Using the Bible to Talk about the Death Penalty

The past two weeks have generated a heightened discussion of the death penalty in America, largely as the result of the execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma on April 29.  Plenty of others have written about that event and about the death penalty in general.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, who devastates me with everything he writes, established the moral framework for the discussion here :

Albert Mohler, President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote “Why Christians Should Support the Death Penalty” here:

Shane Claiborne responded to Mohler, observing among other things that in a 1200 word essay, Mohler never mentioned Jesus:

Rachel Held Evans responded with a more direct attack on the “myth of redemptive violence” here:

Anthony Santoro, using the case of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev two weeks before the Lockett execution, proved one need not appeal to any one specific religious tradition to make a thoroughly convincing moral case against the death penalty.

I am happy to see Claiborne and Evans entering the discussion because it means large numbers of young adults will be thinking and talking about the death penalty in America, and I can hope they will do better with it than my generation has.  I want to take up one specific question here, prompted by their essays, regarding the use of the Bible in the discussion.  Can we use the Bible to talk the death penalty without creating a Hebrew Bible/Old Testament vs. New Testament dichotomy?

Christians who use the Bible to support use of the death penalty tend to quote passages from the Hebrew Scriptures, in part because it is so easy.  Genesis 9:6 and Exodus 21:12-17 could hardly be more clear, and they do not merely make the death penalty an option, but a legal and moral obligation.  This is where the Old Testament argument of death penalty supporters like Mohler falls apart.  If we are to follow such texts then the death penalty should not be “rightly and rarely applied.”  It should be common and frequent.

Christians who oppose the death penalty will tend to go to the teachings of Jesus like the “Antitheses” of the Sermon on the Mount, again, because it is so easy. Matthew 5:35-48 could not be more clear.  There is a reason why in the oft-cited, recent Barna poll only 5% of American Christians believe Jesus would support the death penalty.  They have read that text and they know Jesus himself became the object of the death penalty.

It is only a little more difficult to find texts in the Hebrew Scriptures to use in opposition to the death penalty.  In Genesis 4, God chose a punishment other than death for Cain, the first murderer.  The three greatest heroes in Israelite tradition were subject to the death penalty, but dodged it.  One could easily argue that Jacob’s deception of his father fell into the category of dishonoring for which the law prescribed death, and if Esau had succeeded in carrying out the death sentence he proclaimed in Genesis 27:41 there would have been no Israel.  If Pharaoh had succeeded in his attempt to use the death penalty on Moses in Exodus 2:15, then the Israelites might have had no deliverer.  When David was found guilty of murder, no human authority considered executing him, though God chose to execute his infant son instead in 2 Samuel 12:15.  There is a profound ambivalence about sin, guilt, and punishment at the core of the Torah in Exodus 34:6-7:

The LORD, the LORD,a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in        steadfast love and faithfulness,keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation,    forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting  the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children to the third and  fourth generation.

Who could read such a divine statement and be sure about anything? There is no other single text to which subsequent writers of the Hebrew Scriptures return more diligently to wrestle with its implications.  The prophets pull it apart, quoting portions of it as they struggle to understand the fate of Israel and Judah.  When Ezekiel dives into the depths of this debate, he emerges with a word from God in 18:32: “I have no pleasure in the death of anyone.”

Jesus did not begin the struggle to interpret and reinterpret the teachings of the Hebrew Scriptures on sin, guilt, and punishment.  He stands in midstream, along with many of his contemporaries, the rabbis quoted in the Mishnah, who engaged in the same debate and said similar things.    We avoid the Old Testament vs. New Testament dichotomy by honoring Jesus enough to put him in his context.


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