The Death Penalty
I just finished reading John Grisham’s latest book, The Confession. It is a fictional story of a young man coerced into a confession and then wrongly executed. (I just could not resist a book that involved a Pastor Keith up to his neck in a death penalty case! :-))
Grisham opposes the death penalty. This came out clearly in his first work of nonfiction, The Innocent Man, the story of Ron Williamson. Grisham has publicly stated that his research for an earlier novel, The Chamber, led him to oppose capital punishment. It is no surprise that Grisham opposes the death penalty. What does surprise, and disappoint, is that he is bigoted against those who favor it. Without exception, every character in the novel who supports the death penalty is portrayed as a willfully ignorant, fat, lazy, sloppy, lowlife, mouth-breathing redneck. Grisham is a better author than that. I love his work. I expect better from him.
But my personal disappointment with the book is not my topic. I want to focus on one particular angle of Grisham’s novel, his apparent puzzlement over evangelical Christians (especially Baptists) for their support of the death penalty. Grisham seems to wonder what we don’t understand about “Thou shalt not kill.” With no delusion that Grisham would ever read my post, or even care for an honest answer, I want to try to explain.
First, we need to establish the language of the command. “You shall not kill” is generic, not absolute, language. Even staunch death penalty opponents admit this in certain respects. They do not take the command as absolute. To do so would be absurd, preventing insect extermination just as absolutely as it proscribes killing humans. No, it is obvious that there is a particular kind of killing under consideration. “You shall not kill” is actually a poor tranlsation, much broader than the Hebrew original. The better translation would be simply “You shall not commit murder.” Thus, there is no contradiction when God allows for killing in self-defense, killing in time of war, or accidental taking of human life.
Further, we must reckon with the scope of the commandment. To whom does it apply? I see the commandment “You shall not kill” as I see all of the commandments, addressed to individuals and not to a society of individuals. It is not “the state” that is prohibited from taking human life. It is me. It is you. Indeed, God specifically requires the administration of capital punishment for certain crimes. Can God on one hand prohibit the state from killing by the command “You shall not kill” while on the other hand demanding that the state execute certain criminals? Is God schizophrenic?
No, the bigger picture is obvious. God commands individuals not to murder other people. If one person violates that command, then the society, as a whole, is to execute the criminal. The role of the individual is to pursue mercy. The role of society is to pursue justice.
This leads to the broader question. Why? What is the purpose of the death penalty? Biblically speaking, it is not what Grisham and others make it out to be, a bloodthirsty desire for revenge that inevitably devolves into societal bloodlust. To the contrary, God tells His people to forgive those who have wronged them, to not repay evil for evil, to leave room for Him to settle things righteously. “Vengeance is mine. I will repay, says the LORD.” No, the Biblical rationale is far more complex, too complex to be covered in this one post. But it has to do with deterrence, both general (to prevent others from doing the same crime) and specific (to prevent the criminal from repeating the crime).
Now here is where I take the turn surprises some. It is because of this last factor that I have come to oppose the death penalty, not in principle bat as a matter of practical application. In other words, I think God provides for capital punishment, but I think our system of justice is so far removed from the Biblical norm of justice that we need a moratorium to completely overhaul our system, and if we will not overhaul our system, we should abolish the death penalty.
I could specify many areas where our judicial system has gone awry, but for the sake of space let me mention just a few:
- The Biblical system required at least two eyewitnesses to the crime before a criminal could receive the death penalty (absent a confession, of course). A man could not be put to death under merely circumstantial evidence. Yes, that means some criminals get away with murder. But it also meant that no one was wrongfully executed (at least, not if the system was administered as God laid it out).
- The Biblical system required an execution to be carried out quickly, while the crime was still fresh on everyone’s mind. There was a connection between crime and punishment. Not so in our system, where years or even decades may pass between the commission of the crime and the ultimate penalty. The scriptures teach that when a sentence is not quickly carried out, people treasure up in their hearts to do evil. In other words, it backfires if you wait ten years to smack a child’s hand for stealing cookies. The child will never connect the punishment to the crime, and so will think you are cruel when you administer punishment for no apparent reason. Further, from your long silence he has already deduced that it’s OK to steal cookies, and it seems fickle at best for that act to now be punished. And that is exactly what is happening in our society. The way we administer capital punishment is not serving as a general deterrent to others. Strangely, it provides incentive.
- The Biblical system provided for public execution. If the death penalty were carried out quickly and publicly, it might fulfill its role as a deterrent to crime. Others might get the message that if you take a life, you forfeit yours. We’re simply too sophisticated, too effete, for public executions.
- The Biblical system allowed no partiality. If a judge showed partiality he could be liable to the same punishment as the person wrongly condemned. Our system is so rife with partiality as to hardly command respect. Ask any African American.
So I support the death penalty as a matter of Biblical principle, and I wish people like John Grisham would stop treating me as an ignoramus for doing so. But I oppose capital punishment as administered in 21st Century America, and hope you will not treat me as a left-wing radical. After all, my opposition to the death penalty, at applied in our society, is also a matter of Biblical principle.