Thursday, March 15, 2012

On What Grounds: Thoughts Regarding the Death Penalty

You are not big enough to accuse the whole age effectively, but let us say you are in dissent. You are in no position to issue commands, but you can speak words of hope. Shall this be the substance of your message? Be human in this most inhuman of ages; guard the image of man for it is the image of God. You agree? Good. Then go with my blessing. But I warn you, do not expect to make many friends...
--Thomas Merton, Raids on the Unspeakable

Fr Holtzbad Chapelle Saint-Ulrich Abel fresco

See page for author [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

On What Grounds: Thoughts Regarding the Death Penalty

Firstly, I must be clear that my position is very much influenced by my background. I come from a Protestant tradition, and although I may personally have disagreements with my tradition, it is nevertheless mine, and I am largely shaped by it's influences, good and bad, upon history.

I would venture to suggest, that, although there are manifold divisions within Protestantism, we agree on one thing, and that is that the authority of Scripture is greater than the authority of any human. And since we know that a book, even this Book, cannot act authoritatively, we acknowledge that the words of this Book imbue every believer with the authority to hear and to do, regardless of status, class, education, gender, nationality, or any physical state. To quote Martin Luther, who catapulted this movement on October 31, 1517, when he nailed his 95 challenges to absolute papal authority upon the door of the Castle Church in Wittenburg, Germany, "A simple layman armed with Scripture is greater than the mightiest Pope without it."

I will be the first to acknowledge the irony that the one thing we agree upon is also the very thing we fight and divide over. But we have chosen this freedom over an imposed unity, and hold out hope that the Spirit will bring our struggles to fruition, that unity to our Lord's divided Body will be restored through the transformation of ourselves from within.

And so it will be from this point of agreement, from the Scriptures themselves, that I will present my arguments.

The argument for the death penalty within dominant Protestant traditions, while differing in degree, rests on the assumption that God demands the life of everyone guilty of taking the life of a human. This originates from Genesis 9, when God brings Noah and his family onto dry ground after the great flood, and gives them the flesh of beasts, birds and fish to eat along with the green plants previously given at the original creation (Genesis 1:29). And then God says, But you must not eat meat that has its lifeblood still in it. And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting from every animal. And from each man, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of his fellow man." (9:4,5) This is followed by a poem, or saying. "Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man." (9:6)

I would like to point out a few things that I believe have been overlooked by the sterile interpretation that this is the Biblical mandate for using the death penalty within human society. First of all, this is not written as a commandment, but as a consequence. If we look back to the first murder, when Cain kills his brother Abel, God's punishment upon him was banishment. But when Cain complains that anyone who finds him will kill him, God replies, "Not so; if anyone kills Cain, he will suffer vengeance seven times over."(Genesis 4:15) God then places a protective mark on Cain so that no one would kill him. Perhaps, then, we can conclude that after the flood, God would no longer provide this protection. It was precisely because God grieved over the violence of humanity that the flood was sent, so this fits the story. God removes the restraint upon those seeking revenge for murder. What we see is a merciful God who is slow to anger, allowing humans to have their way until they go too far, and a gradual progression of constraints are implemented. Upon this continuum, then, we can easily place the Law of Moses, and later the condemnations of the prophets, finally resulting in exile for God's covenant people. But working along with this is the calling out of a people to be the vehicle of redemption for the whole world. It was all part of the plan playing out through the free actions of human wills.

Secondly, I would like to highlight that the context of the reason for God's stated consequence, that humans are made in God's image, male and female, is full of blood language. Abel's blood first cried out from the ground. Blood was so sacred that that of animals was not to be eaten. This dietary regulation was even recognized by the first Church in Jerusalem as the standard for all the Churches, including Gentile ones (Acts 15:21 and note that sexual immorality was also placed in this context, which relates as it also involves bodily fluid, reminders of human weakness and mortality). This connection shows how closely combined was the moral with the ceremonial in Biblical consciousness. Proponents of a modern theocracy based upon the Law of Moses often argue that Jesus fulfilled the ceremonial bit, but left the moral bit to remain as the standard for civil society. However, it is not at all clear that the two can be so easily separated. Throughout the Scriptures, both are intimately linked. And the form of the Law, received by Moses, contains no such divisions. I believe this division, therefore, must be recognized as an attempt to add to the Scriptures that which they do not say for themselves.

Maybe, then, the connection that animal blood and human bloodshed has to human image bearing, is that this image bearing was to be sacramental in nature. Humans were to be the sacred bridge between God and the rest of creation, the Incarnation of God's love and goodness and life toward the world. When humans kill each other, or exploit the nonhuman creation, this chain is broken, and the whole creation is subjected to brokenness and death. As we follow the story onward, in this progression, we see that as God closes in with more and more judgment upon humanity, the gulf of brokenness gets wider and wider. As the Apostle Paul writes, "The law was added so that the trespass might increase."(Romans 5:20) And "I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies." (Romans 8:18-23)

We can note that the Law of Moses had a particular role to play within the whole story of redemption, and this redemption is cosmic in proportion. The hope in the resurrection of the physical human body, for Paul, is the link that restores the glory of the image of God through humanity to the rest of creation. The way for this to be accomplished in us was opened by the faithfulness of Jesus, who was born under the law, was made human flesh and subject to its weakness, atoned for Israel's covenant breaking, took the death penalty upon himself, bore the curse of thorns, whose blood cries a better word than that of Abel, and whose body did not see decay. Every facet, every layer of the progression of sin, death, law and judgment has been fulfilled in the body of Jesus. And we are his Body. And the bread we break is his body, around which redeemed human society gathers as one.

As Christians, this is our entire being. It is an identity that comes from the other side of the river of baptism, beyond the violence of human killing, human law making, human nation building, human politics. We are his Body, and our calling is to reflect this divine image to the rest of creation. This is the ministry of reconciliation. To never stop offering forgiveness to the guilty, never stop laying down our lives to protect the victims of injustice. Bridging this gap is what the Incarnation is all about. This is where God is most perfectly imaged, that dreadful, dark limbo where justice meets mercy, where even angels fear to tread. The God who condemns sin is the God who forgives us, and raised Jesus from the dead. This is our God!

At the same time, we cannot expect those who do not have the Spirit, and the Law of God inscribed on their hearts, to not act out revenge when they have been wronged. But as we are instructed to honor and submit to their customs and institutions, we also seek to Incarnate Christ's reconciliation, suffering willingly for doing good, and living as sojourners in the world (I Peter 2:11-4:11, cf Romans 12, 13)) The end of all things is near, the forms of this world are passing away. But the beloved community of freed slaves is forever.

Thus, I oppose the death penalty not from the cursed ground from which Abel's blood cried out, but from the ground made clean by the sanctifying blood that speaks a better word, in hope beyond human possibility, that both victim and victimizer might be reconciled, and the world healed.


Rex said...

I've never heard of anyone using the logic you describe in support of the death penalty. You might be setting up a straw man here.

Sara said...

Perhaps it was only in the narrow religious circles I used to belong to. The Christian Dominionists/Theonomists are gaining political power in the US, though, and these base their political positions on OT laws.