What does the Bible really say about the death penalty?

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My column in last Sunday’s Times-Picayune poked a bit of fun at literalist Christians who contend that every word of the Bible is the inspired (i.e., dictated) word of God. Those who take that position to support their condemnation of homosexuality, for example, cannot long maintain those views in light of almost everything else in the book of Leviticus. 

In the meantime, my friend Rev. Joe Morris Doss, an Episcopal priest and former bishop of the Diocese of New Jersey, shared with me something he wrote several years ago about a related subject — the ongoing interpretation of scripture on the death penalty.

It’s fascinating reading for anyone interested in what the Bible has to say about capital punishment. I asked Joe where it had been published so that I could share the link on Facebook and elsewhere. To my surprise, he told me he had never published it.

So, with his permission, I share it with you here. It’s long, but well worth it.

By Rev. Joe Morris Doss

The Ongoing Interpretation of Scripture

The story of God’s people is a continuing one that must be taken up by each generation. The scriptures relate that story from the beginning of creation and the spread of sin though to the redemption in Christ Jesus and the establishment of his church. The Bible is a library of separate books with a baffling variety of literary forms, composed by numerous and different kinds of authors over many centuries. Some of the writings are quite ancient; some of the earliest are versions of a prehistoric oral history. Various editors and redactors have re-written, edited and re-edited, or supplemented much of the material as each generation made its contribution.

Even so, from the very outset the scriptures are headed somewhere. They contain a particular logic and share a common aim. The logic and the aim reveal certain grand themes about God’s will for human life. Each of the books has to be read and interpreted within the context of the general themes and the conclusions at which the aim is taken. Nothing can be read out of that context, and certainly nothing can be used against the aims and purposes of the scriptures. According to Christians the whole of scripture is aimed at the incarnation, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. This is definitive of the entire story of the people of God. From the first words, scripture is going somewhere and it arrives. Good news.

The scriptures do not make each and every issue God’s people must address in succeeding generations entirely clear, especially on specific matters of morality and justice. The early Christians found themselves embarrassed by certain matters in the Hebrew scriptures, including several of the ways God’s nature is depicted. They had to re-interpret them, and explain how they were part of a process of coming to an ever more complete discernment until the fullness of that understanding is defined in Christ Jesus. But the problem has not simply been with what Christians began to call the “Old Covenant” books.

The church has discovered itself waking up to an awareness of wrongful positions and actions from time to time, forcing the reinterpretation of certain scripture. It is as though we were not ready to see the matter in its clarity until the time was ripe. When we do so we find that the call to right action is indeed inherent in our scriptures; it simply becomes clear to us. It is as though a fuse has been set within scripture and only in due course does it explode. Once this happens we may well wonder how we ever could have missed this.

Painful examples in European history include the inquisition and the crusades. The striking example in American history is slavery. During the course of the nineteenth century the meaning of scripture was changed for the American church from one that was viewed as favorable, or at the very least tolerant, toward the institution of slavery, to a testament ringing with clear denunciation of it.

Among the factors that required the church to see things differently was the evolving sense of decency and right in Western culture. Christians discovered the mind of Christ with new clarity. Christians must always be open to this. At this point in the continuing story of God’s people the ecumenical church has reached a relatively new consensus in its teachings about the use of the death penalty in human society. We shall examine the way scripture has led the church to this consensus.

Creation and The Spread of Sin

Scripture opens in the first two chapters of Genesis with the story of creation. The next ten chapters describe sin, its beginning, growth, and spread. The serpent is introduced immediately in the third chapter and the fall of creation is explained in a grand myth. Pictured as passing from Adam and Eve to their children and advancing throughout the entire world sin grows ever more pervasive and more destructive until the way things are as we know them is sufficiently depicted.

It is no accident that this fundamental scriptural understanding of sin is seen almost entirely as violence. Sexual, psychological, and mythological nuances can be read into the stories, but that requires sophistication and scholarly speculation. Each of the editors, first of the oral and then of the written tradition, (referred to by scholars as the Yahwistic, the Elohistic, the Deuteronomic, and the Priestly editors) have their particular axes to grind and, while in many ways enhancing the story, their comments explaining the action can be distracting.

It is legitimate to posit foundational sins of pride and despair for the virtue of a spiritual interpretation of the fall, or to witness the importance of sex and greed. In fact, however, once sin is introduced little is said that informs us about the nature of sin other than the use of violence to intimidate, harm, or kill. There is inference about what lies beneath the surface and serves as emotional motivation in particular cases – jealousy, fear, revenge, racism, self-righteousness – but once sin takes off the action is almost entirely that of violence.

The mushrooming of sin from its origin begins with murder, premeditated and unprovoked. Brother kills brother. From there the civilization into which Cain disappears with the sign of his curse depicts the rather primitive system in which the only policing relied upon was clan vengeance. The intent was to deter violence with the threat of escalated violence. That is, it was a Hatfield and McCoy legal system in which a person who harmed another was liable to vigilante punishment in greater kind and degree by the clan of the offended party, including the killing of other members of the offender’s clan.

The Bible offers the example of Lamech’s Lament (Gen.4: 23-24) in which a proud husband brags to his two wives, perhaps new brides, that he will protect them. His claim is that he is the kind of man who will “kill a man for wounding me”, who will “kill a boy for striking me”, who will exact not just “sevenfold vengeance…but seventy-seven fold”. It was in this threat of “seven-times-seventy” vengeance that his dependents were to find their safety.

Lamech was the father of Noah. The next story is about God’s own attempt at using violence as a solution to the problem of human sin. The world was flooded to start all over with the family of one relatively righteous man and the animals of creation. Sin did not disappear, but continued to flourish.

Finally, we have the climaxing story of the Tower of Babel. (Gen. 11) When it opens we are told that humanity has progressed to a high point. Progressing from the primitive tribal life in caves and on the savannas, from the domestication of animals and the stabilizing ability to grow crops, that which history terms civilization has begun and is flourishing. It is centered in urban life and led by highly organized religion. The myth goes on to show that sin pervades even these most advanced and most well intended efforts of the fully evolved human community.

This is hardly to be interpreted as disapproval of humanity’s use of intelligence, skill, or the religious drive to be in touch with God – despite the editorial comment that their effort was taken as an insult to God’s wholly otherness. It is not anti-civilization. Nor is it to be misunderstood as God’s disapproval of the diversity of races, languages, and cultures. Instead, the story of the attempt to build a great tower to the heavens serves to recognize that the many cultures and languages and peoples have become not only the occasion for diversity, surely one of the gifts of creation, but for divisions among the peoples of the earth. It laments humanity’s inability to genuinely communicate, to enjoy a united community within the fullness of its body, to cooperate in civilized achievement for the common good, to institutionalize our common religious yearning and realization.

People are scattered to live separately as rivaling races, in competing nations, holding to languages, cultures, and religions that distinguish us from one another and divide rather than bestow us with cause to celebrate our common and varied humanity. We know what this leads to: prejudice, conflict, war, empire building, and oppression. The story of the spread of sin ends with a world order based on privilege, status, power, and wealth.

The Worm Begins to Turn

Thus the Bible offers us a picture of reality, of the way things are. At this point, the story of a people who struggle to live in this world under the reign of God begins to address this human predicament. The rest of scripture is the gradually unfolding story of redemption. It is not a straight and unwavering pathway; there is much backsliding and getting lost. Nevertheless, the development is relatively clear and direct.

The story of the climax of sin in the Tower of Babel is not to be resolved directly until the Pentecost story reverses the impact of the world’s “babbling” and religious divisiveness. There, instead of failing to communicate and causing disunity throughout the world, the sounds of the inspired who have been brought into touch with the transcendent can be understood by everyone from everywhere and the apostles of the resurrected Christ are sent into the world with the uniting message of God’s good news. It is, however, immediately following the story of the tower that the story turns and begins to tell about God’s actions to liberate the world.

This is not merely the story of saving individuals from personal sin; it frees human beings from the violence and oppression that result from sin, including the failure to establish a just order of society that reflects the justice, compassion, and righteousness of God. One of the conclusions that becomes clear, and can be avoided only with a prejudged reading, is that God does not will acts of violence to punish for violence. Specifically, it becomes increasingly clear to the people of this story that God does not will the death penalty.

Even before the worm begins to turn with the story of Abraham the reader can discern God’s desire to redeem his creatures from the sinfulness scripture has described; the reader of faith can already begin to recognize where God is going to take us regarding capital punishment. When Cain kills his brother Able he pronounces his own death sentence, crying out: “I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will slay me.” But God rejects this sentence, directly and definitively: “Then the Lord said to him, ‘Not so!’…And the Lord put a mark on Cain, lest any who came upon him should kill him.” Not only does God refuse the death penalty; he protects the father of all murders from it. (Gen. 4:14-15) Claus Westerman, the Old Testament scholar who has written what is widely recognized as the most authoritative commentary on Genesis, explains what this means: “…no human being has the right to step in and execute God’s prerogative.” (Claus Westermann, Genesis 1-11: A Commentary (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1984), p 312.

Then, after the flood, God repented of his own act of violence and promised never to use it on humanity again. The bow in the sky was said to represent the main war weapon of the day, but God has turned it over with the string down and the bow pointed up in a position that prevents it from being used against the earth. It is a sign declaring peace between God and his creation, rendered beautiful by superimposing nature’s spectrum over it. (Gen. 6-9)

The Death Penalty in The Old Testament

The Jewish scriptures indicate that the people of God have not always understood God’s will against punishment that kills. The discernment of God’s will evolved gradually and over centuries of time and experience. In fact, in the Hebrew law we still have recorded in scripture the death penalty is prescribed often, so often and for such an extraordinary range of behavior that it is clear that they were standards that cannot be applied today, much less can they be used as warrant for the death penalty today. Though many people still quote scripture in support of capital punishment, we are not likely to hear them do so in most of the cases enumerated in the Bible.

The death penalty is authorized for children who disobey their parents, strike their parents, or curse their parents. (Ex. 21:15,17; Leviticus 20:9; Deut. 21:18-21) It is to be imposed on adults who have sex during menstruation (Lev. 20:18), for owning an animal that kills people (Exodus 21:29), for giving false witness against a defendant in a death penalty trial (Deut. 18:18-21), for incest (Leviticus 20:10b – 12, 14) for adultery (Deut. 22:24, 25; Lev iticus 20:10), for a woman who marries and cannot show evidence of her virginity (Deut. 22:21), for bestiality (Ex. 22:19), for homosexual practice (Leviticus 20:13), for rape (Deut. 22:24. Note that both parties can be stoned if the woman does not cry out), for Sabbath-breaking (Ex. 31:14; Numbers 15:32-36), for child sacrifice (Leviticus 21:9), for witchcraft and sorcery (Ex. 22:18; Leviticus 20:27), for kidnapping (Ex. 21:16; Deut. 24:7), for a false claim to be a prophet (Deut. 13:5, 10), for a non-levite who enters the sacred place (Numbers 1:51; 3:10, 38; 18:7), and for blasphemy (Leviticus 24:15-16). (This was the accusation against Jesus, though it was necessary for Roman law to condemn him to death.)

Genesis 9:4-6 says that we shall not eat meat with any blood still in it, emphasizes that we are made in God’s own image and our life is sacred, and requires “a reckoning”: “…whoever sheds the blood of a human, by a human shall that person’s blood be shed.” This may simply be a realistic prediction that violence causes violence, as Jesus points out (Matthew 26:52). It is probably to be understood in its context “as a shrewd observation of what usually happens to killers.” (Lewis Smedes, Mere Morality: What God Expects From Ordinary People, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983, pp. 119-121.) Smedes shows the unworkability and violent extremes we would be led into if we took Genesis 9:6 out of context as a command to execute everyone who kills someone, regardless of motive, circumstance, or accident.

For example, this would have been a prohibition against military action in war, something we know was not prohibited in actuality. This passage simply is not a universal moral command for us and for all time. Others scholars argue that this passage belongs to sacral rules of worship which are no longer binding on anyone (sacrificing animals on an altar, Genesis 8:20-9:6), and was never intended as a moral command, anymore than the command not to eat meat with any blood in it is a moral command for us. (See Westerman, ibid, pp 463ff)

The reader with eyes of faith may perceive the developing scriptural prejudice against the death penalty in the exceptions it exposes, especially in the remarkable revealing of the murderous actions of some of the great Biblical heroes. Moses is seen in the act of murder, but instead of receiving the death sentence, he is chosen by God to deliver his people from slavery and become the great lawgiver. (Ex. 2:11ff.) David not only committed adultery with the beautiful Bathsheba, and while she was still having her period of menstruation, but he then had Bathsheba’s husband killed. Nathan the prophet confronted him, saying, “You have smitten Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and have taken his wife to be your wife.” David confessed, saying, “I have sinned against the Lord.” Nathan concluded: “The Lord has put away your sin; you shall not die.” (II Sam. 11-12).

Tamar admits she has committed adultery and incest with her father-in-law. Yet, she is allowed to live, and her adultery produces an ancestor of both David and Jesus (Gen. 38; Matthew 1:3; Luke 3:33). The book of Hosea offers as its primary theme the promise that God will forgive Israel in the same way the prophet constantly forgave his repeatedly adulterous wife and welcomed her back into their covenant relationship.

Reform: An Eye For An Eye

The Old Testament rule of retaliation – a life for a life, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth 24, 25;(Ex. 21: 24, 25) – was intended as a reform to limit vengeance, not to require it. Referred to as the “lex talonis”, this particular law was one of the first and great reform laws of the Old Testament era, established to constrain the vigilante work of clan revenge. Instead of allowing retaliation to be far more severe than what was suffered, up to Lamach’s “seventy times seven”, the law limited revenge to equal retribution.

The law of retaliation does not command action, but rather limits vengeance as a concession to a certain practice at a certain in history, a time that passed long ago. Furthermore, the rule of a life for a life and an eye for an eye were supplemented by rules defining acceptable substitutions. This legal reform was to steadily continue and to be elaborated down through the centuries of Jewish history so that by the time of Jesus most of these penalties could be absolved through payments of money. Today it is much more accurate to say that this ancient law states the civil law standards of financial liability for personal injury that still applies.

Old Covenant Reform Through Interpretation and Non-Application

The Mishnah is the record of the authoritative oral and judicial interpretation of the written law of the Torah by the Jewish religious leaders from about 200 B.C. to about 200 A.D. It made the death penalty almost impossible in actual application. Death penalty trials required twenty-three judges. The biblical law (Duet. 19:15) requiring at least two eye witnesses to the commission of the crime (no amount of circumstantial evidence could be sufficient) “prevents many cases from being brought to trial at all, since such crimes are seldom committed with so much publicity.”

The testimony of near relatives, of slaves, of women, or of people with a bad reputation is not admitted. If the judges find a witness testified falsely with malicious intent, the witness gets the death penalty that would have gone to the defendant. “It is clear that with such a procedure conviction in capital cases was next to impossible, and that this was the intention of the framers of the rules is equally plain.” (George Foot Moore, Judaism in the First Centuries of the Christian Era, (New York: Shocken Books, 1971 edition), vol. II, pp. 184-187. See also George Horowitz, The Spirit of Jewish Law (New York: Central Book Company, 1963), pp 165-170 and 176))

The Mishnah brands a court that executes one man in seven years as “ruinous” or “destructive”. In summarizing the teaching of authoritative Rabbis it mentions these conclusions: “Rabbi Eliezar ben Azariah says: ‘or one in even seventy years’. Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiba say: ‘Had we been in the Sanhedrin none would ever have been put to death’. Rabbi Simeon ben Gamaliel says: [for the Sanhedrin to put someone to death] ‘would have multiplied the shedders of blood in Israel’.” (Herbert Danby, trans., The Mishnah, (London: Oxford University Press, 1933), p. 403; Makkoth, 1.10)

In conclusion, the Hebrew scriptures prescribes the death penalty for an unworkably long list of (by today’s standards) unreasonable crimes and moral, sexual, and religious transgressions. Even then, the actual application of the law given in scripture made it almost impossible to enforce, and it was specifically not enforced, even though eyewitnesses were present and the perpetrator admitted the crime. The death penalty became increasingly rare in Judaism. One almost never hears of it in the Prophets and the Writings (the parts of the Old Testament written after the earliest law codes recorded in the first five books). The Mishnah frowns on it.

Modern Israel has never had capital punishment, which reveals the present-day Jewish understanding of the meaning of scripture and of the tradition. The American Jewish Congress declares, “…capital punishment degrades and brutalizes the society which practices it; and …the death penalty is cruel, unjust, and incompatible with the dignity and self respect of men.” (American Jewish Congress, “Statement on Capital Punishment,” adopted at the 66th Annual Meeting, May 6, 1972.)

Jesus

The New Testament may be understood as a continuation of the Biblical evolution against the death penalty, and ultimately it takes a definitive stance. Jesus himself ends the evolutionary development with statements that reverse earlier cultural, and even scriptural, assumptions.

Jesus was not in favor of putting people to death as a form of punishment. We know this intuitively and we know it based on the evidence in scripture. It is solid, if not absolutely unequivocal. The most striking thing to be noted in the gospels is the direct nature of his words on the subject. Jesus spoke against the death penalty by reversing certain earlier positions stated in the scriptures he observed and, according to his own claim, fulfilled.

An Eye For An Eye?

The most often quoted passage relative to the death penalty, even today, is the lex talonis of Leviticus 19:15ff. As was observed this was actually instituted as a reform, but when enacted it was seen as justifying the death penalty while limiting it to “an eye for an eye”. Jesus faced this passage of Old Testament scripture directly. (Matthew 5:38) He quoted it, noted that faithful people used it to justify their actions, and explicitly rejected it. He placed himself in favor of transforming initiatives that confront the offender and seek the reconciliation of repentance and forgiveness. His followers were taught to avoid vengeance or violence. “You have heard it said, ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, (emphasis mine) do not set yourself in violent or revengeful conduct against an evildoer.”

With these words Jesus carried out the final reform of the law on retaliation: he reduced its use to zero. If the phrase “a life for a life” can be seen in any way as a justification for capital punishment, then Jesus directly and clearly takes the opposite point of view; he opposes it. The Apostle Paul makes this clear in Romans 12:19, which most New Testament scholars believe refers to Jesus’ teaching against retaliation: “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”

Forgiveness and Mercy

Jesus especially emphasized the mercy of God and the value of human life: Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36). Not only should we not kill, but also even maintaining anger against one’s brother or sister, or insulting one of them, is liable to lead to judgment. “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment’. But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother of sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister you will be liable to the council.” Jesus commanded that we are to take the initiative in seeking peace with those toward whom we are angry. (Matthew 5:21ff)

“Forgive, and you will be forgiven.” (Luke 6:37) It is not enough, however, to contradict the practice of vengeance and the taking of human life as punishment indirectly. Jesus, ever alert to scripture, surely has Lamech’s Lament in mind as he formulates his precise response. He directly contradicts its sentiments when he replies to a question about forgiveness. He was asked how many times we are to forgive. Seven times? Jesus turns around the numbers and the rhetoric Lamech used in order to contradict and definitively set that attitude aside: “Not seven times, but seventy times seven.” (Matthew 18:22)

Shall the First Stone Be Cast?

There are several other indirect, if overwhelmingly powerful, ways that Jesus spoke and acted and was acted upon which inform us about the attitude of the man from Nazareth. For example, we may take the instance in which Jesus was confronted by the death penalty (John 8). The scribes and pharisees made a woman stand before him to be judged. They said, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. In the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?”

His opponents weren’t interested in finding out what Jesus thought about capital punishment. They confronted him with the use of a law they assumed he would oppose in the hopes that he would allow himself to be placed in opposition to the great leader Moses. Thus, they might be able to turn the faithful against him, or even bring charges against him; perhaps he will be the one to be stoned. Surely we share their assumption. The woman’s accusers knew enough about Jesus to expect that he would be opposed to killing her, even by legal execution.

We too know enough about Jesus to expect the same thing. We would be shocked if he had said, “Stone her. It is just to do so. It will deter other acts of adultery.” Our expectations are met, though those of his opponents are diverted, when he dismisses the question by challenging any person without sin to cast the first stone. We are told that when they heard this they simply disappeared one by one. Jesus then turned to the woman and challenged her to repent: “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”

Raymond E. Brown, he widely respected New Testament scholar praised the beauty of this story with, “…its succinct expression of the mercy of Jesus.” Brown concludes: “The delicate balance between the justice of Jesus in not condoning the sin and his mercy in forgiving the sinner is one of the great gospel lessons.” (Raymond E. Brown, S.S., The Gospel According to John (Garden City: Doubleday, 1966), vol. 1, pp. 336f)

Disobedience and wrongful action is not to be taken lightly, but mercy and the sacredness of human life requires us to avoid killing criminals. Jesus releases her from the death penalty but he admonishes her not to commit adultery again. Bishop Lowell Erdahl points out that the accusers “…were convicted of their own sins and accepted the fact that there is no justification for the vengeful execution of one sinner by another. If all Christians had followed their example, there would have been no blessing of capital punishment in Christian history.” (Lowell Erdahl, Pro-Life/Pro-Peace (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1986), p 114.)

Jesus does not just oppose the death penalty. He points to a new way, a way of healing and reconciliation, a way of transforming and creative confrontation which leads to forgiveness, a way of building up the offended party and the offender by eliciting the best of each.

The Execution of Jesus

Finally, Jesus confronted the death penalty in his own passion. He himself was the victim of capital punishment and duly executed by one of the finest legal systems ever constructed. William Stringfellow liked to point out that Jesus even was granted an appellate process, and then a pardon process. Nevertheless, the gospel accounts make clear that Jesus was falsely accused and unjustly condemned. (John 18:38, for example) Jesus knew his innocence and the unjust nature of his torture and death. Still he spoke the healing words of forgiveness from the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34) Jesus broke the cycle of violence. Not looking for revenge or harboring any ill will, he forgave those who killed him through the power of the state.

The cross on Christian Churches signifies not that we should advocate more crosses for others, but that we who are baptized into the death of Jesus have faith that we are raised with him to the new way of forgiveness and reconciliation, the life of resurrection.

Execution of the Innocent

Everyone agrees that it is wrong to kill innocent people, especially in the name of justice and with the curse of society. One of the realities about the system of capital punishment is that this will happen in a significant percentage of executions due to the inevitability of human error. The unavoidable reality of this evil stands out starkly in the crucifixion of Jesus. The gospels go to lengths to make it clear that Jesus was executed unjustly (for example, John 18:38).

We know that Roman law reserved crucifixion for slaves and rebels. They were tortured and then killed in full public view to terrorize other slaves and potential rebels, to coerce them into docility. Whatever else we may know about the situation we can be confident that Jesus was not a slave or a rebel. Yet, Jesus was put to death by the method of crucifixion, charged as an insurgent. Ironically, Barabbas, who was actually guilty of the crime, was freed in the place of Jesus. Christians who remember that their Lord was unjustly and cruelly given the death penalty must have a hard time being enthusiastic about imposing it on others, and especially because his experience forces us to be aware that some of his fellow victims will be innocent.

Testimony of the New Testament Evangelists

The New Testament describes many instances of the death penalty being threatened or imposed. Nowhere do the followers of Jesus advocate it. Every instance of the death penalty mentioned by the New Testament is clearly presented as an injustice: the beheading of John the Baptist (Matthew 14:9ff), the stoning of Stephen (Acts 7), the stoning of other Christians (Matthew 21:35 and 23:37; John 10:31f; Acts 14:5); the threatened death penalty for Paul (Acts 25:11, 25:25 and 26:31); the persecution of Christians in the Book of Revelation). Furthermore, in the letter to Philemon, Paul writes persuasively “to save the life of the escaped slave, Onesimus, who was liable to execution and without doubt would have been pronounced guilty under Roman law.

Misuse of the New Testament to As Warrant For the Death Penalty

Scripture, including the New Testament has been used as warrant for every wrongful practice in which Christians have been engaged at different times of history, including slavery and the oppression of women. This has been true of the death penalty as well, and any such fallacious misinterpretation is to be repudiated vigorously and with special urgency for our day. An example often employed is found in Romans 13: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities… For the authority does not bear the sword in vain…. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. Pay to all what is due them – taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due….”

The authoritative study of this passage was written by a team of well-known New Testament scholars in Germany, [Johannes Friedrich, Wolfgang Pohlmann, and Peter Stuhlmacker, “Zur Historischen Situation and Intention von Rom 13:1-7” Zeitschrift fur Theologie und Kirche (1976), pp. 131ff. See also John Howard Yoder, Politics of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976), p. 206.] They point out that Paul is urging his readers to pay the Roman taxes and not to participate in a rebellion against Nero’s new tax. An insurrection against taxes had recently occurred and had gotten Christians kicked out of Rome. Another one was brewing.

The Greek in Romans 13:4 translated “sword” (machairan) does not name the instrument used as a weapon or in the execution of a citizen (such as we may understand was eventually used on Paul). It names the symbol of authority carried by the police who accompanied tax collectors. Again, this was not a weapon to protect or coerce during the collection but as a symbol of the authority to collect. Paul was urging Christians to make peace, pay Nero’s new tax, and not rebel over it. He was not arguing for capital punishment. In large part, he was arguing against violence.

Another rather odd but not uncommonly employed example of the misuse of New Testament scripture to justify the death penalty can be seen in the conversation between Jesus and the Roman colonial government authority, Pontius Pilate. Pilate asserts that he has authority to crucify Jesus. Jesus answers, “You would have no authority over me, unless it had been given to you from above; for this reason he who delivered me up to you has the greater sin.” Pilate misses the point; he misses the whole topic. He thinks the conversation is about his ability to command legions and put people to death. The theme of ironic misunderstanding runs throughout the Gospel of John, and this passage is a good example. The only way anyone could imagine Jesus is engaging in a little discussion of whether God approves of capital punishment for himself suggests desperation to find a New Testament rationalization for a preconceived interest.

The Central Biblical Themes of Justice and Redemption

These discussions of specific scripture passages concerning (or not concerning) the death penalty should be understood in the overall context of fundamental themes that are central to the Bible and that are critically important to the death penalty in its actual practice.

One is the central emphasis on justice for the poor, the powerless, and the oppressed. This is emphasized from the Exodus of the oppressed Jews from Egypt through the redemption of the persecuted followers of the Lamb in the Book of Revelation. “You shall not afflict any widow or orphan. If you do afflict them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry and wrath will burn…. You shall not pervert the justice due to your poor in their suit. Keep far from a false charge, and do not slay the innocent and righteous, for I will not acquit the wicked” (Exodus 22:22f and 23:6f).

Walter Berns, in his book, arguing for capital punishment, admits that no affluent person ever has been given the death penalty in U.S. history. (Walter Berns, For Capital Punishment (New York: Basic Books, 1979), p. 33ff. It is imposed primarily on the poor who cannot afford extensive legal help. African-American murderers are given the death penalty much more often than Caucasian murderers, and the ratio soars if the victims are white. As in the Roman Empire, where the death penalty was reserved for slaves and rebels, so in the U.S. it is reserved for the poor and the person of color.

“Do not slay the innocent.” But errors are made; we kill the innocent. The death penalty is the one penalty that does not allow reinstatement after it is carried out. There is no reversal for error.

Central to the Biblical story is the emphasis on redemption, even of one’s enemies. “Which of you, having a hundred sheep, and having lost one of them, will not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost, until it is found?…There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” (Luke 15:4-7) The death penalty terminates the chance for repentance. “What hope is there for a dead man’s redemption or reformation?” [Henlee Barnette, Crucial Problems in Christian Perspective (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1970), p. 129]

Counterproductive

In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) Jesus did not simply oppose sin, such killing, hating, and lying. Jesus consistently emphasized a transforming initiative that could deliver us from the vicious cycle of violence or alienation.

Scientific studies consistently demonstrate that capital punishment does not reduce homicide rates and may increase them. They also reveal what does reduce crime, and homicide. [Dane Archer and Rosemary Gartner, Violence and Crime in Cross-national Perspective (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984), pp 64ff; 86,104,115, 136, 159; Ted Gurr, Why Men Rebel, which won the annual award of the American Political Science Association; Brian Forst, “The Deterrent Effect of Capital Punishment: A Cross-State Analysis of the 1960’s, Minnesota Law Review (May, 1977), pp743ff.]

We now know certain things work. Some of them are all too obvious, such as catching and convicting murders more promptly and efficiently. Others seem less obvious except to experts, like the effect the government can make by example in opposing killing: homicides increase when governments kill, make war, or spread guns. Homicides decrease when the government works to achieve equal-opportunity justice for those who are being denied rights and equality and when it lessens poverty. Government reduces crime most effectively when it works to prevent crime through efforts such as funding drug rehabilitation programs and effective education rather than relying so exclusively on punishment, which is after the fact. Culture is crucial to the rate of crime and homicide: a culture that opposes violence and which builds a sense of community and common purpose, such as neighborhood communities rather than depersonalized ghettos and cities, is a culture that lessens crime.

Many nations have remarkably fewer murders than the United States does, especially in proportion to the population. This includes every other industrialized democracy. Some cities and states within the nation have less than others. Comparisons are possible. Comparisons across time are also possible. Comparative studies suggest the actions such as enumerated above are in fact effective in decreasing our murder rate. That is where our emotions, our energies, and our resources should be directed.

This means that as long as people’s emotions are diverted into advocating capital punishment as the cure for murder, they are being led to neglect the initiatives that can make a difference. Misdirected emotion drives people into vengeful and diversionary destruction and away form constructive and effective action. As long as politicians can dismiss the whole issue of crime simply by saying that they are for capital punishment, they will ignore the hard decisions that must be made to have effective actions to prevent it.

One thing that does not work is the death penalty. It is, in fact, counterproductive. This can be seen on the face of the matter simply by looking at the states that have the highest crime rates and taking note that they are the ones that have the death penalty. Perhaps even more telling are the studies that demonstrate the direct effect of the death penalty on increased violence and crime. In the two months following an execution the number of homicides and related crimes of violence (including suicides), and the brutality with which they are committed, increases dramatically in the immediate area and increases significantly throughout the area where the execution is publicized. [Forst, Ibid. See also William Brouwer’s research, in Kenneth Haas and James Inciardi, eds., Challenging Capital Punishment: Legal and Social Science Approaches (Beverly Hills: Sage Publishing, 1988), pp. 49-90.

The constructive action that is effective in decreasing crime and homicides, as indicated by scientific studies, closely resembles the effective action advocated by biblical ethics: Take initiatives to change the culture from being pro-violence to one that is anti-violence (e.g. Romans 12:17-21; Isa. 60:17b-20). Invest yourselves in remedial justice and equal rights for the poor, the marginalized, and the outcasts (e.g. Isa. 61:1-4 and 8-11). Don’t seek a cure by shedding blood, but by compassionate justice for those who need it (e.g. Jer. 22:1-5 and 22:13-17). Punish criminals justly (e.g. Exodus 23:6ff; Isa. 5:22-23; Jer. 12:1). Seek the welfare of your city’s neighborhoods, not false escapes (Jer. 29:4-9). Persuade the government to take steps that make peace rather than war (e.g. Jer. 4:19ff; 6:13ff; 22:3-17; Luke 19:41ff).

The Rene Girard School of Thought

There seems to be a relatively new and growing school of thought not to be ignored today in an examination of the scriptural view of the death penalty. It is based on the work of the French scholar Rene Girard. Paul Dumouchel summed up the influence claimed by this new school: “Beginning from literary criticism and ending with a general theory of culture, through an explanation of the role of religion in primitive societies and a radical reinterpretation of Christianity, Rene Girard has completely modified the landscape in the social sciences. Ethnology, history of religion, philosophy, psychoanalysis, psychology and literary criticism are explicitly mobilized in this enterprise.” [Paul Dumouchel, ed. Violence and Truth, Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1988, p. 23]

Such a sweeping range of thought cannot be adequately summarized in this space, but for our purposes it is perhaps enough to understand that scapegoating violence, bestowed with sacred status, is at the heart of it. Cultures rely on human violence by mystifying it and attributing it to the gods. Thus religion endowed a certain form of physical might – as in acts of ritual sacrifice, punishment, and war — with metaphysical significance. Cultures can resort to socially tolerable forms of violence as an alternative to greater and more catastrophic violence. In the words of Caiaphas: “It is better that one man should die than the whole nation perish.”

When Jesus was put to death, something changed for the redemption of the human situation. “The logic of sacred violence is nowhere expressed more succinctly nor repudiated more completely than in the New Testament, where the high priest solemnly announces its benefits and the crucifixion straightaway reveals its arbitrariness and horror. The New Testament account of the crucifixion reproduces the myths and mechanisms of primitive religion only to explode them, reveal their perversities, and declare allegiance to the Victim of them.”

The gospel of Jesus, viewed directly though the cross, is the center of a struggle for a culture beyond violence. Despite what may have been happening to the church as an institution with highs and lows, times sometimes dark and sometimes glorious, the gospel itself has been winning its way into the consciousness and the conscience of the world. The ancient recipe for the way to use religion and violence has ceased to have its once reliable effects. Scapegoating and victimizing has been gradually shorn of religious mystification. Since the crucifixion of Jesus, human empathy has turned from the executioner/sacrificing priest toward the victim. The biblical empathy for victims is the moral force at the heart of an evolving standard of decency and morality. That increasingly established standard can no longer tolerate the use of death as a punishment for human beings, even in the name of their victims.

Conclusion

American Christians are now called to review what scripture has to say about a long-standing practice that the ecumenical church has already deemed wrongful. (American right wing fundamentalists stand alone as the singular exception.) There is no controversial issue about which all branches and denominations of the Christian Church, around the world, stand united in such strong and undisputed agreement than the use of capital punishment. The biblical witness is clear: the death penalty runs counter to all of the great themes and the clear aim of the Bible; God does not will it; Christians must end it.

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3 Responses to What does the Bible really say about the death penalty?

  1. Pingback: What does the Bible really say about the death ...

  2. Stephen Winham says:

    “Scripture, including the New Testament has been used as warrant for every wrongful practice in which Christians have been engaged at different times of history, including slavery and the oppression of women. ”

    That single statement from Reverend Doss’s treatise pretty much says it all about using the Bible to justify anything and, though he makes the most reasoned argument I’ve seen, those who use the Bible to justify the death penalty are not likely to be swayed by it.

    I have tried to prevail upon elected representatives with a secular version of every point he makes, concluding with the fact the death penalty costs taxpayers (so often cast as the victims rather than the beneficiaries of our government) an average of $2 million per sentence – enough to incarcerate somebody for 80 years at the federal bureau of prisons rate – and, one can easily argue a lifetime of incarceration is a greater punishment than death.

    This is one of the things our society does that makes no sense from any perspective.

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  3. Very good article. Thank you for sharing this with us.
    Yes, the Bible has been used by many religious people to justify so many things. And yet, as was pointed out, the “holy rollers” who are all for the death penalty do not want the entire Old Testament death penalties to be imposed. I really like the “he who is without sin, cast the first stone”.
    While I quit all organized religion over 50 years ago, at age 13, now 67, I still can see that there are some good ideas in their “good book”, but that applies to most every other “holy book” as well.
    One thing caught my attention though. The statement was made about the modern state of Israel not having the death penalty. OK, that is very nice of them. How then does that square with the long on going slow motion genocide that the modern state of Israel committing against the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank? It is a known fact that Gaza IS the worlds largest open air prison ever. Oh, but the state of Israel has no death penalty, no doubt that only applies to citizens of Israel who are NOT of Arab decent, nor to Jewish Africans.
    Yes, I am that cynical. Still, as stated above, thank you for sharing this, it does give even an old cynic like me pause for serious thought. And yes, I have seen much violence, I served in Vietnam with 5th Marine Regiment and have been in combat. War is just mass murder, would that the “thou shalt NOT kill (murder) have been applied totally across the board, then we might have a peaceful world with zero wars, in particular every damn fool war the US has been involved in since 1945, ALL of which, starting with Korea in 1950, have been wars of choice and none were any real threat to the USA at all. The same applies today and our current wars of choice. Our current wars generate more enemies for every death we cause today with our military and the vile drones. Killing by remote control, oh yes, so brave of us. That last was intended to be sarcastic by the way.

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