In light of the on-going Dzhokhar Tsarnaev trial, I would like to take this post to address the sensitive issue of the death penalty. No matter your background or beliefs, if you are a critical thinker, you recognize the incredible difficulty of reaching a unanimous conclusion on the use of capital punishment within even your own mind, much more among a group of people. The reason for this is that there is so much involved with the discussion of capital punishment. There are sociological, psychological, economical, logical, juridical, biological, philosophical, historical, emotional, and religious arguments that must be weighed when discussing capital punishment. Each one of these modes of thought could take pages and pages to detail. So for this post, I am primarily going to deal with the religious argument, and more specifically, the Judeo-Christian argument.
Focusing on just one aspect of this discussion is not easy as all of the above arguments intermingle during a discussion on this topic. However, I will try to hold my tongue and stick to just the Judeo-Christian argument.
Concluding Thought … Kind Of
To start, I will finish. There is no line of argumentation that can unquestionably conclude that capital punishment should or should not be used. There simply are too many counter points inside each line of argumentation. So, ultimately this comes down to a matter of choice. Do you want proof of this claim? I will give it to you.
One line of argumentation that people use who are against capital punishment is the economical. It has been shown that a capital punishment case in the United States costs much more than a life without parole (LWOP) case, anywhere from two – five times as much. It would seem that economically, LWOP is the obvious choice. However, why is that so? Partly because of the greater number of appeals allowed to people who are sentenced to death and the heightened security used to guard inmates sentenced to death. Both of these reasons could be taken away by simply equaling the rights of people sentenced to death or LWOP. Why allow someone who is sentenced to death more chances of appeal? In short, the thinking is that allowing more chances to appeal will ensure the person was correctly judged. The simple fact of the matter is that people sentenced to LWOP are going to die in prison. How is allowing the possibility that someone is going to wrongly die in jail after years of mental torment any more humane than wrongly dying in jail at the hands of an executioner?*
I could go through all the other lines of argumentation above and provide just as much doubt into each of them. So there is no line of argumentation that unquestionably concludes one form of punishment is better than the other.
What about looking at this from a Judeo-Christian perspective? Should capital punishment be allowed under a Judeo-Christian worldview? To answer this, we have to start close to the root of Christianity.
Christianity does not actually start with the Gospels. Christianity’s heritage includes all of the Old Testament as well. That is why I said I would discuss the Judeo-Christian argument.
The word “testament” means “covenant” or “agreement”, and there are actually several covenants in the Old Testament. Most lay people are only aware of the Mosaic Covenant, but depending on how you break them up, there are anywhere from 5 to 8 covenants in the Old Testament, including the prophesied new covenant under Christ.
Some of these covenants were agreements between only Yahweh and the people of Israel. (Yahweh is the name God used to reveal Himself. Yahweh means “I am” and emphasizes the self-existence of God.) However, some of these agreements were more general agreements with the whole of mankind. The new covenant under Christ is an example of a general agreement with all of mankind. Another example of a general agreement with mankind is the Noahic covenant. One portion of the Noahic covenant states, “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God, He made man” (Genesis 9:6). What that says is that if one person murders another person, the person who committed murder will be put to death. Why? Because God sanctified life, and to both protect innocent life and give an appropriate judgment, He commanded that the penalty of death be on anyone who murdered another.
One thing that is clear is that in all the general covenants with man, there is only one action that would call for the death penalty: murder.
Some people say that since we are under the new covenant, then we no longer live by the older covenants. I would partly agree with this. However, the new covenant is not a political covenant; it is a religious covenant. The new covenant was meant for individuals interacting with God and other individuals. That means that governments and other authority structures (e.g., security organizations and school principals) should not base their legal or authority systems solely on the teachings of Christ. Christ did not come to correct the government. He came to correct the hearts of individuals. Obviously there are principles in Christ’s teachings which all governments or authority structures should apply to themselves (I wrote that in bold because I get the feeling that some readers will miss that I said that), but governments simply could not perform their duty if they were to base their legal systems solely on the teachings of Christ. Let me demonstrate the truth of this claim.
Christ taught people that when someone “slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also” (Matthew 5:39). Now, imagine the government doing this. You know, when someone robs a bank, instead of arresting the criminals, they escort them across the street to the other bank so they can rob that one as well. Or imagine a school principal seeing little Johnny getting hit by a bully; instead of stopping the bully, the principal instructs Johnny to calmly offer his other cheek for the sake of peace (after all, blessed are the peacemakers). This is just one example of many principles that authority structures simply cannot fully adhere to and still fulfill their role.
I hope the point is starting to sink in, but let me offer one more proof.
The one time where Christ was asked about the laws of the dominant government of His day (Matthew 22:15-22), Christ did not address the government’s incredibly unjust system. Instead, He ignored the injustices of the Roman government and instead turned the question into an opportunity to teach the people how they should interact with God. Christ did not come to teach governments how to govern; He came to teach individuals how to live. Certainly His teachings should produce a trickle-down effect into governments, but His teachings were not directed to governmental systems.
What about Christ’s apostles? Did they say anything that would give us a clear understanding as to how we should judge on the death penalty? In a word, no.
Again, the apostles of Christ were concerned about establishing truth as to how individuals should interact with God and other individuals. They did give a few instructions as to how the church body and leadership should act in regards to governing itself, but governing the church and governing a nation are two different things.
Two apostles, Paul and Peter, tell us that government was established by God, and why it was established (Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-17). Government was established “for the punishment of evil-doers and the praise of those who do right.” The individual is not called to punish evil-doers; people who do that are called vigilantes. God established government to do the punishing. Obviously the individual should protect and defend people who are in a dangerous situation, but protection and defense is different from punishment and discipline.
So the questions become: 1. Should the Christian in a governmental position allow capital punishment to be a method of punishment? 2. Are there other forms of discipline that are more just from a Judeo-Christian perspective? 3. Should the principle of forgiveness and restoration be applied for all criminals, even those who commit wanton murder? 4. How should the principle of forgiveness and restoration be applied in murder cases? 5. What about people who commit heinous murders even after forgiveness and restoration?
I do not think the first question can be unquestionably answered. On one hand you have the general Noahic covenant which allows capital punishment, and the understanding that government exists to punish evil-doers. On the other hand you have the desire to implement the principles of forgiveness and restoration into all areas of life. (As a side note, even the Mosaic covenant has the principles of forgiveness and restoration. Many people overlook that.)
The second question is also very difficult to answer. Why? Because I originally wrote that question as, “Are there other forms of punishment that are more desirable from a Judeo-Christian perspective?” The answer to that is rather obvious: yes. But we are not searching for what is desirable, but for what is just. Our emotions and ignorance get in the way of justice. While we may desire to see all evil-doers repent and live a righteous life from then on, is it just that one family has to go on with life knowing that the person who murdered their loved one is living (maybe even living well) while their loved one is dead? Pure justice can be a very difficult thing to find.
That is why I am glad that ultimate judgment is not up to humans. I know some people think that ultimate judgment should be left up to God, so humans should not be empowered to put other humans to death. However, that definition of ultimate judgment is wrong. Ultimate judgment is not the decision of whether someone should live or die. God’s judgment is ultimate judgment. That judgment will come after death, no matter in what manner one dies. His judgment is pure. Amazingly pure, actually.
The third question is easy to answer: yes. However, from a Judeo-Christian perspective, forgiveness and restoration is fully achieved when someone asks God for forgiveness and looks to the healing power of Christ’s sacrifice. That is ultimately how I would like to see forgiveness and restoration applied to criminals in all cases. So even if someone were to be given the death penalty, forgiveness and reconciliation is possible from God’s perspective. That leads us into question four.
Question four is harder to answer because to answer it, we have to answer whether or not capital punishment is an option. As I indicated in the previous paragraph, from a Judeo-Christian perspective, forgiveness and restoration can be obtained even if the death penalty is handed down. Other questions are brought up by question four. For instance, is LWOP really a form of forgiveness and restoration? I do not think that LWOP is a good alternative to the death penalty. I think it brings up its own set of incredibly difficult questions, and I do not think it actually solves the problems that many have with the death penalty.*
Question five I will leave up to you to answer.
While there are strong arguments for and against the death penalty from a Judeo-Christian perspective, I do not think that it provides an absolute answer. Again, this is why I am glad that ultimate judgment is not up to man, even if they were to hand down the judgment of death.
*For more reading on the perceived humaneness of LWOP, see this article: http://www.thenation.com/article/170852/life-without-parole-different-death-penalty