On June 15th 2015 in Charleston South Carolina, avowed White Supremacist, Dylann Roof, murdered nine people in cold blood. He walked into Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church with a handgun and, while the penitents were worshiping, opened fire with indiscriminate violence.
In December of last year he was tried and convicted. This January he was sentenced to death on the unanimous recommendation of a jury of his peers.
Prompted by the publicity surrounding Roof’s sentencing, The Gospel Coalition recently published a thoughtful piece by Matthew Arbo in opposition to Christian support for capital punishment. While Arbo has an obvious heart for Christ his arguments against the death penalty are unconvincing.
His philosophical objections are a various and sundry collection not of biblical truths but of conventional wisdom truisms.
He says, for instance, “Killing the wrongdoer doesn’t reestablish the state of affairs that existed before the murder took place”.
That’s true as-far-as-it goes, but Christians who advocate for capital punishment never claimed that executing the killer could bring back the killed.
He asserts, “[the death penalty in Roof’s case] punishes symbolically, bringing the accused to trial and in turn notifying the public of what’s happened and what’s being done to correct it”.
Maybe so, but for all its purported symbolism it punishes the murderer (who is, after-all, the one being punished) in an undeniably material manner.
The problem with Arbo’s list of anti death penalty platitudes is that even if we accept them they don’t preclude Christians from supporting capital punishment for capital criminals.
“For the retributivist,” Arbo states. “the purpose of punishment is simply to punish.”
I can’t speak for the retributivist (whoever he is) but I wonder, is he necessarily wrong? Is punishment for its own sake disqualifying? Is simple Justice somehow verboten?
After helpfully defining retribution and admitting that the practice has, “a rightful place in our penal code” he qualifies the claim by saying, “Retribution can at best form only part of punishment’s purpose”.
Fair enough, but if retribution has it’s place and can be part of punishment, why can’t its place be death row and it’s part be the part where the murderer gets a lethal injection?
Arbo laments the supposed lack of a pedagogical (teaching) purpose in punishing by execution writing, “The dead do not learn from their mistakes or from the discipline imposed”.
He goes on to make the demonstrably false claim that, “The death penalty is unique among punishments in that it is incapable of exactly this pedagogical purpose”.
The purpose of the death penalty is not to teach life lessons to dead people; the lesson inherent in capital punishment is for the living.
No more vivid illustration of the pedagogical power of being condemned to death exists than the story of the repentant thief who was executed next to Jesus.
“We are punished justly”. (Luke 23:41) He poignantly reminded his unrepentant counterpart before addressing Our Lord. “Jesus”. He said mournfully, considering his immortal soul through his suffering. “Remember me when you come into your kingdom”. (Luke 23:42)
Jesus redeemed that condemned man at the very hour of his death. That criminal learned from his condemnation and sought God’s mercy at his own execution as we can speculate countless others have done over the centuries. We pray that Dylann Roof (who will likely live for decades before his sentence is carried out) does the same. No one can deny he has every opportunity.
Arbo’s philosophical objections are not new but are based on a wholly secular, thoroughly modern-day philosophy. He ignores two thousand years of Church guidance on the subject and forgets that capital punishment by civil authorities has been affirmed in The Catholic Catechism since at least The Council of Trent in 1566.
God didn’t say “Wrath has no place”. God said “Give place unto wrath”. He didn’t say “Vengeance is wrong”. He said “Vengeance is mine”. I’ll provide context to those passages (Romans 12:19) below, for-now I only say that these are distinctions that make the difference.
I hesitate to give individual responses to Arbo’s list of practical objections to capital punishment. Statistics and factoids like the ones in his piece can be disputed easily enough by anyone so inclined. One might for example site population sizes, demographics, and gun laws as factors accounting for the disparity in murder rates between States with and without the death penalty.
Instead, at the risk at sounding callous, I dismiss such objections as being wholly beside the point. Just as counterfeit bills do not discredit the legitimacy of the Federal Reserve, practical problems in the administration of the death penalty do not discredit the legitimacy of capital punishment.
For the Christian the primary question is one of faithfulness. Am I rejecting or embracing God’s precepts by rejecting or embracing capital punishment? For the believer practical considerations while real are not definitive.
It is the theological arguments that are critical. Because Christians are bound to follow Christian doctrine whether-or-no it seems practical to the world. Unfortunately, Arbo’s theology falls short.
He begins with a common theological mistake. He claims, “The civil and ceremonial elements of the law have been fulfilled in Christ” and wrongly concludes that Old Testament law has been rendered null and void.
First, it’s a category error to link capital punishment with civil and ceremonial law. While administered by civil authorities (often with great ceremony), the death penalty is neither civil nor ceremonial law; it is criminal law.
More importantly, God’s binding instruction to man about how to deal with capital criminals vastly predates Mosaic Law and is thusly independent of it.
Almost immediately upon Noah exiting the arc (Genesis 8:13-19) God instituted the death penalty as the just punishment for murder.
“Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man”. (Genesis 9:6)
This unambiguous command has is not part of “the law” and not subject to repeal by “fulfillment”. Rather, it’s been universally regarded as a statement of God’s enduring principle and of his clear intentions.
Even so “the law” is far from repealed.
In Mathew 5:17 Jesus said “Do not think that I came to destroy the law and the prophets”.
Later in Mathew 8:4 he demonstrated his commitment to (even the highly “ceremonial”) law by ordering a leper to show himself to the Priest and “offer the gifts that Moses commanded”.
In Mathew 23:2-3, “while speaking to the multitudes and his disciples” talking about the despised “Scribes and Pharisees” who, for all their faults, did still “sit in Moses’ seat” our Lord went as-far-as ordering his followers, “Therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do”.
This would be strange, almost inexplicable, talk indeed if Jesus considered “the law” inoperative.
Paul echoes these sentiments, most prominently in Romans 3:31.
“Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid: yea, we establish the law”.
These examples are not to suggest that all ancient Jewish rules remain in effect. Parts of the law intended for a specific time and a specific people are defunct. Circumcision is one example, animal sacrifice is another. None-the-less, they do show that Jesus did not repeal the law. Not the law in Leviticus 24 which says, “Whoever kills any man shall surely be put to death”, or the law in Numbers 35 which demands we, “Take no ransom for the life of a murderer”.
As virtually all anti-death penalty Christians do, Arbo cites Mathew 5:38-41 (the famous turn the other cheek passage) as irrefutable proof of his position. It is not.
To extrapolate the slight* that is a slap on the (right) cheek outward until it encompasses heinous crime of murder is (like all misguided pacifism) an illogical and unworkable concept.
Must a Christian offer a second child if someone kidnaps the first? If you puncture my right lung with a knife shall I turn so you might puncture the left? No. Jesus was making a point but not the one Arbo suggests.
Looking at the passage in context we see that Jesus was talking about (admittedly hostile) interactions between individuals, not legal proceedings between the government and criminals.
The call to turn the other cheek is a call to be graceful in our interpersonal dealings, to be slow to anger. It also reminds us that individuals must not take justice into their own hands.
Turn the other cheek is general, personal, allegorical advice; by-no-means a legal dictate. It is interchangeable with the valuable but not literal (or binding) suggestion that follows it in Mathew 5:41.
“If a soldier demands that you carry his gear for a mile, carry it two miles”.
After misapplying the words of Jesus, Arbo proceeds to misrepresent Saint Augustine. But I’ve already dealt with the fallacious claim that the death penalty lacks the power to teach. I’m aliened here with George Washington who said, “Nothing sharpens the mind like the gallows”.
Arbo goes on to point out, as Augustine did, that executing a man ends his life and thereby shortens the time he has to come under the saving grace of The Gospel. There is logic in this approach but it is a logic that Jesus rejected as frivolous and Augustine understood to be a tragic inevitability.
Jesus told the story of a tormented soul begging to be allowed to leave hell for a single moment so he might testify to his brothers about the reality of God’s judgment. In not so many words God told the man not to trouble himself; the trip wouldn’t be worth the effort.
“And he said unto him, if they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead”. (Luke 16:31)
Arbo shares Augustine’s conviction that we should give every man every chance for salvation. Human efforts, however, are sometimes misguided and the parable teaches us to depend on the wisdom and justice of God. It’s folly to think that God hasn’t already considered (and rejected) the merits of life in prison as a means of evangelism.
Further, while Augustine may have had his misgivings, it can’t be said that he was anti death penalty. In City of God Book 1, the great Saint wrote, “Therefore, it is in no way contrary to the commandment, ‘Thou shalt not kill’ to wage war at God’s bidding, or for the representatives of public authority to put criminals to death, according to the law, that is, the will of the most just reason”.
This is a rational and theologically sound sentiment. Saint Thomas Aquinas agreed and went even further, likening capital criminals to a dangerous infection to be cut away.
“Therefore if a man be dangerous and infectious to the community, on account of some sin, it is praiseworthy and advantageous that he be killed in order to safeguard the common good, “a little leaven corrupteth the whole lump (1 Cor 5:6)”. (The Summa Theologica, 2nd part of 2nd part, question 64)
Aquinas is widely considered to be the preeminent Christian theologian regarding capital punishment. His teachings on the subject have been foundational for some 1200 years.
Finally, I promised to expand on the context of the biblical concepts of vengeance and wrath in Romans 12.
The bible does strictly forbid private vengeance.
“Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord”. (Romans 12:19)
The bible, however, does not end with the book of Romans and Romans does not end after chapter 12.
Having extolled us to give place to wrath, the next chapter (Romans 13) tells us where that place is.
Verse 1 tells us that there is no power except Gods power, but it also mentions, “the powers that are ordained by God”. Ordained to whom I wonder? The answer is forthcoming.
Verse 2 tells us that resisting God’s power, including his ordained power, leads to damnation.
Verse 3 tells us who God gave power to.
“For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power?”
God has delegated at least some power to rulers, and we ought to fear (respect) it. There is no other way to interpret this verse.
Finally, verse 4, without room for misinterpretation proves the Christian case for capital punishment.
“For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil”.
The “he” in verse 4 is unquestionably the ruler(s) from verse 3; the governing authorities of that day and this. He (the ruler) is flatly called “the minister of God”. Further, “the sword” which the ruler does not bear in vain (insinuating that he bears it for good reason) plainly refers to capital punishment. What else, after-all, could it mean? Clemency? Life behind bars?
No. A sword is the tool of the executioner and the lawful authority bearing it is “the minister of God”.
In summary, Arbo’s philosophical opposition to the death penalty are emotional not biblical. His practical objections must be subordinated to sound, historical, Christian doctrine. And his theological objections are based on an incomplete or out-of-context understanding of scripture. Further-more, Saint Paul in Romans 12:19-13:4 provides iron-clad, New Testament, affirmation of capital punishment by the proper governmental authorities.
* As most people are right handed, a slap on the right cheek is usually backhanded. A backhand slap to the face is an awkward, inefficient attack not often used in a fight. Some scholars maintain that Jesus, in going out of his way to specify the right cheek, was not referring to a real slap in the face or a physical attack at-all. They suggest that a “backhand” in this context is a sort of slang or 1st century, Palestinian colloquialism for a slight, an insult or, an intentional embarrassment. If this is true, and I have no opinion on whether it is or not, it gives significant weight to the argument that “turn the other cheek” is a call to graciousness and decorum (poise) in confrontational personal relations.
Guest contributor G.M. Fyden writes on social and political issues from a conservative Christian point-of-view.Google+