nowhere in Scripture do we find the death penalty condemned since it's a policy far older even than the Mosaic Law. If you would respond that Jesus' life is the only model we need PERIOD, even for how Christians involved in the civil government should live out their faith in the public sphere, then you fall prey once more to the above argument--if Jesus' life example of non-violence must be emulated by the government, then again, police officers cannot resist criminals, etc. And again also, Paul would have to have been WRONG (and therefore the Holy Spirit must have either misled him or not given him guidance at that point) in affirming (even under Ben's reading of Romans 13) the right for government agents to defend themselves and to carry weapons.
As to where Paul should have confronted the issue of the death penalty, what about his second letter to Timothy as he was awaiting his martyrdom? Isn't it strange that Paul, facing execution by the state, doesn't say a word to his protege about the wrongness of this position? Similarly, why does Luke not record in Acts any example of Paul protesting to Felix (or anyone else, for that matter) that capital punishment is wrong? Also, moving beyond Paul, what of Peter? Why doesn't he (in 1 Peter 2:13ff) say anything against capital punishment as he exhorts us to submit to civil authorities? And, going back to the Gospels, Jesus takes it for granted numerous times that civil authorities will put some of His followers to death--why did He not at that point comment on the death penalty? Surely it's odd that the Gospel writers under the Holy Spirit's guidance would omit that and include the part about being patient in enduring to the end!

In short, your arguments, Dan, with all due respect, either say nothing at all to this issue, or they say too much, and completely undermine Ben's reading of Romans 13 and therefore cast even greater doubt on the validity and reliability of Scripture.

TBE said...

Dan,

Thanks for your response! Unfortunately, while I don't have time at the moment to devote to a more comprehensive response to your very good points, I can offer the following:

A) Jesus' life was indeed all that you say--but on that argument (namely, that because Jesus advocated non-violence then the State must also) we deprive the state of EVERY justification of violence--because Jesus did not resist those who struck Him, for instance, we would have to (on your logic) advocate the position that police officers must not in any sense resist criminal offenders. (It also, by the way, completely dismantles Ben's proposal as to what our understanding of Romans 13 should be, since if the State should pursue non-violence to the extent that Christ did, government agents should not be given weapons or any 'right' to defend themselves.) So Jesus' life was indeed a model for the Christian, but it would be a mistake to apply that model to the State.
Next, while I completely agree with you that the CHURCH is responsible for having a ministry of reconciliation, I would disagree strongly that this responsibility should fall in any sense to the state. Let's also not forget that the reconciliation that Jesus bought for us was not one with earthly authorities, but rather with God. So I don't at all see what that has to do with whether or not the State is wrong for its use of Capital Punishment. Obviously, it's completely possible for a hardened criminal to be fully reconciled to God by Grace through faith in Jesus Christ, and yet remain UNreconciled to the State, which could very well still demand punishment for his/her crimes. So the mere fact that Jesus modeled for us a ministry of reconciliation does not, as far as I can tell, mean that the State is somehow wrong for employing Capital Punishment.
Also, I don't recall saying that the Gospel writers were required to include every teaching of Jesus that might help us better follow Him, but I do find it odd that if, in the fullness of time, Christians were intended to exert influence of some sort over civil government (which Ben's argument, as well as yours, presupposes), then I find it odd that nowhere in Scripture do we find the death penalty condemned since it's a policy far older even than the Mosaic Law. If you would respond that Jesus' life is the only model we need PERIOD, even for how Christians involved in the civil government should live out their faith in the public sphere, then you fall prey once more to the above argument--if Jesus' life example of non-violence must be emulated by the government, then again, police officers cannot resist criminals, etc. And again also, Paul would have to have been WRONG (and therefore the Holy Spirit must have either misled him or not given him guidance at that point) in affirming (even under Ben's reading of Romans 13) the right for government agents to defend themselves and to carry weapons.
As to where Paul should have confronted the issue of the death penalty, what about his second letter to Timothy as he was awaiting his martyrdom? Isn't it strange that Paul, facing execution by the state, doesn't say a word to his protege about the wrongness of this position? Similarly, why does Luke not record in Acts any example of Paul protesting to Felix (or anyone else, for that matter) that capital punishment is wrong? Also, moving beyond Paul, what of Peter? Why doesn't he (in 1 Peter 2:13ff) say anything against capital punishment as he exhorts us to submit to civil authorities? And, going back to the Gospels, Jesus takes it for granted numerous times that civil authorities will put some of His followers to death--why did He not at that point comment on the death penalty? Surely it's odd that the Gospel writers under the Holy Spirit's guidance would omit that and include the part about being patient in enduring to the end!

In short, your arguments, Dan, with all due respect, either say nothing at all to this issue, or they say too much, and completely undermine Ben's reading of Romans 13 and therefore cast even greater doubt on the validity and reliability of Scripture.

TBE said...

Dan,

Thanks for your response! Unfortunately, while I don't have time at the moment to devote to a more comprehensive response to your very good points, I can offer the following:

A) Jesus' life was indeed all that you say--but on that argument (namely, that because Jesus advocated non-violence then the State must also) we deprive the state of EVERY justification of violence--because Jesus did not resist those who struck Him, for instance, we would have to (on your logic) advocate the position that police officers must not in any sense resist criminal offenders. (It also, by the way, completely dismantles Ben's proposal as to what our understanding of Romans 13 should be, since if the State should pursue non-violence to the extent that Christ did, government agents should not be given weapons or any 'right' to defend themselves.) So Jesus' life was indeed a model for the Christian, but it would be a mistake to apply that model to the State.
Next, while I completely agree with you that the CHURCH is responsible for having a ministry of reconciliation, I would disagree strongly that this responsibility should fall in any sense to the state. Let's also not forget that the reconciliation that Jesus bought for us was not one with earthly authorities, but rather with God. So I don't at all see what that has to do with whether or not the State is wrong for its use of Capital Punishment. Obviously, it's completely possible for a hardened criminal to be fully reconciled to God by Grace through faith in Jesus Christ, and yet remain UNreconciled to the State, which could very well still demand punishment for his/her crimes. So the mere fact that Jesus modeled for us a ministry of reconciliation does not, as far as I can tell, mean that the State is somehow wrong for employing Capital Punishment.
Also, I don't recall saying that the Gospel writers were required to include every teaching of Jesus that might help us better follow Him, but I do find it odd that if, in the fullness of time, Christians were intended to exert influence of some sort over civil government (which Ben's argument, as well as yours, presupposes), then I find it odd that nowhere in Scripture do we find the death penalty condemned since it's a policy far older even than the Mosaic Law. If you would respond that Jesus' life is the only model we need PERIOD, even for how Christians involved in the civil government should live out their faith in the public sphere, then you fall prey once more to the above argument--if Jesus' life example of non-violence must be emulated by the government, then again, police officers cannot resist criminals, etc. And again also, Paul would have to have been WRONG (and therefore the Holy Spirit must have either misled him or not given him guidance at that point) in affirming (even under Ben's reading of Romans 13) the right for government agents to defend themselves and to carry weapons.
As to where Paul should have confronted the issue of the death penalty, what about his second letter to Timothy as he was awaiting his martyrdom? Isn't it strange that Paul, facing execution by the state, doesn't say a word to his protege about the wrongness of this position? Similarly, why does Luke not record in Acts any example of Paul protesting to Felix (or anyone else, for that matter) that capital punishment is wrong? Also, moving beyond Paul, what of Peter? Why doesn't he (in 1 Peter 2:13ff) say anything against capital punishment as he exhorts us to submit to civil authorities? And, going back to the Gospels, Jesus takes it for granted numerous times that civil authorities will put some of His followers to death--why did He not at that point comment on the death penalty? Surely it's odd that the Gospel writers under the Holy Spirit's guidance would omit that and include the part about being patient in enduring to the end!

In short, your arguments, Dan, with all due respect, either say nothing at all to this issue, or they say too much, and completely undermine Ben's reading of Romans 13 and therefore cast even greater doubt on the validity and reliability of Scripture.

TBE said...

yuckabuck,

you said, Perhaps the Apostle Paul wrote twelve other letters all dealing with capital punishment, but God allowed them to fall into obscurity.

This, then, would imply that the Holy Spirit didn't consider Paul's adjurations against Capital Punishment to be of concern to the church, wouldn't it? If Paul wrote such documents, and the Holy Spirit ALLOWED them to pass into obscurity, then He must not have thought them of very great value to the Christian church.

In fact, I've actually heard a variation on your argument from Mormons--when I argue that the canonical New Testament offers no support to various Mormon doctrines, I've had some respond by saying, "We know that we don't have all of Paul's letters--how do you know he didn't offer support there?" Quite apart from having absolutely no evidence for this whatsoever (which, by the way, is also a problem with the argument you offer), it's an extremely low view of the Holy Spirit that says He allowed His Church to lose things that would prove important later on. (Especially since Jesus PROMISED that the Holy Spirit would "lead [us] into all truth."

TBE said...

PS Dan:

Sorry about the double post...not sure what happened!!!

:-)

Neil said...

One more thought: Re. the notion that we shouldn’t use the death penalty because it would be “probably taking away their opportunity to repent, be forgiven and be saved.”

I am big on evangelism, and I love to hear the stories of people who repented and believed despite horrible circumstances and backgrounds. David Berkowitz, the Son of Sam, is a powerful example. I support ministries like Prison Fellowship who take the Gospel to prisoners and care for their families. And I am getting ready to participate in a Kairos weekend (prison ministry). But this argument that we are taking away an opportunity for salvation just doesn’t work for me.

First, anyone who puts forth that argument would have to acknowledge that the murder the criminal committed is an even worse crime than the state recognizes. After all, the government is punishing the person for taking someone’s earthly life. If you truly believe that an opportunity for eternal life was taken then the crime is significantly greater, perhaps infinitely so. That would imply the need for a stronger punishment, not a lesser one, so at least in part you are arguing against your own position.

Second, this argument ignores the sovereignty of God. Both Calvinists and Arminians believe that God knows which way we’ll choose. If someone holds a different view then they need to revisit my first objection. I don’t think any non-believers will convince God that if only they had lived longer they would have repented and believed.

Third, it takes many, many years before a convicted murderer is put to death. He/she has plenty of time to consider whether to put his/her faith in Christ. Condemned killers probably have more time than their victim did and certainly a greater sense of urgency to consider their eternal destiny.

Psalmist said...

Something I've thought a lot about on this issue is this: Simply because one can find biblical precedent for capital punishment, does not compel contemporary governments to practice it.

It's like many other issues: Is it commanded, or is it permitted?

Jesus made this distinction clear when he spoke of the practice of putting away wives (the very different practice than what we now call divorce). He said Moses permitted husbands to put away wives because of the hardness of their hearts, but it was not God's intention from the beginning.

If we argue for capital punishment in terms of it being a commandment, we'd better be arguing for every other commandment to be codified in our legal system as well. We don't. In my opinion, capital punishment sets well with the contemporary American lack of concern for life. We have the (less expensive) means of protecting society from proved murderers. But protection of society is clearly not enough for death penalty proponents. It is a matter of vengeance. I agree with you, Ben, in your comment about valuing justice over mercy and over life itself. That is a good description, ISTM, of a typical American worldview on the topic of capital punishment.

To summarize, I think we need to be very clear as a society that permits and condones execution of criminals: Do we do so because we think the OT requires us to do so, or do we rather do so because we like the idea of putting to death someone who has committed murder? I don't think there's a middle option here. The idea that the Bible permits but does not demand capital punishment, de facto shows us that there is an alternative. We ought to examine carefully what compels us to prefer capital punishment, if that's our stance.

Traditionalist1611 said...

Romans 13:4 is all about defensive tax collecting?! Come on. Paul doesnt say anything about taxes until verse 6. It's tagged on to this discussion about submission to the authorities in general who hve the right to use the SWORD. And youre even being contradictory in what you say since you think violence is always bad but you acknowlige that the government has the right to carry some kind of sword. I'm sorry but i'll take the plain meaning of Gods word before this academic defense of extremist pacificm. If you think God doesn't approve of capital punishment just read the Old Testament. For various crimes God APPROVES AND ENCOURAGES capital punishment. Has God changed? Is God more "grown up and enlightened" now? If capital punishment was administered on a Biblical basis then our society would be in a much better state than it is now. How can we claim to believe in the Bible if we just want to cross out the stuff some of us dont agree with? Face it, capital punishment is in the Bible and is Biblical. Or maybe the ressurection isnt relavant to our times either!!

Ben Witherington said...

This is indeed a very useful discussion as it brings to light not only the weaknesses of various sides of this argument, but also the weaknesses in different views of the Bible even within conservative Protestantism. It is perfectly clear that Jesus revoked some of the Mosaic teaching on things. Mark makes it emphatic in Mk. 7.19-- "thus Jesus declared all foods clean." This of course is a very clear violation of what Leviticus says, if and only if, Leviticus is still a binding teaching on God's people. If it is not, then there is not a problem with this conclusion. The issue is not whether God changes. The issue is whether God has offered a series of covenants to relate to us with, only the last of which fully reveals God's highest and best for us when it comes to belief and behavior. Without a theology of progressive revelation you come to wonderful conclusions like we should still be stoning our children! I think not. I insist that this covenantal hermeneutic is surely the consistent one we find applied in the NT.

So perhaps a short word about how ancient covenants worked in Bible times are in order. The covenants we have in the Bible, as shown by many Biblical scholars (see Merditih Kline, By Oath Consigned) are like ancient suzerain-vassal covenants, covenants made by a superior ruler with a lesser ruler or lesser state. The covenants all have preambles, lists of stipulations, and curse and blessing sanctions. There is always a sacrifice which ratifies a covenant and there is always a covenant sign which is the reminder of the ratification of the covenant. The covenant sign of the Mosaic covenant is of course circumcision, of the new covenant, baptism. Whenever you find a change of the covenant sign, you have clearly had a change in the covenant. Now it is up to the suzerain not the vassal to decide when the covenant has been broken, when to enforce the curse sanctions, and when and if to move on to a new act of covenanting.

This is exactly what is happening in the Gospels and the NT. Jesus' death is the sacrifice which inuagurates the new covenant (see the last supper stories), thereafter the new covenant sign is given-- baptism. And so are the new covenant stipulations, blessing and curse sanctions. The beatitudes for example are blessing sanctions, the woes some of the curse sanctions.

The most important thing to say to you about all this is that the Mosaic covenant is now obsolete. This is not because it was not a holy just and good covenant, as Paul affirms in Rom. 7. It is because as Paul makes so very clear in Gal. 3-4, 2 Cor. 3, and elsewhere that we are not under that covenant any more. We are not required to practice circumcision, not required to stone our children when they are naught, not required to observe the sabbath, not required to practice divorce, not required to have food laws, not required to practice capital punishment any more.

There are of course various stipulations and commandments of the older covenants which are carried over into the new one- for example, thou shalt not commit adultery and also thou shalt not murder. The reason Christians are obligated to these commandments is because they are COMMANDMENTS OF THE NEW COVENANT. Not merely the blessed suggestions of Jesus and Paul and others.

The failure to understand the way covenants work has led to all sorts of mayhem in Christian application of the Bible. It led for example to polygamy in the cult of David Koresh, and in some Mormon circles today as well. We need to understand once more the basic principle that some things God gave to his people in terms of rules he gave due to the hardness of their hearts, and due to the fact that they did not yet have the Holy Spirit so they could be enabled to live according to a higher ethical standard. We don't have those reasons in play any more in the Body of Christ. You need to realize that the Bible has both timeless truths, and timely ones. Somethings are true, but simply not applicable any more. It was true that circumcision was a good thing for God's people during the Mosaic era. That truth is not applicable because the people of God during the course of salvation have moved beyond that stage of its existence. You need to think historically about the Bible and see its progression of salvation history and of the various covenants.

I have no arguments with those who say that the rules which apply to a secular government are different than the rules which apply to Christians. The ethic inaugurated by Jesus and its followers is for those followers and cannot be applied willy nilly to the state. But still Christians have an obligation to bear a prophetic witness to one and all of the higher standard Jesus is calling us to. And that higher standard involves no more killing people to solve our problems. Love is stronger than death, so overcome evil with good, not with mere justice.

Blessings,

BW3

mike said...

i'm curious why all of the death penalty advocates have forgotten the first murder by a human recorded in Genesis and the punishment meted out personally by God. if God was so in favor of snuffing out the life of a murderer then why would he not take this perfect opportunity to set a precedent for all places/times/peoples?

if you want to use the horrible hermeneutic of precedent setting in Gen 9 then please deal with this precedent found in Gen 4.

Matthew Miller said...

Dr. Witherington

I'm curious. You wrote,

"I do not see it as the job of Christians to turn people over to the police, if they have been personally wronged by someone. I also do not see it as the job of Christians to interfere with law enforcement either."

I have a question. What if a Christian is a member of the law enforcment, as I am? Should I choose Christian pacifism over the law or should I not have entered law enforcement to begin with? If this later is the case then what of society in general? Is seperation from the world then the only path the Christian should follow?

I beleive this is the real issue here. Everyone here, it appears to me, agrees that only the government is allowed to persue war and capital punishment. The questions is what is the Christians responsability in regards to the government? Certainly as Christian we must live by the Lord's command to turn the other cheek. But should we make the city of man into the city of God or should we seperate ourselves all together?

Matthew Miller

Ben Witherington said...

Matthew:

Thank you for your good question. I personally as a Christian could not be a policeman or in the army, unless I was a chaplain or a medic or something like that. Something that patches up the damage done. Many Christians, such as the Amish and many Mennonites would not even do that. I agree of course that a policeman has duties a private person does not have and should not assume. And so of course the dilemma for you is what do I do when my Christian ethics are at odds with my civic duty as a policeman? Which responsibility is more primary? My answer would be that I have to be a Christian in the work place just as I am anywhere else, hence the reason I would not use lethal force or violence even in the line of duty. In other words, perhaps I would be a counselor for the police, or a chaplain or a medic, but not someone who carries a fire arm with inten to use it when deemed necessary.

I hope this helps a little. I do believe in doing my civic duty, but I try to find ways to do it that don't involve the violation of my Christian principles.

Blessings.
BW3

himself said...

It seems to me that the 'Law of Christ' (ie. the new covenant, the moral teachings of Jesus and the NT) must always be the supreme authority to a Christian. So, whilst the 'Law of the State' should be obeyed where possible, if there is a conflict between what the state requires a Christian to do, and what the 'Law of Christ' would require a Christian to do, the 'Law of Christ' must take priority (cf. 1 Cor. 9:21, Ac 4:19, Ac 5:29).

Regarding the overall implications of this, theoretically speaking, I would think that the more 'Christian' a state or government becomes, the less need it should have for a police force, law courts, etc.

You speak of 'seperation from the world', Mathew. To some degree is this not inevitable for a Christian, given you must actively resist the sinfulness of the world?

You also note, 'Everyone here, it appears to me, agrees that only the government is allowed to persue war'. My understanding from the comments is that this statement should be qualified to 'only a secular government'. Surely a Christian government, if such a thing existed, must practice and be bound by Christian ethics?

Neil said...

Matthew, kudos to you for being a Christian in law enforcement. We need Christians in all kinds of jobs like that. Why would anyone want all the police to be pagans?!

The Bible has nothing to indicate that Christians couldn't hold these positions. Nothing. Check out Jesus' reaction to the Roman Centurion's faith (Luke 7), the story of Peter and Cornelius (another Centurion) in Acts 10 or even John the Baptist's discussion with soldiers in Luke 3 ("Then some soldiers asked him [John], “And what should we do?”
He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”)

Some might call this is arguing from silence, but it sure seems that those would have been golden opportunities for Jesus or John to recommend a change of profession - especially in the case of John the Baptist where soldiers specifically asked, "And what should we do?"

The real argument from silence would be for someone to imply that being a law enforcement officer or a soldier is in any way a breach of Christian ethics. That is 100% man-made and not in the Bible.

Ben Witherington said...

Well Neil I guess you don't know your church history. The Christians of the second century almost to a man, woman and child all interpreted the sayings of Jesus and Paul on this matter to mean that Christians: 1) should never do violence to another human being; 2) should not be soliders. Now on the latter point one reason was because pagan worship was part of being a Roman soldier. But I think you will find that they did not think for a minute that their interpretations of the ethic of non-violence in the NT was "100% man-made". To the contrary they were prepared to be martyred for upholding the ethic of non-violence and non-resistance.

Were they all wrong in their interpretation of these NT texts? I doubt it. They knew the Greek far better than you and me, and many of them, like Papias of Hierapolis had been in contact with either eyewitnesses or those who knew them.

Blessings,

Ben

Ben

Neil said...

Actually, I know my church history fairly well. I knew that many of the early Christians were pacifists.

I also know that many people in the early church got a whole lot of things seriously wrong, so this guy named Paul and a few others - under inspiration from the Holy Spirit - wrote letters to correct their false notions.

I also know that people continue to make mistakes to this day in interpreting the Bible.

I also know that tradition doesn't trump scripture, especially when scripture is as crystal clear as it is regarding the acceptability of one being a soldier.

I also know that while you have liberty as a Christian to be a pacifist, it is unfair for you to foist your rather bizarre beliefs (i.e., Christians shouldn't call the police if victims of a violent crime) on others. I expected more from you than to imply that they aren't being Christian for following your personal preferences. I thank God that there are Christians in law enforcement and in the armed forces.

Peace,
Neil

Dan Hamel said...

Neil,
I am rather curious as to how you think that the nearly univocal commitment to nonviolence in the early church was an error on the part of early Christians. It was not until Constantine made it politically and socially advantageous for Christians to be soldiers that either the Church or Rome would allow a Christian to fight. That is over 200 years of church tradition which dates back to the apostles and Jesus himself. Simply put, Christians followed Jesus' subversive life and teaching, modeling God's enemy-love and refusing to participate with institutions which required a way of life which was in direct contradiction to many of Jesus' key teachings.
You said, "I also know that tradition doesn't trump scripture, especially when scripture is as crystal clear as it is regarding the acceptability of one being a soldier." Now please tell me, where does the New Testament make it crystal clear that it is acceptable to be a soldier? You are correct; the texts you mention about Centurions are arguments from silence, and less than crystal clear.
In this case, it seems best to take Jesus teaching which rejects violent or retaliation (Matthew 5:38-48) at face value and hold that as the crystal clear ethic. And the fact that the first 2 ½ Centuries of Christian tradition also happens to line up with that viewpoint serves as formidable support.

--Shalom--
Dan

Dan Hamel said...

Ben,
I am very appreciative of your willingness to address this pertinent issue. I know that you may take a significant amount of flack for your stance, as it is new and strange to many, but your commitment to remain true to the teachings of Jesus is admirable. It is affirming to discover that my personal study of the scriptures and the heart of God has led to the same conclusions that a world-renown New Testament scholar has arrived at.
One question, why do you think people have such a difficult time accepting a non-violent Jesus? What is it that makes sincere believers vehemently defend the "right" of other Christians to follow the State and use force to retaliate…even though it appears to be in such disharmony with the teachings and life of Jesus, not to mention the early church?
Also, what do you think would happen if the majority of evangelical churches began to preach this politically subversive way of life? How can we help the body of Christ come to know this Jesus and help the church embody its true calling--to be a people who consistently love and forgive, even when their natural inclination or commitment to the State might tell them not to?

Thanks for your time
Dan

Neil said...

Dan, your arguments are primarily straw men. You don't have a monopoly on peace. We aren't in favor of retaliation. We just understand the concept of protecting the weak.

If you agree with Ben that we shouldn't call the police when violent crimes are committed and we should just forgive, then your thinking is equally confused. If you want to hold that view and pat yourself on the back for being a better Christian than the rest of us, then go ahead and release some endorphins and feel good about yourself. But I find your assertion that we are more committed to the state than to Jesus to be prideful, vile and petty.

In the mean time, if my neighbor is robbed, killed, or raped I'll call the police. If a victim of statutory rape comes into the pregnancy center where I'm on the board, we'll call the authorities. You can just "forgive" the bad guys and congratulate yourself for being such a swell Christian.

P.S. The passages I mentioned make it clear that it was acceptable to be a soldier. They are far more clear and persuasive than anything I've seen here.

himself said...

Dan,
If you're interested in the non-resistance-to-evil view, especially practical application of it, I found this book tremendously insightful: http://www.kingdomnow.org/withinyou.html. There are some doctrinal assertions most would reject, but these constitute a very small fraction of the overall text. Also available on Amazon if you're so inclined.

Dan Hamel said...

Neil,
I truly did not intend my response to your post to have an offensive tone or to come across as prideful, forgive me if it did.
I recognize that you want to protect the weak and think it is necessary to use violence or the State to bring about your desired end (justice, I presume). But I just can't get over the fact that Jesus' way of bringing about justice and of protecting the weak was self-sacrifice, forgiveness, and trust in God to right the wrong (i.e. the resurrection). Violence was never an option that Jesus legitimated (See Richard Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament…his exegesis and synopsis of the biblical data are recognized as valid, even by those who oppose his conclusions), and he certainly never commanded such an action. Once again, I am not saying that Christians are not suppose to protect the weak or bring justice, we are merely offered a new way to bring them about—through embodying the narrative of Christ and using means which are consistent with his life and teaching.
Please, as I sense your offense, accept my apology. And I would certainly not claim to be the superior Christian. I know myself and my violent inclinations all to well.


--Shalom--
Dan

José Solano said...


Well Dr. Witherington, this subject always brings out powerful commentaries. I thank you for bringing it up once again and I hope it is pursued frequently as it is so important for Christians to grasp.

I agree with your understanding of the peace teaching of Jesus and the apostles and the early Christians 100%!! You are among the great articulate exponents of this fundamental teaching of Jesus Christ. Your so-called "extreme" position is entirely correct and thoroughly founded on the testimony of Scripture. This teaching is indeed radical.

Dan asks an excellent question. ". . . Why do you think people have such a difficult time accepting a non-violent Jesus? " My response is that they can't accept it because they just can't believe it. It sounds utterly preposterous to them. So they develop the most elaborate justifications and rationalizations to negate it in the face of everything that Jesus and the apostles taught and exemplified. Jesus could not possibly have meant what He said in the Sermon on the Mount. What complete foolishness to believe He meant it for us to practice.

The message of Jesus and the apostles was to usher in the Kingdom of God through the founding of the Church. Everything within that Church was to exemplify love and peace in the fullest extreme of the concept. Everyone is called into the Church on the condition that he repent and begin a new life of love and peace according to the teaching of Jesus and the working of the Holy Spirit in the Christian. The two will be in harmony. This is a growth process, a sanctification process. The average Christian simply does not have the strength or the faith to follow Christ's teaching perfectly. But he or she can and must proclaim the true teaching and show the direction our growth must take. Complete and unconditional peace and love is the direction. Dr. Witherington and others have demonstrated this already. I can elaborate but comments need to be brief.

Two points for now: 1. Psalmist made an interesting observation in distinguishing between the government in Jesus' time and contemporary government. I pursue this idea from a different angle. Jesus and Paul lived in monarchic times. We live in a democracy. They could do nothing to change that immediately and recognized that the institution, to the extent that it sought social order and harmony, was not bearing the sword in vain. It had a good purpose. Not the holiest ideal, but a good purpose. There were no Christians in that government and the Church government was held to a much higher standard. What should happen as Christians accepting a higher standard assume government positions?

2. There is a fascinatingly germane admonition given by Paul in 1 Cor. 6:1; "Dare any of you, having a matter against another, go to law before the unrighteous, and not before the saints?" Do re-read the entire chapter but particularly note the admonishment in v. 7. "Why do you not rather accept wrong? Why do you not rather let yourselves be cheated?"

This is extremist and radical. I think that's where Dr, Witherington is coming from. I want to be in that number when the saints go marching in. Lord give us strength and faith.

byron said...

I am afraid I have not had time to do more than skim the excellent debate that has continued in these comments, but I just wanted to express my support for Dr Witherington's post and to point out that this debate really is largely confined to America. It is quite illuminating to note the list of other countries which still execute criminals: no other Western or developed nation is on it. I think it is still the case that only China executes more people than the US, and then there are only a handful other countries that regularly enforce the death penalty against their citizens. While 'global democracy' is no infallible moral guide (far from it), it is worth pausing to wonder why the US stands out so clearly on this issue. Speaking as an Australian Christian, this seems like such an odd issue for us.

Ben Witherington said...

Neil: Jesus accepted all persons as they were. You have to start with people where they are. Where would the sinners and tax collectors have been if Jesus had turned them over to the authorities. Jesus treated the soldiers the very same way, and it implies nothing at all about a endorsement of the use of violence ever any more than Jesus' dining with rapacious tax collectors and sinners implied his endorsement of their behavior. Sorry, that argument does not work.
Here from today's news is another telling article about how broken our legal system is when it comes to capital crime issues. Twelve, yes count them twelve, long term incarcerations for violent crimes have been overturned recently from Dallas County in Texas. You will find the article on the MSNBC website from today's entries.

Neil, thanks for pushing the envelope. I respect your position, and hope the debate did not convey a negative tone on my part, as I intended none. It is good to be passionate about life and death matters even if we disagree.

Blessings,

Ben

Neil said...

Ben & Dan,

Thanks for your comments. I appreciated the spirited dialogue and apologize if I misinterpreted your comments.

Peace,
Neil

Terry Hamblin said...

What worries me about the pacifist position is the false impression it gives of God. Without an example of retributive justice, people take sin too lightly.

Looking at history in terms of a succession of Covenants gives a useful perspective, but we should not forget that this Covenant ends when Jesus returns. The picture we have in Revelation is not of a pacifist Jesus.

It is certainly the case that this present covenant has been marked by the greatest displays of violence that the world has ever seen, and while Jesus's response to physical attacks on his person was non-retaliatory, he did not stand by and allow evil to triumph. His anger reached the point of violence when the Court of the Gentiles was misused for the Temple Trade and the wrath he threatened on those who cause on of these little ones to stumble was extreme.

He was the sort of person who would interpose his own body to save others from injury. Isn't that just what he did on the cross?

I am impressed that while he told a rich young ruler to drastically change his lifestyle his advice to a soldier was to do his job properly.

Obviously present day pacifists will seek to interpret church history and scripture to support their case. As a young man I was determined to resist the draft and said, "I am not prepared to kill for my country, though I would be prepared to die for it" and would certainly have volunteered to be a front line medic.

Age and I hope wisdom has taught me that there are some circumstances where regretably it is sometimes necessary to go to war to defend the innocent (recently the British in Sierra Leone and the Austalians in East Timor would be examples) and sometimes the death penalty is the most appropriate sentence for particularly heinous and ghastly crime where guilt can be firmly established.

Arguments that enumerate judicial mistakes or the poor conduct of war are not arguments of principle just arguements that things need to be done better. I have listened to some dreadful atempts at preaching, but this doesn't argue that preaching should not be done.

Terry Hamblin MD

Matthew Miller said...

The dicussions seems like its over but I do have some final thoughts.

I recognize that a consistent personal Christian ethic is pacifism. I beleive this is the clear teaching of Jesus. But I also beleive that this is not the only quesiton at issue. Three other overriding questions are (1) what is the biblical role of the government, (2) how is authorized to carry out its role (3) and what is the Christians responsability to it?

Biblically, I beleive the government exists to maintain order. If as I believe Dr. Witherington would agree that the government has the right to tax (Romans 13:7, Matthew 22:21)what are these taxes for? Taxes in the ancient world went primarily to the military. This is why the Pharasiees and the Herodians attempted to trap Jesus with a question of taxation. To pay ones taxes to cesar was regarded as supporting the forced occupation of Judea. By upholding ones durty to pay taxes Jesus and Paul were allowing for the right of the government to maintain order.

Biblically, I beleive the government has the authority to maintain order through punishment. If this is at the very least a fine or incarceration it still implies force. Non-Christians do not willingly give up their right of freedom nor do they hand over their paycheck without the threat of something worse. The use of force, as one learns in law enforcment, is a continuum of six steps, beginning with the mere presence of an authority figure and ending with death. If one disallows for death, physical force at times still needs to be used. And this is at odds with Jesus command to turn the other cheek.

This leads us to the last and final quesiton what is the Christians responsability to the governement. The first Christians with their pacifistic stance were certainly sepertists. They beleived in strict seperation from the world. While I hold this position in high regards, I do not believe this is entirly adiquate response. The theology of the incarnation teaches us to engage the world (i.e. in the world but not of the world). And thus a more reasoned approach to Christians place in the world is needed.

Jesus has commanded us to turn the other cheek. However, he has also allowed the government to maintain order through force and required us as Christians to engage the world. This is the tension of the present debate. It is not simply about capital punishment. That is almost too simple when compared with the complexity of our God-given responsability to live in this world and not be one of them.




Both Jesus and Paul maintained that certain things were owed to even an evil government.

José Solano said...


I've often thought of myself as a Catholic-Protestant taking from each what I think is best. The Catholics and the Orthodox tend to have a better understanding of the sanctification process. Protestants tend to see things more as either/or, in Christ or out of Christ. Yes, I realize that they can conceptualize growth in the Spirit when they wish to ponder it but they tend not to ponder it as much as the Catholics. The ecumenical movement helps increase cooperation and understanding but in general does not help Protestants consider how they must get beyond consuming only milk and they remain too long merely reciting the fundamentals. And true, the Reformed school helps people see what miserable sinners we really are but generally without specificity. They can talk about "total depravity" but have a harder time identifying this depravity in themselves.

So, why do I bring this up? I think that hearing and examining the call to non-violence from Jesus and the apostles helps elucidate the extent of our inability to follow Christ. It uncovers our great dependence on this material world that we must all inevitably leave. It exposes our fears, if not so much for ourselves then certainly for our loved ones and for the innocent. Can we really trust that God has the whole world in his hands? That vengeance is His and not ours. Can we understand, or harder still, accept that He sends us out like sheep among wolves and that we are to be gentle as doves?

This is not easy. It goes even contrary to our very nature, our instincts. Turn the other cheek is contra our instincts which is a fight or flight reaction. It is astoundingly difficult.

What can we do? Essentially nothing but tell the truth, the Truth that is Jesus Christ in sermon and in deed. By telling the truth some, a very few, will seek help from Christ to walk in His steps. This will be at best a slow, incremental growth process. It is the sanctification process. But if you do not know the Way you will not be able to walk it. Sanctification is only remotely related to doing this or that good deed. It is rather a growing state of being increasingly conscious of WWJD under the circumstances.

The Peace of Christ be with you.

samlcarr said...

I'm very late indeed in commenting here but i have been enjoying the discussion and the various viewpoints.

Just one comment for those who advocate that the use of force is ok as long as it is for protecting someone. These arguements can be used to justify policing and armies, they can equally be used to justify all sorts of other uses of force including what is now often termed 'terrorism' but which in it's local context always begins with liberation from injustice or some such...and 'just' war...

Keith said...

This will be viewed as a simplistic comment, but here goes anyway. I've read/skimmed the entire thread, and I don't get it.

Couple of things:
1) "The basic principle is this-- vengeance should be left in the hands of God" Does that mean we just wait for God to deal with people? Why bother putting people in jail if we're that confident that God will "get 'em."

2) I may have missed it, but I don't find anything in your profile stating your credentials, i.e. are you a trained Biblical scholar? Do you read Hebrew and Greek? How do I know that you have "interpreted" the passages you quoted correctly?

I am for the death penalty, especially in cases like this. I might be willing to change me mind if I thought prison actually did more good than just giving criminals a place to lift weights, watch cable TV, earn degrees at my expense, etc. I'm sorry, but $50k per year PER INMATE is just way too much to incarcerate a single individual, much less a convicted killer.

Psalmist said...

I've been inside a Texas maximum-security prison unit (for a three-day ministry there--based on the Cursillo model, for those familiar with three-day events). In fact, it is the same unit that houses the state's women's "death row." Now I know Texas is kind of notorious in terms of its lack of luxury for convicted criminals, but I saw no hint and heard no stories from the residents themselves about any of the amenities you mentioned, Keith. Many of the women I met there will die "inside." Most will be many years older before they are released. The women who attended this ministry event worked hard for the privilege. Until you have seen life-hardened women weep over their first taste of fresh vegetables in a decade or more, I don't think it sinks in that most prison residents are NOT pampered in any way. I will never forget that none of them has any bathroom privacy, air conditioning, adequate nutrition, or so many other "givens" that most of us enjoy. Yet I heard testimony after testimony of the power of God to change their lives...and their acceptance of that power. I'm glad God hasn't given up on these sisters of mine, and I am glad I got to be a part of one way to show it to them.

I hate whatever it was that put them inside, whether they committed the crime or were wrongly convicted of it. But *they are human beings.* I'll always be grateful for my opportunity to have a very brief glimpse into their lives. I still inhabit those awful facilities (and they are awful) in my dreams every now and then. I still see death row, which we passed in silence each day when we entered and left. I even occasionally dream that I inhabit one of those cells in death row, waiting for the state to exact what it calls justice by taking my life. And by the way, I've seen dog runs larger than the heavily fenced "outside recreation area" the death row women are able to walk in when granted the privilege of exercise for an hour out of the day. Though I did not interact with any of those residents, I think it's safe to say they have no particular luxuries, either.

I personally would rather we not have to spend the millions of dollars we spend on each capital case. I'd rather we didn't have to spend the amount we do per capita to house criminals each year. I'd much rather we'd spent a lot less back in their formative years on things that would have contribute to their development as productive, law-abiding human beings. Prevention is always less costly than incarceration. But the vast majority of those who ARE incarcerated, are not capital criminals. So the cost of housing them, in whatever condition the state mandates, is the same. We don't get to say "$50K per year is too much." That's what it costs. Our "lock 'em up and throw away the key" mindset as a society means that we are going to have to pay for the lock-ups. We might not like paying for them to take classes, but we're going to pay the same amount if they're NOT allowed to take classes. Is it really in society's best interests for there to be no learning going on in our prisons? Maybe we really DO prefer vengeance and retribution, to rehabilitation. Who cares if they rot? They're *just* criminals, right? That's what they deserve.

God has been merciful to me, in that I have not received what *I* deserve. How dare I enjoy that clemency, without having any in my heart for those condemned to spend the majority (or remainder) of the rest of their lives paying for crimes they committed? To begrudge them even the possibility of making something of what remains of their lives...well, I don't think that kind of attitude "becomes the gospel" (in either the historical or the contemporary sense of the word "becomes").

José Solano said...


God bless you Psalmist.

Keith said...

To Psalmist and José: I guess it pretty much comes down to your "experiences" as to which side of the fence you fall regarding this issue. Psalmist, I can see how your first-hand experience made an impression on you; it probably would effect me, too. However, my experience puts me on the other side of the fence. Thirty years ago, my cousin Brandon, was shot and killed. The shooter not only confessed--there were also two witnesses. Ironically, the man's father was a well-known attorney in the city and the shooter was never tried; the case was thrown out on a technicality. Brandon would be 49 this February 14th. Have you ever experienced the senseless killing of a loved one where the killer appeared to have no remorse or sense of guilt?

God has been merciful to me as well, but it is apparent we interpret some sections of Scripture in different ways.

I am curious: Are you against the death penalty for ANY/ALL situations? What if the murderer walks into a restaurant, marches the four employees into the walk-in freezer, hog-ties them, and then methodically shots each one at point blank range while three accomplices look on? One victim is an only child--Senior in high school. Another victim is the mother of three small children--she wasn't scheduled to work that day, but was called in. The murders occurred right down the road from where I worked; my brother-in-law was in law enforcement at the time and had ties to the case, so I do have some first-hand knowledge of the crime.

José Solano said...

Hi Keith,
I will just speak for myself. For me it is not a question of whether I favor capital punishment or would like to "take out" some nasty murderer or another, or whether it might be better for humanity on earth if Saddam Hussein were hung or whether or not we should preemptively bomb N. Korea, etc. I might even like to become a Robin Hood stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. But the issue for me is what are Jesus and the Apostles asking us to do? WWJD? It is not at all a question of my "experiences." The Sermon on the Mount, much to the consternation of many, is thoroughly clear and explicit. The life of Jesus and the Apostles is also exemplary with regard to the teaching of peace and of love.

So, it is irrefutable that Yes, Jesus is against the death penalty for ANY and ALL situations. Nor does Jesus allow for any self-defense killing, neither for myself nor for my loved ones, nor on behalf of any innocent party, nor for my nation. If I claim to be a Christian then I must OBEY Jesus Christ.

On the other hand I recognize myself as a miserable sinner. When it comes to the Sermon on the Mount I think I'm a total failure on every count. I consider the life of Mother Teresa. How much clearer can the vanity and self-centeredness of my life be made? What a thorough failure I am by the standards of Jesus and in the light of the life of the great saints. I must fall on my face and plead for mercy continuously. And that's the tension under which the Christian lives all his life.

BUT! And this is the amazing and gloriously redemptive power of our Savior. Miserable sinner though I am, I believe and trust that Jesus Christ my Lord will deliver me from the law of sin that I serve with my flesh as I serve the law of God with my mind. With my mind and through my mouth I declare the teaching of peace and holiness of Jesus Christ. I recognize the dangers of relying on cheap grace and pray for the strength to do His will in all circumstances.

And all God's people said, . . . !

Keith said...

José:

-You didn't really answer my question. I asked if YOU would be against the death penalty in the situation I recounted. Please go back, read the scenario and post an answer based on the facts stated.

-You claim that the Sermon on the Mount is "thoroughly clear and explicit." About what? Where does Jesus' sermon say anything about the death penalty? I took eight months to teach through the Sermon on the Mount; that subject never came up to my recollection.

-Your words: Jesus is against the death penalty for ANY and ALL situations. Nor does Jesus allow for any self-defense killing, neither for myself nor for my loved ones, nor on behalf of any innocent party, nor for my nation. If I claim to be a Christian then I must OBEY Jesus Christ. Please cite exact passages.

-What does Mother Teresa have to do with the subject? I don't consider her a "saint." She did nice things, but she also belonged to a group that believes the Pope is the "Vicar of Christ" (i.e. replacement or same as). Kinda taints her character for me. Pick someone else.

-How does God's grace in YOUR life exonerate the actions of a cold-blooded murderer?

-Your words: I might even like to become a Robin Hood stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. I have to assume this a "tongue-in-cheek" comment.

Please do not respond (if you choose to do so) with references to John 8 or Matthew 7. I've studied both passages and understand them in context. The subject is not capital punishment in either.

Anxiously awaiting you answer to my original question.

Psalmist said...

Keith, I can't pretend to know how you and Brandon's other loved ones feel. I am truly sorry for the deep and real pain I'm certain you've all gone through, all these many years.

As for myself, the only unpunished, unrepentant criminals I know of were in my own family, and other family members--myself included--were their victims. We all survived. Those crimes, too, were many years ago.

It's pointless for me to claim I'd absolutely change my mind, or absolutely NOT change my mind, about the death penalty, had my close encounter with an unpunished, unrepentant criminal been if that criminal had committed murder. I think it's unrealistic for me to think I'd not at least be tempted to prefer vengeance over mercy. Would I think it unfair for such a person, were he or she finally brought to justice and sentenced to life in prison without parole, to get to live on while my family members were dead? Yes, probably. Would my heart cry out at the injustice? Yes, probably. Would I at least once wish that murderer dead? If I'm honest with myself, I probably would (and more than just once).

However, I claim to follow a Savior who died a sinless death on the cross to pay for my sins, that hypothetical murder's sins, your sins, your cousin's sins, your cousin's unpunished murderer's sins...and the sins of the whole world. I consider this same Savior to be the ultimate Judge. Impossible as it seems for me to understand why or how, Jesus nevertheless prayed that God would forgive those who crucified him. I count myself among those murderers, for my sins were what condemned him. Since he will not turn away even the most (from our perspective) hideous sinner who accepts the salvation he offers to all, I must (however reluctantly) believe that Christ's love for such a one is infinitely greater than my desire for vengeance or even justice.

This probably does not really answer your question, but it's the only honest answer I can give you.

José Solano said...

(Thank you Psalmist for your compassion. I wrote my response below before reading you latest comment.)

Hi Keith,

Actually I did respond to your question but perhaps not in the way that you wanted. For me this discussion must begin with a confession of what terrible sinners we are. As this becomes more and more evident we begin to more carefully consider before throwing any stones as we observe that we really do live in very fragile glass houses.

I turned your question around to what I think it really should be which is, What does Jesus want us to do? If you want to know what I personally would do, as a miserable sinner, if someone threatened the lives of my children, for instance, I can say that I would probably blow him away, eh, except that I don't own a gun. If my children were starving I might also rob a bank to feed them. And so might you. But this is not the issue. You are not to model your life after mine nor after the vicar in Rome or your pastor at your church. Jesus Christ is our model. We may differ with aspects of Mother Teresa's theology but the level of her Christian work and self-sacrifice must be an embarrassment for us who talk a lot. Do you show me your faith with your astute theology or with your works? Or do you have them both in perfect order? "Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He will lift you up."

You ask for citations. Try Mt. 5:7-9, 5:38-48. This is essentially repeated in Lk. 6:27-36. Whether or not you want to hear John 8 I will emphasize v. 7, "He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first." Adultery was a capital offence in Jesus' time and continued to be in Calvinist Geneva and other places. And there are many other passages throughout the New Testament that demonstrate the thoroughly peaceful conduct of Jesus and the Apostles in every circumstance. "He who lives by the sword perishes by the sword." "I send you out as sheep among wolves," and on and on.

Now it's your turn Keith to show me where Jesus or the Apostles ask any Christian to kill anyone for any reason. Where in Scripture is a Christian justified to kill?

The peace of Christ be with you.

P.S. The Vicar in Rome. By Vicar no one imagines that the Pope is God on earth and no one prays to the Pope. Catholics believe he is Christ's principal representative or agent on earth through their interpretation of Mt. 16:18-19.

I was married in the Anglican Church of England by a vicar. Other denominations also have vicars. The Pope can also appoint vicars in varied capacities including the Vicar of Rome. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vicar

The Pope is neither Christ on earth nor the anti-Christ as too many Protestants continue to believe.

Keith said...

To "Psalmist" and "José": Thanks for your comments. I've read them and would like to post a response (even tho' I'm fairly certain you've already made up your mind as I have re: this topic), but I have a busy day ahead, so I will get back here as soon as possible.

José Solano said...

Why yes Keith, of course I've made up my mind that Christ's teaching opposes killing people in any and all circumstances. Haven't you made up your mind that this understanding is wrong? Changing one's mind on major issues is nevertheless possible but often comes with pain and shock.

Psalmist said...

Keith, I don't see why whether my mind is made up or not, should have any bearing on whether or not you make a response to what I posted. If I weren't confident that my perspective was the correct one for me to walk with integrity in Jesus Christ, I wouldn't have shared that perspective. If there's anything I said that caused you to believe I was insisting that you change your mind to my beliefs, I sincerely apologize. I posted what I did because it is true of me and my experiences. Nothing more, nothing less.

Keith said...

"José" and "Psalmist":

I said I would be back, that I would respond to José's questions, but I must say after re-reading this thread, the only "pain and shock" for me is wondering why I ever commented here in the first place. I am not a degreed theologian (I finally got around to "Googling" some background on Ben Witherington), but I do consider myself a thinker.

I can only say that I am AMAZED at the "logic" and exegetical gymnastics used to defend statements such as " Yes, Jesus is against the death penalty for ANY and ALL situations." (José) I don't have time or the stomach to comment on everything I disagreed with; it would just take too long. So just a few thoughts and I'm moving on:

Ben Witherington (BW) wrote in the original post: Is it ethically a worse thing to have a criminal justice system that lets a guilty felon go unexecuted (being given instead perhaps life in prison without parole) or to have a system which regularly executes people who are not guilty of a capital crime? REGULARLY? How is that defined? According to The Death Penalty Information Center, only seven (7) people are listed as having been "executed but possibly innocent"--out of the 1000+ since 1973! That doesn't sound very regular to me.

Psalmist (P) wrote: I claim to follow a Savior who died a sinless death on the cross to pay for my sins, that hypothetical murder's sins,… (referring to my previous post). That was not a "hypothetical" scenario. Corey Hamilton, the convicted murderer in that case, was executed for his crimes on January 9, 2007. You can read all about his "hypothetical robbery and murder of four innocent people" here.

José (J), you, BW and P (along with other posters) appear to use the words "vengeance" and "justice" interchangeably.

BW wrote: we need to leave vengeance or justice in God's hands. I have to agree with the poster "himself" who wrote: "Isn't incarceration still a form of vengeance or justice?" (I know, I know. BW already "answered" that one.)

BW has obviously never been in a situation where his or the life of a loved one was in danger. His "just shoot them in the hand" comment: suppose someone directly attacks you, what should you do-- How about run away? Or suppose someone attacks your children? You can get in harm's way, and you can use non-lethal force to stop it. Even if you feel compelled to use a weapon in such a situation you can shoot somebody in the leg and not shoot to kill. You can temporarily disable someone without seeking to do them permanent harm. …oh my gosh! Are you serious?! I live next door to people that carry guns. They are dangerous people and if the situation arose, I would not be thinking: "I wonder if I can take out that kneecap?"

Commentors Terry Hamblin and Neil make very good arguments for the death penalty. They get my vote. TB makes an excellent point: we have lost sight of the God who is to be feared and replaced Him by the wimp in the white nightdress – a caricature of Jesus that our prelates seek to imitate. Neil's comment: if speeding tickets only cost a nickel… was a classic. He hit the nail on the head. We have lost control of the society because society has no fear of punishment. For me, Terry and Neil made the most sense of anyone posting—including BW, the administrator.

J, to specifically address the Scriptures you cited:
- Matthew 5:7-9 Verse 7 is not teaching that mercy towards men brings mercy from men (if that is what you are implying). God is the giver of mercy. That is the point of Jesus' statement. It has nothing to do with capital punishment.

John MacArthur writes re: verse seven-- "The truth is that God does not show mercy without punishing sin; and for Him to offer mercy without punishment would negate His justice. Mercy that ignores sin is false mercy…" (MacArthur Commentary, Matthew 1-7, Pg 192)

- Matthew 5:38-48 The meaning of this passage, particularly verses 38 and 39 (quoted from Genesis 21:23-25; Leviticus 24:19-20) is the same as it's always been: No individual has the right to take the law into his own hands for personal vengeance. Again, I don't see how these verses negate God's provision for civil laws and the punishments for crimes.

- John 8:7 Note that Jesus didn't say: "I don't DISAGREE with this law." When I encounter someone using this passage to condemn capital punishment, I always have to ask: Where is the man in this scenario? Why is the women the only being brought before Jesus by the Pharisees? It take two, you know—so there must be another meaning. I believe there is: The Pharisees were simply trying to trick Jesus (says so in verse 6). They didn't care about the women or her supposed adultery. Jesus exposed their hypocrisy by asking "who among you is without sin?" Some have suggested that Jesus stooped and wrote on the ground the names of some of this woman's sex partners, including some of the very men standing there. Others have suggested He wrote some of the sins these Pharisees were guilty of (He's God in the flesh—He could know those things). Whether or not either assumption is correct, the point was not Jesus saying: "I don’t agree with the punishment." What He WAS saying is: You guys are a bunch of hypocrites!"

I do not know nor have I ever met a single person that doesn't believe in capital punishment to some extent. You people are a first for me. José and Psalmist: You are absolutely right. I have made up my mind—I had no disallusions that we would be able to change each other's opinion. Thanks for the dialog.
Ecclesiates 8:11

José Solano said...

Keith, we are merely having an intellectual discussion. We are not angry with you.

I grew up in the ghettos of NYC. I've seen people stomped on and stabbed and I've had to walk over bodies to get to my apartment so as to call the police. I've been assaulted and mugged, had a bottle broken over my head while my friend had the same broken bottle stabbed into his face. I've seen mafiosos brutalize people as a pastime. I have a very long list of horrors I've witnessed and experienced that I prefer not going into. Almost everyday my life and my family's life was at risk.

In spite of all the violence I experienced one day my life miraculously changed by the grace of God and I accepted Jesus and His message of peace and love.

I simply disagree with your interpretation of Scripture on this issue and must teach and try to follow what I believe Christ is teaching. The wonderful thing about a blog like this one is that it allows people to discuss their theological differences, hopefully with mutual respect.

With all due respect I must note that you in no way responded to the question I had posed for you. I said, "Now it's your turn Keith to show me where Jesus or the Apostles ask any Christian to kill anyone for any reason. Where in Scripture is a Christian justified to kill?"

I simply must add that John MacArthur is dead wrong when he says, " The truth is that God does not show mercy without punishing sin . . . ." If that were the case we would all be under never ending punishment.

I wish you nothing but the peace of Christ.

Psalmist said...

Two things, Keith:

The hypothetical murderer *I* mentioned was this (quoting from my own post, in which I'd already said the criminal in my own family left his victims alive and therefore was not a murderer):

"It's pointless for me to claim I'd absolutely change my mind, or absolutely NOT change my mind, about the death penalty, had my close encounter with an unpunished, unrepentant criminal been if that criminal had committed murder."

I have nevery said nor implied that the murder that so tragically hurt your family, was hypothetical. In order to try to understand better what that must have been like for you, I took the most heinous thing I have ever experienced--and which also tragically continues to destroy my own family--and tried to imagine if one or more of the victims had died, rather than been left alive.

I have tried to be very careful to make a distinction between "vengeance" and "justice." I do believe that there's little difference between vengeance and what most Americans think of as justice, however. And I also think that it's quite common for those who long for vengeance, to find that actual justice is not enough to satisfy them. I think that is why, despite Jesus' teachings, people still prefer an eye for an eye or maybe a few teeth for a tooth. I'm not saying that is necessarily true for you.

I have a very different frame of reference about the death penalty. I was a teenager when (US) states were once again permitted to impose the death penalty. Throughout my childhood (except the very earliest years), people were not executed, no matter what their crimes. As a Christian, I was shocked and saddened by the enthusiasm of some of my acquaintances for the death penalty. I'm more used to it now--I live in Texas--but it still saddens me when I encounter people who WANT another human being to be put to death. While I can understand it to some extent, I cannot share that desire. I do not believe God is honored by the practice, but then I recognize that I live in a secular state and nation. There is much that we do in our society, including the murders that lead to many people demanding the death penalty, and so many other crimes, that I fear must grieve God very deeply.

I wish you that peace that passes all understanding in our common Lord, Keith (and all).

Ree said...

I don't mind leaving vengence up to God. But I don't have a problem helping them along on their journey to meet Him.