Thursday, November 29, 2007

Serious question, flippant answers: What would Jesus do about the death penalty?

Via Doc Berman, the Chicago Tribune's political blog has the story of GOP presidential candidates responding to a question from their "YouTube" debate: What do you think Jesus' position would be on the death penalty? The candidates punted on the substance, but it's a damn good question. Said Baptist minister and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, "Jesus was too smart to ever run for public office. That's what Jesus would do."

That's a smarmy politician's answer, dodging a legitimate query instead of addressing it seriously. (The Texas Moratorium Network has the video.) What would a more honest response look like?

Let me start by admitting we cannot know for sure. The Old Testament emphatically supported the death penalty, and certainly Jesus declared he did not come to destroy the law but to fulfill it.

At the same time, New Testament teaching replaced the morality of "an eye for an eye" with "turning the other cheek." Certainly Christ intervened to stop the stoning of an adulteress, but without knowing more, can we universalize from that one example? On the cross Jesus forgave the thief next to him, but despite his divine powers over death, still allowed him to perish. Trying to divulge Jesus' position on capital punishment from these philosophical hints is like guessing the number of angels dancing on the head of a pin.

As Doc Berman pointed out, Jesus himself was subjected to capital punishment at the hands of the Roman Empire, though Christians believe he died sinless. If that is the case, then Jesus was an innocent man executed wrongfully. One imagines, then, at least at some point on Good Friday as he hung innocent on the cross, paying with his life for the sins of others, Christ must have endured some misgiving about the death penalty. Why, I wonder, didn't Rev. Huckabee mention that?

At a minimum, I wish this question had sparked a debate among candidates about the bevy of recent DNA exonerations and the likelihood that more innocent people are still on death row or rotting away in prisons.

Another clue: Early Christian societies considered snitching in death penalty cases an act that justified permanent, lifetime excommunication, damning the informant's soul to eternal hellfire.

Without question we can say that Jesus would not have supported capital punishment (or any criminal penalty) without at least two witnesses supporting charges against the defendant. Both Christ and the Apostle Paul affirmed the tradition from Mosaic Law that "two or three witnesses" were required to convict someone of any offense. Given that, and assuming the verity of the biblical passion story, I don't believe Jesus would have supported executions based on a single person's testimony or on the testimony of a compensated informant (like, say, Judas).

From the Sermon on the Mount, we learn that Jesus considered merely holding anger against someone as grievous an act as killing. (Matthew 5:21-26)
You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, 'You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.' But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.
So while this passage insists that murderers should be "liable for judgment," so should those who carry anger in their hearts. The same judgment? Who knows? While we don't know what "judgment" Christ considered proper for murder, we can say Jesus would not support retributive arguments in favor of the death penalty. He would have considered the emotional component that causes people to demand retribution antithetical to the tenets of peace taught in the Sermon on the Mount.

What do the major Christian denominations believe about the death penalty? I found this useful compendium of the positions on capital punishment for the major US denominations. Roman Catholics, American Baptists, Methodists, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Reformed, Eastern Orthodox, and the United Church of Christ all officially take an "abolitionist" or anti-death penalty stance.

I don't honestly know what Jesus' position would have been on capital punishment, but I do know this: Whether Jesus supported the death penalty, without question he established a requirement that his followers visit those in prison, including the condemned - perhaps one of Christ's least-regarded dicta among modern Christians, sad to say.

I like the YouTube debate format. Average people ask questions the professional journalists would never even think to bring up, and the results are frequently telling even when the questions get dodged. While the YouTuber's theological question remains unanswered, it's obvious that Christ had more empathy for prisoners and the condemned than Huckabee and the other pols on the stage demonstrated last night, that's for sure.

MORE/BLOGVERSATION: On Huckabee, Christ and the death penalty, from A Blog From Hell:
Well, Jesus may not have sought public office, (like being King of the Jews or something), but he seemed to have something to say about the death penalty, something to do with only those who haven't sinned should be "casting the first stone." ...

Huckabee tried to say that "forgiveness" doesn't mean you don't punish people. The hell it doesn't! Forgiveness doesn't mean anything if you're still punishing the person you are "forgiving." Saying you are doing both is Orwellian bullshit. The New Testament has a kind of economic model, forgiving sins is like forgiving a debt. You can't make someone pay a debt and forgive the debt at the same time. Forgiveness is not about you not feeling angry when you end someone's life.
Perhaps when Huckabee got off the dais he found a better answer to the question on his voice mail - the incident reminded Think Progress that Huckabee occasionally receives phone calls from God. At the Atlantic Online, Andrew Sullivan says "To use such a cheap line to score a laugh in a political debate is not something I find particularly admirable." Arkansas Blog recalled another instance where then-Governor Huckabee responded with similar flippancy to the same question, declaring that Jesus' silence on the topic implied his approval, which AB points out is a unique form of biblical exegesis, indeed. What kind of theology are they teaching out there at Ouachita Baptist University, one wonders?


Anonymous said...

The Death Penalty is an issued people have been able to use the Bible to argue for and against. Often selective verses of the Bible are quoted in their arguments. Sometimes the verses appear to support a particular stand on the issue of the death penalty but are taken out of context of the surrounding verses. One must also understand the Bible is translation from another language. Often full meaning is lost in the translation. My favorite example is Jesus’ reference to the meek, for which a better paraphrase would be the people who are teachable. The entire Bible is a handbook for living as God desires.

Man was unable to fulfill the demands of the law. God allowed animal sacrifice for the cleansing of sin until he provided the perfect payment for man’s sin in Jesus Christ. The death of Jesus on the cross was the fulfillment of the law (Old Testament Law) once and forever. Jesus’ death on the cross ushered in the New Testament era which called for a higher level of living.

The death of Christ on the cross, as an executed criminal, was the ultimate example of a wrongful execution. We can never know how many people died who were innocent in the death chamber of our legal system. If the death penalty is permissible in God’s eyes if correctly applied what if the person is actually not guilty? Has a murder been committed in this case, if so then a sin has surly occurred! Sin is not pleasing to God so where we are on the death penalty under the New Testament if a mistake is made?

To provide a Biblical answer to whether the death penalty is acceptable to God in the current era I will use the example of the woman brought to Jesus who was about to be stoned for adultery as my proof test. Jesus said he who is without sin my cast the first stone. As Jesus wrote in the dirt they all walked away one after another. Some original texts indicate Jesus was writing the secret sins of each person who desired to stone the woman in the dirt as they stepped up to cast the first stone. All have sinned so I ask who can cast the first stone? It would appear we are all out of executioners if we approach the death penalty from a Christian world view. No major Christian denomination supports the death penalty because in is not what Jesus did in his example for us.


Anonymous said...

Stats show that most Americans favor life without parole instead of the death penalty. Time politicians paid attention to this fact.

Anonymous said...

Texans want the death Penalty.Go ahead and Kill them God well sort them out.

Anonymous said...

9:20 there may be some sorting out but it may not work like you think it does. Do I smell brimstone?

Anonymous said...

Execellent commentary. This kind of post is why I voted for Grits at the ABA Journal's 100 Best Blogs. Keep up the good work.

Anonymous said...

Very good commentary,Grits. There are so many good points in this commentary that it is difficult to zone in on just one.

The Mosaic Law about "two or three witnesses" was particularly interesting. I believe those two or three witnesses were undoubtedly people considered to be honorable people. Such would not be the case when you factor in a prosecuting attorney up for re-election, or corrupt cops, or vengeful witnesses taking the stand. Then factor in court appointed attorneys who sleep through a trial or refuse to even try to defend a person. It is all a recipe for conviction and often a sentence of death at the hands of so-called law enforcement.

However, to be fair about the death penalty in Texas, one would only need to spend several weeks or months inside one of our prisons to determine if death would be easier than living like an animal at the hands of an under staffed and often brutal group of guards. Prisoners in Texas often make the death penalty work by their own hand. We call it suicide and it happens routinely inside TDCJ. It would be very interesting to have the actual numbers revealed on how many inmates commit suicide rather than survive like animals.

Execution by the state is simply legalized murder. You can take a bag of shit and wrap it in pretty paper but you still have a bag of shit. You can call execution justice but it is still murder. It is a barbaric practice that should be eliminated from a civilized society.

as for old 9:20 and God sorting them out... be very careful which pile you end up in. Hell is pretty hot from what I hear.

Anonymous said...

While Jesus may have been too smart to be a politician, Governor Huckabee is a smart politician. He engaged in a bit of artful dodging on that one, and was allowed to get away with it.

Jesus did not run for office, or seek to have himself made king in the Empire. But he was political through and through. His teachings were subversive to every empire which sets itself up as divine or divinely ordained.

Christian Minister Huckabee should acknowledge that. But Governor and Presidential Candidate Huckabee cannot. It would not be smart politics. And Governor Huckabee is a smart politician!

The Rev. Dr. Charles Kiker
Tulia, Texas

Unknown said...

1] This is the legendary "Jesus Standard" that states that you don't have to act on your evil impulses to receive Judgment.
2] This strongly implies that the "judgment" is internal and not external. There is no "judgment day"; the judgment is now!
3] This judgment is best summarized by the apostate JK Rowling - who mercilessly derided clerics and fundamentalists every time she could - when she mentioned the "damage done to the soul".
4] The answer to this internal judgment is forgiveness taking over one's life. Let go of bitterness and be free from sin. As long as we harbor these feelings we will be chained to sin - which will bring spiritual death.

Anonymous said...

To many innocent citizens are being accused of crimes and prosecuted wrongfully. In death penalty cases recently we have seen many on death row go free due to DNA and other evidentury processes presented poorly or properly. Until our system of justice gets control of overzealous police, prosecutors worring about public perception and their own promotional potential related to such cases, it would seem logical to suspend executions.

Would it be logical based on our present structure to have the prosecutor put in prison or put to death for a later found wrongful prosection or execution. Unfortunately I do not see that happening. However, that in and of itself may be needed to ensure real justice ensuring correct prosecution or execution.

Anonymous said...

Maybe he would have said place a millstone around their neck and throw them in the ocean. Better yet, who cares? This is not a theocracy. That question was stupid along with the entire "you tube" format of both the Democrat and Republican debates and shows that the dumbing down of the electorate has finally permeated all apects of society.

JSN said...

In biblical times the punishment depended on your social status (decapitation for the upper class and crucifixion for slaves and people they wanted to disgrace). The most common method for the DP was stoning which I think was done at the local level by friends and neighbors.

I think the alternatives to capital punishment were slavery (LWOP but they did not live long because the work was dangerous and they were expendable) and banishment for the upper class (a deferred death penalty because you were killed if you returned). There were jails and dungeons for pretrial detainees, debtors, mentally ill persons and people they wanted to disappear but nothing like a modern prison.

Anonymous said...

Average people asking questions journalists would never have thought of......looks like those were not "average people" and the "questions" were thought by paid campaign staff! (almost journalists) What a sorry state politics have come to.

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