Making the Crooked Straight In Moral Debate about Death Penalty

Two Southern Baptist Convention officials recently made crooked moral arguments to justify the death penalty. They twisted the biblical witness and expressed a shallow view of sin's power.

"The Scripture clearly calls for the death penalty," said Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, on CNN's "Larry King Live" June 11.

"Jesus Christ never condemned capital punishment," he said, according to a Baptist Press article. "The Scripture clearly--in both the Old and New Testaments--stipulates that capital punishment is the appropriate penalty for those who take life and for those who commit the crime of murder."

Mohler also claimed, "There has never been demonstrated a case where an innocent person was executed in the American criminal justice system."

Debating in a public forum in Washington, D.C., Barrett Duke, another SBC official, said Southern Baptists support the death penalty because it "is a biblical position." He cited Genesis 9 and Romans 13 as proof texts to support his position.

"Somewhere in the distant past, some government has probably executed an innocent person. But I don't see any evidence that has happened in recent U.S. history," Duke told Associated Baptist Press.

Both SBC officials claimed the Bible supported their pro-death positions.  Both voiced such a vaulted view of the American death penalty system that it must be errorless. 

Unfortunately, their interpretation of the Bible is errant and their optimism about an errorless death penalty system is without theological merit.

First is the crookedness of their biblical claim. If the Bible stipulates capital punishment as the appropriate penalty for certain profound moral violations, then why did Cain, Moses, David and Gomer escape the death penalty? Shouldn't all these transgressors have been executed under biblical law? Or does a double standard ethic run through these biblical stories?

After all, the biblical list requiring the death penalty was long and broad. The list included murder (Gen 9:6); adultery (Deut 22:22); a rebellious and stubborn son (Deut 21:18-21); breaking the Sabbath (Ex 31:14); blasphemy (Lev 24:15-16); and cursing a parent (Lev 20:9). The list also included the death penalty for the owner of an animal (known for goring) that killed another person (Ex 21:29).

If the Bible stipulates capital punishment for the crime of murder and a host of other offenses, then why do those who claim the Bible mandates the death penalty for murder ignore all the non-murder offenses? Selective literalism discredits biblical morality and disserves public policy.

From another biblical perspective, the death penalty was administered against innocent, godly people of faith: John the Baptist, Jesus, Stephen and early Christians. How does one leap from these biblical stories about faithful heroes suffering injustice to argue that the Bible mandates the death penalty? Since when do biblical stories about the death penalty become a mandate for it?

As for the proof-text of Romans 13:4, the word sword (macharian) referred to a police dagger. It was not a huge double-edged sword with which to decapitate offenders. It was a small weapon. It was a symbol of state authority, not an instrument of capital punishment. Besides, the Roman method for capital punishment was crucifixion, not decapitation. The Jewish method was stoning, not decapitation.

Similarly, the Genesis 9:6 passage cannot be used to justify the death penalty. It is not a universal moral commandment for all times. If a reckless, alcohol-saturated driver is killed in a two-way automobile crash, the innocent driver of the other vehicle does not forfeit his life for the shedding of blood. Nor should he.

Finally, let's accept for the sake of argument the assertion that Jesus did not condemn capital punishment. Should his silence on other issues carry the same moral weight? Does the same moral reasoning from silence apply to alcohol consumption, homosexual practice, gun control and Sunday School attendance?

Situation ethics is clearly at work when Jesus' silence on capital punishment is used to justify the contemporary death penalty. 

Second, their theology of sin is shallow. Mohler made the outrageous claim that the American criminal justice system has never executed an innocent soul. Duke minimized the possibility of injustice with capital punishment.

Such perspectives represent a weak view of sin. The biblical witness discloses the blanketing and choking nature of sin. The Fall corrupted the entire created order that groans for its liberation from sin (Rom 8:19). And we wrestle "against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places" (Eph 6:12 RSV).

If sin is so pervasive, and it is, then sin must surely infect the death penalty system, corrupting it and insuring the death of the innocent.

It is puzzling to hear Christian theologians posit that one of the powers of this age (the criminal justice system) is without corruption. It's bad theology that contributes to bad public policy.

The prophet Isaiah wrote that the Lord would make "crooked things straight" (42:16 KJV).

Straightening moral arguments is the sad duty of every Christian.

Thankfully, Glen Stassen, the Lewis Smedes Professor of Christian Ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary, has worked tirelessly to straighten crooked moral thinking.

He has edited a book on the death penalty that helps us straighten out the gnarled cultural thinking about capital punishment. In fact, his chapter on "Biblical Teaching on Capital Punishment" ought to be mandatory reading for all ministers.

Thoughtful Christians of good will rightfully disagree about the death penalty. I confess my own conflicted thinking on the issue, and decline to stand with abolitionists. But I do think we cannot place Jesus in the pro-death camp. And we must be restrained about claiming the Bible necessitates capital punishment.

Robert Parham is BCE's executive director.

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