Is the death penalty Christian? (Part 1)

Extremism is loose in the land. On May 15, 2010, a Christian punk rock group from Minnesota, You Can Run But You Cannot Hide, caused a stir when their front man, Bradlee Dean, opined that Muslims who execute homosexuals “…seem to be more moral than even the American Christians…” The full context of his on-air radio comments – via audio clip – is available here.

Bradlee Dean’s remarks have been roundly condemned, and none too soon. Exodus International, a Christian ministry to gay individuals seeking another path, characterized his comments as “powerfully irresponsible” and “incomplete theology.”  While most Christians – including my own denomination, the Church of the Nazarene – interpret the Bible as prohibiting sexual acts between those of the same gender (Romans 1:26-32), the apostle Paul also holds out the possibility of a God-given new start for those wanting one, including the gay individual (1 Cor. 6:9-11). On the other hand, Dean’s rant knows nothing of gospel, of good news. Instead, his version of Christianity is bad news, singling out one class of persons for special judgment, misusing Leviticus 20:13 as a none-too-subtle call to target gays.

In his misguided focus on homosexuals, what Mr. Dean fails to mention are other offenses that Leviticus 20 cites as equally worthy of capital punishment. According to the Holiness Code, all who curse their father or mother must die (20:9). Also punishable by death are adulterers (20:10). To the modern ear, cursing a parent sounds suspiciously like teen-age rebellion. Instead of taking away the car keys, maybe we should impose lethal injection? As for adultery, rather than heading to divorce court, perhaps we should consign offenders to death row? Most Americans – whether they profess Christian faith, another faith, or no faith at all – recoil at the thought of the blanket application of Leviticus’ ancient Holiness Code to the complexities of life at the beginning of the 21st century.

Yet the discussion begs to be pushed back one step. For the follower of Jesus Christ, a broader question is at-stake: Is capital punishment Christian? Both the New Testament ethic and Christian theology give good reasons to answer the question with a firm “no.”

Holy Scripture is not limited to the thirty-nine books of the Old Testament, of which the book of Leviticus is a part. For Protestants, God’s revelation includes the last third of the Bible, the twenty-seven books of the New Testament. How to relate the two portions of the Bible to each other has historically been a knotty problem. Nevertheless, a Christian consensus exists that the Old Testament must be read in-light of what it has become in Christ. In other words, one must carefully consider what the New Testament has done with the teachings found in the Old Testament.

A student in a Jewish seminary in Kansas City once told a group of visitors from a Christian seminary: “You Christians read your Bible backwards.” What that rabbi-in-training said was true. Having carefully studied an Old Testament passage on its own terms, we bring it – in Old Testament scholar John Bright’s words – to the New Testament for a “verdict.”

How shall we apply John Bright’s principle to the question of capital punishment? John 8:1-11 is the clearest New Testament word on a specific application of the death penalty as prescribed in the Holiness Code of Leviticus 20. It is the familiar story of the woman caught in adultery dragged before Jesus by the religious authorities. Their intention is clear: They hope to trap Jesus. How so? Only two options are apparent. Either 1) Jesus must join them in punishing the woman, and so lose his popularity among the crowds who love him for his generous spirit, or 2) he will ignore the law of Moses at his own peril, giving leniency to the adulteress and thereby shattering his credibility as a rabbi. The Lord seemed caught between the proverbial “rock and hard place.”

Most preachers focus on the unlikely third option that Jesus ingeniously found, his writing something on the ground, then challenging the woman’s accusers:

“Let those who have never sinned throw the first stones!” (v. 7, NLT).

Jesus ends his encounter with the woman by urging her to “go and sin no more” (v. 9). What most interpreters neglect is to connect the dots regarding Jesus’ verdict on capital punishment. The Lord refused to ratify the punishment prescribed by Moses! To use John Bright’s terms – though Bright himself does not use John 8 to illustrate the point – this is arguably an instance of abrogation, an overturning by the New Testament of an Old Testament teaching.

Jesus of course did not always overturn laws from the Old Testament. He often merely ratified what the Old Testament prescribed. For example, in Mark 12:28-34, Jesus affirmed the enduring value of the two greatest commandments, of loving God and neighbor. Interestingly, the second of these commandments came from Leviticus 19:18, the same Holiness Code where offenses meriting capital punishment were laid out. By his actions in John 8:1-11, Jesus struck down one section of the Holiness Code, and by his words in Mark 12, he upheld another provision of the same Code.

This points us to the birth of a new and radical ethic, an ethic of non-violence that appears elsewhere in the teaching of Christ. This ethic of love is famously detailed in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). If someone strikes us on one cheek, we are to turn to them the other as well (5:39). Should someone steal our shirt, we must not seek to get even. Instead, we should also offer him our coat (5:40). Paul affirms the same ethic, extolling a “love that endures through every circumstance” (1 Cor. 13:8, NLT). John – sometimes dubbed the apostle of love – insisted that Christians must show love by their actions (1 John 3:18). Capital punishment – while acceptable in the Old Testament – fails the test of New Testament scrutiny. It is explicitly overturned by Jesus in John 8 and implicitly disallowed by the whole tenor of New Testament teaching, particularly the ethic of love, a love that Paul says “always hopes” and “never gives up” (1 Cor. 13:7).

Beyond the New Testament ethic, the teachings of Christian theology also undermine the rationale for the death penalty. Specifically, the doctrine of regeneration teaches that God is in the business of changing evil people – no matter how far gone – into new and better individuals. The apostle Paul, once a rabid murderer of Christians, writes in one of his letters: “What this means is that those who become Christians become new persons. They are not the same anymore, for the old life has gone. A new life has begun!” (2 Cor. 5:17, NLT).

Then Senator Obama titled one of his books The Audacity of Hope. His positive message encouraged many on the brink of despair, yet a far greater Book spoke of hope long before the Senator’s rolled off the press. The New Testament is radically optimistic, insisting that what seems ruined can be restored. Yet some of the same Christians who see hope for a poor, unwed mother, encouraging her not to abort her baby, will despair of the convict. In a maddening inconsistency, they are pro-life, but only incompletely. They rightfully defend tooth-and-nail the physical life of the unborn, but are willing to abort the potential spiritual life of the murderer. These incarcerated men and women may have yet turned from evil, but we will never know. Their secret ripening perhaps visible only to God the Holy Spirit may have already been underway. Trimesters of spiritual gestation could have ended in them being born into God’s family, to all of Heaven’s applause. Now their time is cut short and that day will never come. Surely the Holy Spirit grieves at what could have been! After all, dead men and women do not repent. In our zeal for vengeance in this world, have we unwittingly divulged our deep-down doubts about the reality of a future judgment where a righteous, merciful, and all-knowing God can and will fairly settle all accounts (Hebrews 10:30-31)?

Yes, extremism is loose in the land. It is time for Christians who subscribe to the New Testament ethic of love and the stalwart belief that God can change people to make their voices heard. Private and public misapplication of a few Old Testament verses will inflict much damage on the cause of Christ, making a mockery of our faith, wrongly adding it in the public’s mind to the list of “religions of hate.” When it comes to the death penalty, we need not ask: “What would Jesus do?” We need only remind ourselves what Jesus has already done. It is high time to say a courageous and firm “no” to the death penalty.

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For Part 2 in this series, click here.

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Gregory Crofford, Ph.D. (University of Manchster) is Director of the Institut Théologique Nazaréen. In part two, Dr. Crofford will respond to biblical and social justifications commonly offered in favor of the death penalty.

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2 thoughts on “Is the death penalty Christian? (Part 1)

  1. Thanks: John 8 is powerful. A 1st time visitor to the vigil said she came with questions and reservations about our vigil – but she came. Then, hearing the recounting of the story of the stopped execution read from a few paragraphs of Mark Osler’s book “Jesus on Death Row” she said a light came on and she nearly wept. Jesus does that, still. You said it well. There is a trajectory, I believe, set in motion even in the holiness code as you pointed out (source of the Love command that Jesus cited) but that moves away from purity concerns towards mercy justice, the weightier matters of the law.

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