Last evening I watched “The Bravados,” a 1958 Western with Gregory Peck and Joan Collins. Peck is a rancher hunting the men who ostensibly raped and killed his wife. He finds them about to be hanged for a bank robbery and murder of the banker. The evening before the execution in a border town he attends mass with Joan Collins (Collins’s usual roles don’t place her in church!). In his homily, the priest notes the “gallows cast a shadow even at night.” But he affirms the guilty “die in just fulfillment of Caesar’s law.”
In fact, the guilty escape that night. And Peck joins a town posse in pursuit. Often jumping ahead of the posse, Peck kills 3 of the 4 marauders until learning they actually did not kill his wife, although guilty of other terrible crimes. One fugitive is Stephen Boyd (the Roman villain in “Ben Hur”), who rapes a captive woman during their attempted escape. Peck returns to town, confessing guilt to the priest, who reassures him he was part of a legal posse and completed what the town failed to do, for which all were grateful. “They were evil,” the priest assures him. “And should have died anyway.” But Peck explains he did not kill them for justice but for revenge: “I set myself up as judge, jury and executioner.” The priest acknowledges Peck’s sin in that regard but declares his awareness and confession are steps toward repentance.
Hollywood movies rarely offer theologically solid Christian insights. But “The Bravados” accurately portrayed traditional church teaching about legitimate force and capital punishment. Killing for revenge is wrong. So too is vigilante justice. But legitimate authority may execute the guilty in defense of justice.
Sadly, too many theologians and clerics today fail to explain or even deny what “The Bravados’” explained succinctly. Miroslav Volf of Yale Divinity School, while offering recent talking points for how Christians should approach the election, insisted there was “no debate” over capital punishment. Jesus Christ’s defending the adulturess from stoning clearly rejected any death penalty. Christians should “push” candidates to “abolish” capital punishment.
Robert Gagnon of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary challenged Volf on Facebook with this response:
I’ve been citing the woman caught in adultery text in John 8 for 20 years as the best text in the NT for an anti-death penalty position. On the other hand, Paul’s remarks in Romans 13 clearly grant the state the right of capital sentencing. My main problem is with Miroslav’s initial posting “There is no debate on this one,” which is a ridiculously one-sided comment that does not do justice to the difficulty of the issue. It MAY be that John 8 is to be taken absolutely … but I have serious doubts about it:
1. The woman caught in adultery text is not an original part of John’s Gospel but was added by scribes at a later date (IV or V cent.). Even if let that consideration pass, the attempt to stone Jesus was mob action, not an official state action. Moreover, the act involved a woman caught in adultery, not a violent offender (I read Steven’s counter to this observation but it is not decisive. Jesus may have taken exception to a capital sentence for sexual immorality cases given his special attention to sexual sinners in his ministry).
2. Jesus encountered a centurion at Capernaum and granted him his healing without any comment on the inappropriateness of his profession.
3. The penitent thief on the cross in Luke 23:41 notes that he and his cohort are receiving just punishment for their sins while Jesus did nothing “out of place”; Luke lets this observation stand without comment.
4. In Luke 3:14 some soldiers ask John the Baptist what they should do to indicate repentance and John responds only that they shouldn’t extort money from the population.
5. Paul’s statement in Rom 13:4 that the governing authority “does not bear the sword for nothing” certainly (imo) acknowledges the state’s God-given right to enforce law and order with the sword, i.e. by violent means up to and including death. Paul knew full well that the civil authorities, especially Rome, had the power to inflict capital sentences on wrongdoers. It is for this reason that Paul says: “If you do what is wrong, fear” (13:4). An outright refusal to pay taxes by a given movement could be regarded as an act of revolt or sedition, the penalty for which extended to death. Paul’s statement about the “sword” is an admission of the right of state to punish wrongdoers even with a capital sentence.
[In response Miroslav noted: “As to Romans, we would have to go into careful interpretation of that contested text, including how it applies to democratic settings in which Christians have a part in shaping government policies.” My response: Miroslav, the point you make about Romans and possible changes for those who live in democratic societies doesn't make sense to me. If Paul were to support the use of capital punishment even by an oppressive state that was susceptible to significant abuse of that authority, there seems to me no grounds for arguing that his principle can be translated into "no capital sentencing" for a state that is far more restrained and judicious in its use of capital sentencing. Seems to me to be a lesser-to-the-greater argument: If here, how much more there.]
6. There is the sheer impracticality of depriving a state of means to defend itself against attack or to enforce laws up to and including execution of the gravest offenders, certainly in the first century world. No state could possibly survive if it gave up the right to inflict death. If a person resists the coercion of the state, willing if need be to use his own sword to extricate himself from arrest, do you think the state just lets the offender go? Sounds like a Monty Python episode: the scene where the knight says it’s just a flesh wound. Does the state just hack off an arm or two until the offender ceases resisting? How would a state defend itself against invasion without exercising the right to take human life?
So far from being a slam-dunk case against capital sentencing, in my view the evidence from Scripture favors retention of capital sentencing. I could be wrong about that, I frankly admit, but as of yet I don’t think the evidence is strong enough to revoke a state’s right to inflict death.
Gagnon might have added that almost every Christian tradition affirms the state’s right to lethal force. Contrary to widespread popular impression, Roman Catholicism doctrinally affirms the state’s resort to execution, although the last two popes have expressed hope that modern societies instead rely on incarceration (which itself entails the threat of lethal force by armed guards). In the U.S., the National Association of Evangelicals officially affirms capital punishment, as does the Southern Baptist Convention.
Volf insists there’s “no debate” on an issue where he is at odds with the vast bulk of Christian tradition. Too often modern liberals assume their own recent views trump two millennia of consensus.