Capital Punishment

I have recently been asked about my stance on capital punishment. This is not going to be as concise as some of my other posts have been, but I just want to state in clear terms what my beliefs are on the subject.

For starters, I am not against capital punishment on grounds of it being “cruel and unusual.” I do not find the death penalty to be either unusual or cruel in any way.

I am not even completely against the death penalty. I find it to be a Scriptural mandate. Afterall, in the Old Testament, God commands,

When men strive together and hit a pregnant woman, so that her children come out, but there is no harm, the one who hit her shall surely be fined, as the woman’s husband shall impose on him, and he shall pay as the judges determine. But if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe. (Exodus 21:22-25 ESV)

My problem with the death penalty stems from other matters entirely. For starters, there is Jesus’ commentary on the passage quoted above. Jesus states,

You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. (Matthew 5:38-39 ESV)

Those who claim that “eye for eye” justice is still in place today need to come to grips with what Jesus says here. The infamous command to “turn the other cheek” is in direct context with the command used in reference for the death penalty in the OT. Jesus’ hearers, particularly those of the pharisees, would have heard Jesus say, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” and would have, in their minds, finished the passage. “Capital punishment” would have been on their minds.

The claim cannot be made that “turn the other cheek” is metaphorical because, if that is the case, than so must be “eye for an eye.” The law was not a metaphor. The law was meated out on a regular basis. Were the people wrong to obey God’s command like He said it? No. They were being obedient. Then Jesus came along. He told everyone that, when someone hurts you, takes your stuff, kills someone that we should turn the other cheek. He commands us here not to resist the one who is evil. Jesus knew, as Martin Luther King Jr. knew and as Gandhi knew that violence in response to violence only begets more violence.

Stepping outside of Scripture, let’s look at consistency for a moment. Those who are most firmly for the death penalty are usually firmly against abortion. The argument goes something like this:

  1. All human life is sacred, therefore
  2. Abortion is wrong.
  3. The death penalty is ok, though, because
  4. when someone commits a crime worthy of it, they have forfeited the sacredness of their life.

Something seems very inconsistent about this.

If all human life is sacred, then, even the life of the mass murderer or the child molester is somehow sacred (afterall, didn’t Jesus die for them too?). I happen to think that being pro-life means much more than merely being anti-abortion. To quote one of my favorite singer/songwriters,

Are we defending life
When we just pick and choose
Lives acceptable to lose
And which ones to defend
– Derek Webb

It is a good question and one which we need to wrestle with.

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