What About the Death Penalty?

 

I just read a tremendously well-written article in the New Yorker about the subject–mostly about one specific case–and have to admit that a lot of my preconceptions about the death penalty were shaken.  Somehow in my protected little world, I have always blithely taken for granted that people on Death Row are either confessed killers or that there is absolutely no doubt about their guilt–that it has been established by an overwhelming body of evidence and eyewitnesses.  This article made me realize that there are many more people sentenced to death than I realized, and on less evidence.  It was a bit unsettling.  I know there have probably been thousands of people wrongfully executed for crimes they did not commit throughout history, but we like to think that is a thing of the past in modern day America.  Naturally, since our judicial system is far from omniscient and certainly not unbiased, that can’t be the case. 

(Stepping aside from my main point here, this article is also a fascinating discourse on the development of arson investigation.  If you’re into forensic science, you will want to read it.  The article is quite long, but it’s a very interesting story right to the end.)

As I said, it’s wonderfully written, and takes you through all the classic emotional stages of sympathy, doubt, anger, and frustration.  There’s a very good chance that an article could be written from the other viewpoint which would elicit the exact opposite reaction, of course, and since I am no expert, I would never try to make a judgment.  But it did remind me of a question that has tickled the back of my brain for years.

          Should a Christian support the death penalty? 

Under Old Testament law, obviously it was proper, but since Christians under the New Covenant are given grace, does that change things?  We still believe in the commandment “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” but we also know that if we are angry with someone, we are just as guilty as if we had committed murder.  (Matt 5:21-22)  Who of us has not at some time been really angry with someone?  And if so, in God’s eyes, didn’t Jesus say that we are guilty of their murder?   When we fully comprehend and accept that idea, does it make a difference on how we treat murderers? 

And does the premeditated execution of another human being, whether guilty or innocent, also fall under the jurisdiction of “Thou Shalt Not Kill” or not?  At what point is killing not killing, but only carrying out justice?  Are we given the authority as Christians to pass judgment on other people and carry out a death sentence?  If so, would it be right to personally carry out a death sentence on someone if you had seen him carry out the crime with your own eyes, but the court had failed to convict him? 

I realize that last question is shocking and many people will think it ridiculous, but why, really, is it any different?  If you KNOW without the shadow of a doubt that this person is a killer, and you believe that a killer should die (Ex. 21:12) then it’s a matter of obeying God’s laws rather than men’s laws.  But if you believe that a personal execution would be wrong, how then could you accept a court-mandated execution?  Sure, it’s carried out by a team of people so that no one person is guilty of the death, but it is still undeniably human beings causing the death of another human being. 

When Christ compared being angry with murder in the Sermon on the Mount, he was making the point that we are ALL guilty.  Obviously, He wasn’t advocating that we all put each other to death.  It just means we are all on Death Row and only He can grant us a pardon.  So where does that leave those who are guilty of literal physical murder? 

I have shuffled this through a lot of mental rooms over the years, and have never been quite sure how to approach it.

               What do you think?

 

                               *many thanks to my good friend who recommended this excellent article

 

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About dayuntoday

I'm a wonderer. I spend a lot of time mulling, pondering, and cogitating. This is just a place to park some of those thoughts.
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13 Responses to What About the Death Penalty?

  1. BooksForMe says:

    I don’t think the death penalty is wrong.  I support the death penalty as much as I support prison terms for other crimes.  If a person breaks the law, they should suffer the consequences.  And, for the record, I believe some child molesters should also receive the death penalty.  I think the Bible demonstrates that God is in favor of government and our submission to that government—even when that government isn’t in agreement with truth or justice.  I do think there are limits there, Daniel is one example.  However, Joseph is a very good example of submission.  A few months back an abortionist was murdered by a Christian vigilante and some Christians supported this criminal act, because the abortionist was doing something so very wrong.  I do not think we can ever justify committing sin for justice’s sake. I do not think the fulfillment of the law is a sin.  That is, the death penalty is not murder. Christ did not come to undo or replace the law, but to fulfill the law.  What was true in the OT is still true.  Valid.  Relevant.  Christ fulfilled it.  If we are in Christ, we have fulfilled it.  If we are not in Christ, we will be judged according to it.It’s sad and unfortunate that some people are wrongly accused and sentence to death, however, that is not the fault of the punishment.  If that is the reasoning for questioning the death penalty, we have a problem.  People are wrongly sentenced to jail time every single day.  Do we eliminate jail sentences, because some are falsely accused?  I will check out the article.  I may have a different opinion after I read it.  I doubt it.  LOL  I am profoundly sorry that California did not have the death penalty when Charles Manson was sentenced.  It makes me very grumpy that tax payers (myself included) have sustained his life all these many years.  Ick!  I mean, ICK!  He is an excellent argument for the death penalty, in my humble opinion.

  2. BooksForMe says:

    Very, very sad case.  (Very, very long article!)  Unreal what became of Gilbert.  Wow.  That was quite a story.  It sounds like a lot of good is coming out of it, though. Our system is broken, that’s for sure. 

  3. homefire says:

    @BooksForMe – I know what you mean–I can’t believe I read the whole thing!  But I had trouble stopping.  It was just such an amazing story. I feel the same way you do about supporting Charles Manson.  Of course, my vision of prison would be that they work hard and have no extra comforts and no entertainment except for productive and educational things, which would cut down the cost of incarceration quite a bit.  I wish I were as sure as you that the death penalty isn’t murder, but I just can’t quite get my mind around that.  Killing, to me, is just too black and white, and I can’t make it “not killing” no matter what I do.  As much as I appreciate the justice of it, I can’t quite bring myself to endorse it.  What about Vengeance is mine, I will repay, saith the Lord?  Oh, it’s just such a muddle to me!

  4. BooksForMe says:

    Of course, my vision of prison would be thatthey work hard and have no extra comforts and no entertainment exceptfor productive and educational things, which would cut down the cost ofincarceration quite a bit. This really isn’t true.  In most of the prisons we happen to know of, there are few extras allowed.  Yes, there are some places where men might get to have some extras, but they pay for them themselves.  So, what is so expensive?  Well, COs we know are driving very nice, new cars, some own more than one home.  They make a very good living.  Superintendents earn even more.  That only accounts for two positions in a prison.  When you consider the various counselors, educators, medical professionals, nutritionists, drivers, etc.—well, it’s pretty expensive to run a prison.  They make sure of it.  If keeping prisoners wasn’t so profitable, there wouldn’t be crowded prisons.  There are no comforts in the prisons I’ve gone to, or know about.  Entertainment at the Farm is a 27″ TV in the gym where men crowd around to try and hear.  They aren’t allowed music or books or fans or anything I call comforting.  And, this is just the Farm, a minimun security facility!  They must provide their own clothes and grooming supplies.  The food—well, I won’t get started on the food. Just imagine the worst food you would rather go hungry than eat.  I don’t know what prisons you are speaking of, but I’m sure all the men I know would like to be there!I understand the challenge of the death penalty, killing, etc.  So, how do you deal with war?   Do you find yourself leaning towards pacifism?

  5. homefire says:

    I’m actually glad to hear that about prisons.  I was sort of fishing, I confess, because I know you’re familiar with prisons, and I’m not.    I have read articles where they mention cable TV and such in prison, and I am vehemently opposed to anything like that.  I think they should have libraries of carefully screened books and NO tv, personally.  So you’re saying that the excessive amount of money to support a prisoner mostly ends up lining administrators’ pockets?  And what about the work aspect of it?  Do you agree that prisoners need to be working?  Are they?  Because, in raising boys, I think hard physical labor is one of the best ways to counter bad behavior, and I’m guessing that is true of grownups, too.  And it is certainly better for a person’s mental stability to have purposeful, productive work to do.War…I wondered if you would go there…I actually feel the same way about war.  I realize that many people see warfare as a completely separate issue, but I can’t.  I personally could never shoot an enemy, even if my country told me to.  I am a conscientious objector, and I’m thankful to live in a country that allows that.  I realize it’s not a very popular viewpoint, but it’s what I feel comfortable with in the light of Scripture.  Rather than a pacifist, though,  (who tend to proclaim their opposition to violence and take an activist stance) I call myself nonresistant, which I see as one who simply quietly refuses to engage in violence, as Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount.  Obviously, that includes a LOT more than not participating in war, and I know that I fail in being perfectly consistent on that.Wow, we’re getting into a lot of stuff here!    Thanks so much for responding, C!  Wish someone else would join the covnersation, too.  I’d really like to hear more views.  It’s always good for me to re-examine mine.

  6. anonytater says:

    @homefire – I wish I were as sure as you that the death penalty isn’t murder, but I just can’t quite get my mind around that.Romans 13:4  For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. Murder is unlawful killing.  Is the delegated capital punisher in this verse lawful in bearing the sword?   What are your thoughts on this verse?

  7. homefire says:

    @anonytater – I’ve never spent a lot of time studying this, but I’ll give you my off-the-cuff reaction to your question.  That passage is talking about rulers, legal authorities, who God puts in place.  It is not assuming in any way that those rulers are Christians.  They are simply the instruments that God uses to carry out his plan and sometimes his judgment.  For instance, Pharaoh was certainly not a man of God, but he was used to enact God’s desired end.  The things Pharaoh did were simply what he was led to do, in order that God’s plan might be carried out among his people.The modern day executioner is the same.  What he does is lawful under the laws of our country, so you could definitely make the case that he is being used of God, since God is the one who sets up rulers and powers.  However, it doesn’t automatically follow that the executioner could be a Christian.  You mention that murder is unlawful killing, which is true–murder is unlawful under our country’s laws.  The question here is whether “Thou shalt not kill” refers only to the concept of murder.  The Hebrew word used here doesn’t necessarily mean only intentional premeditated killing.   In fact, this is the same word which is used in Deut. 4:42, where it explicitly says that the killing was done unintentionally without malics.  On the other hand, where Cain killed Abel, which was definitely murder, a different word is used.  So it seems to me that there’s a pretty good case for saying that the sixth commandment refers to any killing of a person, no matter what the circumstances.Bearing that in mind, I would have to say that I do believe that God may possibly intend that murderers be put to death according to the laws of our country, BUT I don’t think that as a Christian I could carry out those sentences myself and be within the will of God.  Does that make sense?

  8. BooksForMe says:

    @homefire – I didn’t know you had replied.  Thanks for the head’s up in the message.  Most men in prison do not have work to do.  Work within the facility—hauling stuff in the warehouse, picking up trash on the highway, or shoveling snow, for instance, is a privilege.  Positions are limited.  At the minimum, pre-release facility men have a farm they tend and some men get to take a job outside in the real world. The prison system is NOT trying to reform men, retrain them, counsel them, or help them in any way to stop the behavior that got them into prison.  There are programs that sound like they are doing this, but like work opportunities they are privileges for the best.  The system is not motivated in any way to keep men from being in prison again.  After all, their being in prison is what keeps the system going, and paychecks coming.  The only people I know of in prison who are trying to bring change to men’s life are the men and women who serve as part of the chaplaincy.  And, as far as Doug is concerned, though he is the Chaplain, he isn’t paid.  So, he isn’t a part of the budget.  Nor are any of the volunteers.  In our county, only the two Catholic chaplains are on the payroll in our county.  I seriously doubt they earn more than $50K.  Or, even $40K.Of course, this has only been my experience in New England, which is limited.  There may be other prisons trying harder.  However, I seriously doubt it.  Not from what I hear and read.  A man’s only hope is that he have a good chaplain—and the good sense to take advantage of him.  In Essex County, the numbers of men who are taking advantage of Doug’s services is very small.  God help us as a society.  It really is horrible what we have created. 

  9. BooksForMe says:

    @homefire – Bearing that in mind, I would have to saythat I do believe that God may possibly intend that murderers be put todeath according to the laws of our country, BUT I don’t think that as aChristian I could carry out those sentences myself and be within the will of God.  It sounds as if you are saying that God would not allow one of His own to have the job of executioner.

  10. mamaglop says:

    I haven’t read the article yet, but this is something I’ve pondered.  Especially with genetic testing reversing the convictions of some convicts, it does suggest some may be wrongly excecuted.  However, I do believe the death penalty fits with Christianity.  Some say the death penalty means we do not place the proper value on life, but I think to require the ultimate penalty for some crimes is a way of placing a very high value on life.

  11. anonytater says:

    @homefire – That passage is talking about rulers, legalauthorities, who God puts in place.  It is not assuming in any way thatthose rulers are Christians.  I would agree that it is not neccesarily talking about Christians.  Could some of them be Christians though?For instance, Pharaoh was certainly not a man of God, but he was used to enact God’s desired end.  Yes and God uses his own to enact his desired end too.  Would it be fair to make all the ministers of God in the passage I qouted Pharaohs?The modern day executioner is the same. What he does is lawful under the laws of our country, so you coulddefinitely make the case that he is being used of God, since God is theone who sets up rulers and powers.  However, it doesn’t automaticallyfollow that the executioner could be a Christian.  True, and just because something is lawful under the laws of our country does not automatically mean that it is lawful in the eyes of God.  If capital punishment is lawful in the eyes of God why couldn’t one of his own carry it out?  Why couldn’t one of his “ministers” be a Christian?  The question here is whether “Thou shaltnot kill” refers only to the concept of murder.  The Hebrew word usedhere doesn’t necessarily mean only intentional premeditated killing.I tend to think that “Thou shalt not Kill” refers to killing someone unlawfully or unjustly.  True, the Hebrew word doesn’t necessarily mean intentional premeditated killing.  A lexicon will reveal that it has a range of meanings.  It means to murder, slay, or kill.  It can be premeditated or accidental.  It is translated murder three times and murderer  fourteen times in the KJV.  Most of the passages that use this word refer to unjust killing and that meaning is most likely the reason it is used in the sixth commandment.  So it seems to me that there’s a pretty good case for saying that the sixth commandment refers to any killing of a person, no matter what the circumstances.Even accidental killing?  You mentioned Deut 4:42.  Moses set apart three cities of refuge where anyone that killed someone accidentally could flee for safety.  If we are going to generalize the sixth commandment to include any killing, then those that Moses was providing for would be lawbreakers.  That doesn’t make sense to me.  Also if we generalize it would seem like God was violating his own commandment when he ordered the destruction of whole cities.  The best way we can know what the Hebrew word translated kill means in the sixth commandment is context.  I think the context makes a pretty solid case for it being unjust or unlawful killing, and that is supported by how the word is frequently used in other passages. 

  12. homefire says:

    @anonytater – “Even accidental killing?  You mentioned Deut 4:42.  Moses set apart three cities of refuge…  then those that Moses was providing for would be lawbreakers“Now that’s a very good point, and one I had never thought of or heard in connection with this before.  That would definitely be something to study, should I decide to dig into this deeper!  It almost seems as if this is a precursor to Jesus’s NT teachings, where he makes it clear that the intent of the heart is what is judged, rather than whether or not the murder is actually committed.  As for the ministers of God bit–minister means servant, so it just means that the person spoken of was an instrument used by God, whether willingly or unwillingly.  Again, there’s no reason to think that they were believers in God.@BooksForMe – It sounds as if you are saying that God would not allow one of His own to have the job of executioner.”  Yes, that’s pretty much what I think.

  13. BooksForMe says:

    @homefire – Well, I gotta say, that’s pretty fascinating. Very interesting.

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