So then, there has been a little Internet dust up over the death penalty, involving The Atlantic, Al Mohler, Jonathan Merritt, and Rachel Held Evans. Why should I stay out of it? Not being able to answer that question adequately, here goes.
Before getting into the false dilemmas that regularly get posed on this question, let me begin by saying that all such discussions should assume, at a minimum, fair trials, just convictions, and competence in the executioners. Nothing I will argue below should be taken as a defense of killing innocent men, or of causing them to suffer a lingering and painful death. And in giving this disclaimer, I do not assume that our criminal justice is fine as is — far from it. I am simply pointing out that it is a separate discussion.
I am tempted to let it all go simply in order to enjoy — for a bit longer any way — the prospect of Merritt and Evans urging us all to a straightforward reading of the text of Scripture. If we let that go on, who knows what might happen? But duty still calls.
That said, on to the false choices that get served up to us. The first is between Jesus and the Old Testament, or between Jesus and Paul. How about between Jesus and Jesus?
So who would Jesus execute? How about someone who cursed his father or mother?
“And he said unto them, Full well ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your own tradition. For Moses said, Honour thy father and thy mother; and, Whoso curseth father or mother, let him die the death . . . Making the word of God of none effect through your tradition, which ye have delivered: and many such like things do ye” (Mark 7:9-10, 13)
This is ironic because people like to cite the Mosaic treatment of surly teenagers as one of the passages we should all be most embarrassed by, at least if we are followers of the Flower Child Messiah, when it is actually one of the Old Testament texts that the Lord Christ cited and defended, straight up. It turns out that if you are a red letter Christian, the Bible still gets embarrassing.
What about the refusal of Christ to let them throw rocks at the woman caught in adultery? Let us just say that the arraignment was suspicious. They caught her in “the very act” of adultery, which she somehow managed to do all by herself. Where was the man? The Old Testament law had no double standard here, unlike the scribes and Pharisees in this story. And because they refused to put the adulterous man on trial, Jesus put them on trial.
In the Old Testament, if a man suspected his wife of cheating, he would bring her down to the tabernacle for a trial by ordeal (Num. 5:11-31). Unlike a Monty Python witch trial, the unusual thing had to happen in order to secure a conviction. The priest would write the charge against her, take some of the dust from the tabernacle floor, and make her “drink” the charges against her. This ritual put her accusing husband on trial as well, because if she was acquitted, he could not divorce her. Two out of the three elements are here in this story — Jesus writes, and He writes in the dust of the floor of the Temple. He emphatically puts her accusers on trial, saying that the one who was innocent of sin — I believe He is referring to the sin in question, adultery — should cast the first stone. They all skulked away, the oldest lechers going first.
Jesus knew she was guilty because He told her to go and sin no more, but He also threw the case out because the rabble making up the judge and jury were fully as bad as anything we might find in the 9th Circuit. This case does not reflect on the death penalty. It reflects on the death penalty administered by lynch mobs via sham trials.
Just a quick note in conclusion on Romans 12-13. If you read through chapter 12, you will see Paul following the ethic of the Sermon on the Mount very closely. Bless those who persecute you, and so on (Rom. 12:14). He then says not to take vengeance, not because vengeance is wrong, but rather because vengeance belongs to the Lord (Rom. 12:19). Leave room, he says, for God’s wrath. Now recall that in the original book of Romans, we did not have a chapter break here, but moved naturally into Paul’s discussion of the civil authorities, armed with a sword, a lethal instrument. These men, Paul argues, were deacons of wrath (Rom. 13:4) — they are the ones we are to leave room for, back in the previous chapter. Don’t go home and get your gun, Paul says. We are not fans of vigilante justice. Leave room for God’s wrath. Call the cops. Call in the deacons of wrath.