My mind has been taken up with the issue of the death penalty for the last little while. It has obviously come about as a result of the reports of the death by execution of the 3 “Bali Bombers.” The problem I have been having comes in two parts – what does my Christian faith say about it, and why did the Australian Government wait until after their execution to say that they will push for an international moratorium on the death penalty?
It’s quite obvious why they decided to wait. There were 88 Australians among the 202 killed in the bombings on the Kuta strip. Those that survived, and the families of those that were killed would naturally have wanted those responsible to suffer the same fate. This is a natural feeling to have, and a very biblical one. We read in Genesis “I created humans to be like me, and I will punish any animal or person that takes a human life. If an animal kills someone, that animal must die. And if a person takes the life of another, that person must be put to death.” (Genesis 9:5-6, CEV) One website that I read in relation to the Death Penalty said that this was God being so angry when a murder is committed, that we in his image feel the same anger. They described our reaction as “sound, healthy and normal, a reflection of the divine spark that is placed in mankind.”
And this is where my problems with the bible begin. As someone who has, for my entire life, been brought up in a society where the death penalty is not used, how can I deal with the numerous biblical passages that seemingly recommend the death penalty? As someone who is opposed to the use of the death penalty, how can I deal with these passages? In listening to a podcast about the Song of Soloman, I am reminded about the difficulties in “interpreting” the bible. Pastor Mark Driscoll, in talking about how some people interpret different passages of scripture in relation to sex differently said something along the lines of “isn’t it interesting how your interpretation ends up with your girlfriend naked?” Basically, if I am going to look at these scriptures, I need to be aware that I don’t interpret them to my own advantage. Not an easy task, as we often don’t like to challenge ourselves. But I’ll try.
There are many passages in the old testament that talk about where the death penalty. Exodus 21:23-25 introduces the “eye for an eye” concept, which would become the basis of “the Golden Rule” from Matthew 7:12. In reading this passage it surprised me (though a Christian my entire life, I haven’t read the bible as much as some others) that this also included Life for Life, down to Bruise for Bruise. Basically, this passage, as part of a judge’s work, meant that retribution could be enforced, but the offender had the security to know that their crime would not go over-punished. For example, they wouldn’t get killed for breaking a persons arm. Yet there were many criminal acts listed in the bible where the offenders were deemed as deserving of death. This included things ranging from Murder, Blasphemy against God, or abuse of parents, down to seemingly insignificant things such as Homosexuality and Contempt of court. The website I was reading said that not every country for every age should accept the death penalty for all of these crimes, but says that it gives the “divine sanctification” for the death penalty.
Jesus doesn’t talk about the death penalty often, but there is one in which he passively saves one woman from the death penalty. However, is this Jesus saying that the death penalty is wrong? That is the common translation, however, one reader points out that the pharisees were challenging him. If he were to agree with the law, and sentence this woman to death, he would be seen as cruel and heartless. If he were to say that she should be spared, then he would be advocating breaking the law. Both of these would break Jesus’ bond with the people. Instead, he performed a sort of “Theological Shimmy” in which he can seemingly support both camps. He says “Let whoever is without sin cast the first stone.” One by one, they leave, knowing that they have sinned. Once they have all left, Jesus says “Where is everyone? Isn’t there anyone left to accuse you?” to which she replies “No sir.” Jesus, who of course was the only one there who was without sin, says “I am not going to accuse you either. You may go now, but don’t sin any more.” He lets her live, knowing that he has pleased both the law, and God, but threatens her by saying “Don’t sin any more” as he knows the law says she should have been put to death.
This theme comes through the New Testament. Paul says in the book of Acts, “If I had done something deserving death, I wouldn’t ask to escape the death penalty.” Here he is saying as Christ implied in the story about the Adultering woman. As Christians, we are subject to God’s law. But that doesn’t make us above the law. We are not to be exampt from any laws because of our religious belief.
This is where I think I can tie it all together. As a Christian, who believes that Love is above all things, and that Love should be shown to every person, I cannot say that the Death Penalty is the appropriate thing in todays society. It is shown in the bible that it was seen as appropriate in that society, but the question is, is it appropriate in today’s society? I would believe not, as I don’t feel that it is the best way to sentence people who may still be innocent. However, as a Christian, I cannot go against the law, and would say that while I am glad to live in a country that does not have the death penalty, I cannot go and force other countries to change. Our societies have evolved at different paces, and the day may come where governments of places where the death penalty is still in place may decide that it is no longer wanted, and we should rejoice on that day. But until then, we live, we pray, and we follow the law of God and of man.
I would love to know what you think on this issue. It’s rather a deep one, but I would love to know your thoughts. Let me know in the comments, post your own blog linking back here (and I’ll add a link below), or vote in the poll below.