No one can doubt that 2007 was ushered in with a torrent of big news. The death of former President Gerald Ford was certainly at the top of that list, and I look forward to writing soon regarding what we can learn from the late President's life. But perhaps one of the biggest news stories of 2006 came at the end of the year, when the world was informed that Saddam Hussein, the former dictator of Iraq, had been executed for crimes against humanity. Since his execution, the public has debated about everything from the war itself to the possible culpability of the United States in the very crimes of which Hussein was convicted. For the church, Hussein's execution proved to be an appropriate moment to re-engage in our internal debate concerning the Biblical validity of the death penalty.
Certainly, followers of Christ, in good conscience, stand on both sides of this debate. But Saddam's execution seemed to bring about a more pensive inquiry regarding whether capitol punishment is ever justified. Among others, Benjamin Cole indicated on his website that he was re-thinking his position on this issue, admitting that "For the past two years I have waged an internal debate about the political and societal benefit of capital punishment." This is a shocking statement, primarily due to the fact that a Texan is questioning the death penalty. That fact in and of itself should be headline news!
Despite appeals to many different texts in Scripture, a proper hermaneutical approach to this issue can only begin with Genesis 9, the first place in Scripture where the death penalty is both mentioned and (I believe) commended. A chief opponent of the death penalty, the late John Howard Yoder himself states that this text "is perhaps the most important text in the Bible on the subject of God's will concerning the death penalty."
Delving further into this text, this able and articulate Catholic theologian suggested that verse 6 is representative of the oral lore of the time, and as such, was never intended as a legislative document, but instead a descriptive statement of how things were in "primitive, ancient societies."
With due respect to Dr. Yoder, his approach here not only liberates "its original meaning from the deposit of interpretations which have already been laid over it by centuries of readers," but also liberates the verse rather efficiently from its historical and literary context. If one accepts the authority and reliability of the Old Testament account (as Yoder did), one would be forced to believe that there were no longer any ancient societies in existence at this time because they had all been destroyed in the previous worldwide deluge.
A proper contextual reading of this text understands its words to be confined to God's covenant with Noah, one of four covenants that are declared in the Old Testament to be "everlasting." Therefore, unlike the dietary and civil laws of the Mosaic covenant, which were fulfilled in Jesus Christ, God's covenant with Noah, along with His covenant with Abraham, David, and Jeremiah, is still in full force. Similarly, while under the covenant with Moses the death penalty was to be used for sorcery (Exodus 22:18), Idolatry (Leviticus 20:2), homosexuality (Leviticus 20:13), rape (Deuteronomy 22:23-27), and adultery (Deuteronomy 22:20-21), the covenant with Noah stipulates only one crime that is punishable by death: murder.
Whoever sheds man's blood, by man his blood shall be shed. (Genesis 9:6, NASB)
But the rationale is also given for this command:
For in the image of God He made man. (Genesis 9:6, NASB)
In short, the death penalty is to be used, not as a tool of revenge by any one individual, but by mankind as expressed in human government as a tool of justice to punish those who unjustly take the life of another human being. The importance of this principle is not tied to human life exclusively, but to the Image of God that is stamped upon each human life.
The death penalty is an action that speaks strongly and soberly to the image of God. Far from being a symbol of disrespect for life,iIt is a powerful statement of how valuable human life is to our Creator. It is so valuable, and the unjust taking of it so serious, that ones life could, and should, be taken from him if he dares violate the sixth commandment.
This principle is further strengthened by the witness of the New Testament. Both Romans 13:1-7 and I Peter 2:13-14 affirm that human government was instituted by God. Even Paul, in Acts 25:11, stated to Felix that if "I am guilty of doing anything deserving death, I do not refuse to die." While we have no comprehensive exposition of Paul's views regarding the death penalty, there is ample evidence in this verse alone to demonstrate the apostolic belief that some crimes are worthy of death.
Still, asking whether there is Biblical foundation for general governmental authority in administering the death penalty is different from asking whether our own government should have the authority to administer this punishment. What therefore, gives a government the authority to take the life of one of its citizens? The following are my best, and admittedly feeble reflections on the minimum requirements:
It must be Affirmed with True Authority. Any government that presumes the right to execute one of its own citizens must understand the basis for such a right. This understanding grows out of two things: a fundamental respect for human life, and a solid conviction about why executions are sometimes neccesary. While even President Bush has staked his belief in the death penalty on his belief that it is an effective "deterrent," the Scriptures make no mention of any such rationale. Capitol punishment is not for the purpose of "deterrence." It is for the purpose of making a powerful statement about the image of God. In that same spirit, it is diffucult, if not impossible for any government to make a bold statement about human life while simultaneously promoting a culture of death.
That said, it is difficult to see how a nation that murders over 1 million unborn children every year through abortion, and talks incessantly and exclusively about the pragmatic issues of capitol punishment without regard for its true purpose, could possibly presume the moral authority to execute one of its own.
It Must be Administered with Equity. Genesis 9:6 includes no exception clauses, no "degrees" of murder, and no appeals to gender, faith, or race. If you kill someone in cold blood, the punishment is death, period. Admittedly, the way in which the death penalty is meeted out in our present culture bears little if any resemblance to this model. Any casual observer of our legal system can easily see that often, the punishment for murder is less related to the crime, and more related to the color of one's skin, or the size of one's checkbook. Racially and economically-motivated justice is no justice at all!
Even faith-based exceptions must be dismissed if God's model of capitol punishment is to be followed. In 1998, Karla Faye Tucker was executed by lethal injection for the brutal 1983 stabbing of Jerry Lynn Dean and Deborah Thornton, much to the consternation of many well-known preachers, including Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. These two televangelists strongly opposed Tucker's execution solely on the grounds that she was gloriously saved in 1984. Indeed, unlike many "jailhouse conversions," Karla Faye's faith demonstrated itself consistently for the next 14 years, and from a spiritual perspective, she was a very different person from the depraved prostitute who committed the gruesome crime.
Regardless, while her debt to God was dealt with at Calvary, her debt to society remained. Zaccheus, who himself was born again in Luke 19, acknowledged a societal debt after his conversion. He did not claim that he was not the same person who defrauded people, and therefore should not be required to pay. Instead, his newfound faith compelled him to make things right with his fellow-man, just as the coming cross and resurrection would make things right with God.
Appeals to faith, discrimination against minorities, and the favoring of the wealthy all take place in our current system, and consequently leave our society without the moral fortitude to carry out an execution with equity.
It must be Observed with Sorrow. After the execution of Saddam Hussein, one commenter to a political blog asserted her joy at his death. "He is not even human to me, so his death doesn't bother me in the least."
But Saddam Hussein, while a cruel, mass-murdering dictator, was human! While his atrocities no doubt further marred the image God had stamped on his personhood from conception, the imago dei remained nonetheless. To execute murderers for their crimes is proper. But to refer to them as "less than human" or "worse than an animal" is not only to debase a fellow human being, but also to spit in the face of God Himself, in whose image each human was created.
Furthermore, the celebration, partying and applause that often accompanies executions should bring shame to any people. Executions should never be turned into events of celebration, but should instead be times of deep sorrow. It is a serious thing indeed that sin has so infiltrated our society that a man must sometimes be cut off in his sin. When a human life is unjustly taken by a murderer, believers, standing firm on the principles of God's Word which demand his death, should mourn with bitter tears the sinfulness of an action that can be societally rectified in no other way.
But regrettably, our nation is often the victim of both weak judicial rulings, and the heated emotions of a populace.
Our cultural dilemma, as I see it, is this: How can we stand for the death penalty, which God has clearly commanded in Scripture, and expect it to be done by a government that has repeatedly demonstrated itself as unqualified to administer it? Some suggest that because inequity and weak arguments permeate both the rationale for and administration of executions, that executions should be banned. The answer, however, is not to throw out what God has commanded as neccesary for the continuation of a civil society. Instead, the answer is to reform our system of justice, which itself is fast becoming a proponent of all that is uncivil.
When a convicted pedophille in Vermont receives only 60 days in jail as his punishment, it is apparrent that our justice system has lost its moral authority. In short, the misappropriation, abuse of, and misunderstanding of the death penalty is not an indictment on the clear teaching of Scripture. It is instead an indictment on our unclear, overcomplicated, easily-manipulated, morally relevant and always vascillating system of justice.
As a nation, we have long since lost the moral high ground. As such, we have a long way to go to become the kind of just society that can administer the death penalty as God intended. But the problem isn't the death penalty itself. The problem, ironic as it may sound, is an "unjust" system of justice, and when rightly administered, capitol punishment will bring punishment to the murderer, justice to the victims, civility to society, sorrow to humanity, and glory to the Creator of all life.