missing the point.

mjkimpan  —  May 1, 2014 — 6 Comments


just moments ago, i stumbled across an Op-Ed piece on CNN’s blog.

unsurprisingly, it was written about the recent controversial execution by lethal injection tuesday in oklahoma – a ‘botched execution’ that went so wrong that the same news agency wrote previously that ‘it will also prompt many Americans across the country to rethink the wisdom, and the morality, of capital punishment.

As it well should.

enter al mohler’s Op-Ed piece.

much to my dismay, the title of the article written by the widely respected president of the flagship school for the largest protestant denomination in our country (The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) with 16.2 million members was this ::

Why Christians should support the death penalty

how have we gotten the message of jesus so damned wrong?

one way i believe we might’ve taken a wrong turn or two in following the Way of jesus is by not heeding his own teachings and example. in the article, mohler quotes passages from the hebrew scriptures (genesis 9) and even dabbles a bit into the writings of paul (romans 13). but he curiously ignores the red letters of the gospels which could shed a little light on what a christian (i.e., a follower of jesus christ) should or should not support.

regarding retribution, jesus teaches ::

‘you’ve heard it said, ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ but I say to you…’ 

additionally, we do actually have an example of jesus being confronted by the religious leaders of his day – the teachers and scribes of the Law – in the middle of his sermon in the synagogue.

in the oh-so-well known and yet curiously ignored passage of the 8th chapter of john, jesus is faced with what the Law says that the woman caught in the act of adultery needs to be stoned and is guilty of death and yet he elevates the conversation to the point of saving her life.

in fact, as you look carefully at the text it becomes clear that jesus not only risked his reputation to save this woman of ill-repute, but also risked his very life in standing (or in this case, stooping) in solidarity with her while saying the now famous phrase,

‘you who is without sin, cast the first stone.’

in his very proximity to the woman who had been caught red-handed (so there was no room for doubt of her guilt) he put himself at risk to be killed as he stepped in to spare her life.

that’s what Jesus would do. we know this, because it’s what he did.

as others have written over at RLC, we live in a society where both literally and figuratively (read :: spiritually) everyone is a law-breaker. yet the misguided and misappropriated punishment of the death penalty continues and the debate rages on, as folks attempt to determine whether or not it is appropriate to take the life of another.

as mohler claims in his article,

‘Christian thinking about the death penalty must begin with the fact that the Bible envisions a society in which capital punishment for murder is sometimes necessary, but should be exceedingly rare…’

and later,

‘In a world of violence, the death penalty is understood as a necessary firewall against the spread of further deadly violence.’

finally, and in his concluding sentence, mohler writes,

‘God affirmed the death penalty for murder as he made his affirmation of human dignity clear to Noah. Our job is to make it clear to our neighbors.’

actually, on this one, mohler is terribly misguided.

how can I make such a strong statement?

because both al and i consider ourselves christ-followers, and jesus makes our job in regard to our neighbors clear – we are to love them. this is, in fact, what christ himself claims is the way to salvation and an abundant life.

we can do all sorts of theological and mental gymnastics in an attempt to reconcile the journey of the people of God as recorded in the scriptures with our rules and regulations as 21st century americans in regard to the death penalty.

but to claim a christian response without acknowledging the teachings of the One we claim to follow seems to me to be an adventure in missing the point.

what do you think?

  • I can just hear it now: “Because capital punishment is God’s command, the only way for a true Christian to love a murderer is to kill him. Grace, yes, but also obedience.”

    • i just can’t see how in light of jesus STOPPING the death penalty (let alone him later suffering its fate for the whole of humanity) one could argue that it’s not only *permissible* for a christian to support the death penalty, but *advisable* and even *necessary* as part of a responsible response to the gospel.

      i’m absolutely willing to listen to an argument that engages these texts and examples; unfortunately, they seem to be ignored by the proponents of those in support of executing criminals found to be more guilty than the rest of us.

      what the hell kind of good news is this?

  • Tom

    From the article by Mohler:

    “Christians should be outraged at the economic and racial injustice in how the death penalty is applied. While the law itself is not prejudiced, the application of the death penalty often is.

    There is very little chance that a wealthy white murderer will ever be executed. There is a far greater likelihood that a poor African-American murderer will face execution.

    Why? Because the rich can afford massively expensive legal defense teams that can exhaust the ability of the prosecution to get a death penalty sentence.

    This is an outrage, and no Christian can support such a disparity. As the Bible warns, the rich must not be able to buy justice on their own terms.”

    • in that point, tom, al and i are in agreement. where we part ways is that his conclusion seems to say, ‘welp! we’ll just have to work harder at killing the right people, and live with the risk that a few of the innocent ones are going to die along the way.’
      hardly a christ-centered or appropriate response to the very issues he lays out in your quote.

  • Joe

    Michael, you suggest that we should follow Jesus’ example of mercy to the woman caught in adultery. But in that example, the woman was not only spared execution, but (so far as we know) she was spared all punishment (i.e., she wasn’t imprisoned). But if, as you suggest, Jesus’ example of mercy means that Christians shouldn’t support the death-penalty, does it also mean that we shouldn’t support imprisonment?

    If not, then how can you say that Jesus’ example applies to ALL cases of capital punishment but NOT all cases of imprisonment? Is it not possible that Jesus’ actions were meant to be a general example of mercy and NOT a general statement of how to treat ALL capital offenders?

    • that’s an insightful contribution to the conversation, joe – and i think there’s an argument that can be made about john 8 specifically regarding a *general* rule of mercy (as you say) rather than a blanket dismissal of breaking the Law.

      that said, even with a loose interpretation of ‘general mercy’ one would be hard pressed to argue *for* the right to take the life of another human being as ‘merciful.’

      to muddy the waters further, jesus claims in his first sermon recorded in the gospels that he ‘this very day’ fulfills the prophecy from isaiah 61 :: ‘i have come to set the captives free’ which is problematic in regard to US christian’s overwhelming support of, for instance, the indefinite imprisonment of enemy combatants in places like guantanamo bay (or as sarah palin argued recently, torture as ‘baptism’).

      i suspect we’ve allowed self-protection, self survival and self sufficiency (along with an unhealthy nationalistic patriotism) to cloud our understanding of kingdom and citizenship.

      i lightly dabbled into this conversation in previous posts here http://www.mjkimpan.com/jesus-for-prez/ and here http://www.mjkimpan.com/murica/ – but that gets us a bit off topic. 😉

      consider :: if w as christians *were* truly obsessed not with sustaining the system or protecting the institution, but were instead consumed with taking our cues from the christ we claim to follow, would not the world look quite different?

      i suggest it would. it seems to me that christians arguing *for* the killing of others stands in direct contradiction to the things jesus taught and stood for…otherwise it’d be much easier to make a case from the gospels in favor of capital punishment.

      what do you think?