Joseph Rudolph Wood was executed last week. It took him over two hours to die because of the incompetence of the mechanism used to kill him, in this case lethal injection.
I put this up on Facebook, and it sparked a bit of a debate about the issue of capital punishment from a Christian perspective. So this post is a response to some of the issues raised on that thread. It’s not an attempt at an academic or exhaustive essay. But I hope that some people find it helpful in thinking through some of the issues associated with capital punishment.
Over the past week, I’ve just finished reading a book called ‘What Would Jesus Deconstruct?’ by John D. Caputo. It is definitely the case that people reading this blog will find much of what he says disagreeable, but I found it helpful for this discussion.
Thoughts on Capital Punishment
I’d first like to address some of the arguments I’ve heard from Christians for capital punishment. These range from the respectable – e.g. John Piper referencing the Noahic Covenant from Genesis – to the frankly quite absurd, occasionally bordering on insane, arguments given by Andrew Tallman at Christianity.com.
I think these arguments all fail because they are what I call ‘proof-texting arguments.’ That is, they pick individual verses out of various different contexts in the Bible and then use them to support a particular idea, in this case capital punishment. These kinds of discussions get nowhere for me because it is just as easy for someone to come along, and pick another verse from the Bible to contradict the first argument. For example, I think it’s very easy to quote Jesus himself as saying, ‘My Kingdom is not of this world. If it were my servants would have been fighting,’ or ‘Turn the other cheek,’ as arguments against capital punishment.
Also, it’s easy to argue tit-for-tat. ‘Paul approved of capital punishment’ is one aforementioned argument. Did he? Or did he just accept it as an inevitable part of his culture in the same way as he did with slavery? Paul didn’t say, ‘Free all the slaves,’ because it was inconceivable at his time that this would happen. Maybe the same logic applies with capital punishment. Paul, no doubt, would have approved the abolition of the slave trade. Maybe he would have approved of the repeal of the death penalty.
Another argument, vis-à-vis John Piper, is that the Noahic Covenant includes an institution of capital punishment. The same could be said of the Mosaic Law. It must be admitted that there are times in Scripture (in the Old Testament albeit) that Yahweh approved of, and sanctioned, capital punishment. But again (and to be fair to Piper, he would almost certainly concede this point) it is very unclear from a basic hermeneutic understanding of Scripture that you can willy-nilly apply the Noahic Covenant or the Mosaic Law to a 21st Century, Western democracy like the UK without going very badly wrong indeed.
These covenants were not given to us. They were given to Noah and the Jews in the Wilderness respectively. That’s not to say they don’t have good things to say. But it is not as simple as just applying them straight out of the page to our law courts, as anyone who has ever tried to eat shellfish will tell you.
What Would Jesus Do?
What does it mean to be a Christian? It simply means to be a Christ-follower. All Christ-followers agree that, whatever the Bible is about, difficult and sometimes strange book that it is, it is about Jesus. This is what Jesus taught the disciples on the Emmaus Road. And so, somehow, whatever we glean from the Bible must resemble him in some way. Otherwise I think we have simply misunderstood what we have read.
John Caputo uses the well-known phrase ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ as a springboard for his arguments. And it’s helped me to look beyond the fairly cheesy marketing of that phrase, and to actually think about that question seriously. What would Jesus do? Would he administer the fatal dose to the criminal? Or would he preach forgiveness and mercy? Would he gleefully exult on Facebook over the bombing of Palestine, as I have seen many Christians do over the past two weeks? Or would he weep in the streets over the death of the innocent?
As John Caputo writes, ‘We can use this question to put ourselves on the spot, to try to sensitize ourselves to the spirit of his life and teachings in the New Testament and then to employ as much good political, philosophical, and theological judgement as we can command in the present situation.’ P.96
I can’t develop this at length, but we know that Jesus was a man of peace, who preached a gospel of love, mercy, forgiveness and self-sacrifice. This self-sacrifice, at its heart, is non-violent. When his disciples sought to use violence, Christ stopped them every time. Every argument that a Christian uses in favour of capital punishment (barring the ridiculous arguments I referenced earlier from Andrew Tallman) comes from somewhere outside the ministry of Christ. There is no sensible argument from his ministry because his ministry is fundamentally a ministry of peace. And, therefore, to be consistent Christ-followers, Christians must fundamentally support a message of peace, which translates in almost every case to non-violence.
Writing on abortion, Caputo says, ‘Jesus was sharply critical of hypocrisy…In my view, it is hypocritical for Christians to oppose abortion while endorsing capital punishment and preemptive wars…The most consistent and sensible position in this regard is the “seamless garment” argument against violence of any stripe made by Cardinal Bernadine: the right to life spans the entire spectrum, and it includes not only fetuses but felons, not only friends but enemies, “from womb to tomb.” Christian witness requires a radical opposition to violence in all its forms and seeing the interconnectedness of such opposition.’ P.113-114
Caputo’s argument is much more nuanced than I’ve put here. But he says, in a nutshell, that you can’t just apply any law to any given situation because justice (which, in post-structuralist terms is the “event” itself) requires different laws at different times, and is always beyond law, so to speak. And so, Caputo says that, even though Jesus was a man of peace, that does not necessarily mean that all war or all capital punishment is wrong. For example, I find it quite reasonable to assume that, if the Second World War had not been fought then Nazis would have conquered Europe and killed all the Jews and goodness knows who else. In that sense it was almost certainly the right decision to fight against them and so, in a sense, the Second World War was justified.
But what Jesus’ ministry does mean is that these wars and killings must be approached with him in mind. They are always the lesser of two evils. They are always tragic, and never in line with the spirit of his life.
To apply this to our day and age (and this is the paragraph that actually matters), I personally can think of no good reason why capital punishment should happen in this country or in the USA. Neither country needs to execute criminals in order to keep other people safe or because they lack of resources. These criminals can be kept in jail for their whole lives without any need to execute them. The only reason that remains to execute criminals here or in the US seems to me to be a desire for vengeance, which, again, is not a very Christ-like principle, seeing as he prayed for the Father to forgive the ones who were crucifying him.
A final point, which may or may not be a good argument and may or may not be relevant. Most people are viscerally disgusted or disturbed by the sight of an execution. You only have to watch a film like Krzysztof Kieślowski’s ‘A Short Film About Killing’ or Frank Darabont’s ‘The Green Mile’ to get some feeling of what it must be like to actually stand in a room with a man who is anticipating being fried in the electric chair, hung until he is dead, or even poisoned quietly. It just feels wrong. It feels pitiless and immeasurably cold-hearted. Every sinew of your being cries out for mercy. It is beyond the power of words to describe how awful it is even to watch a fictionalised account.
I might venture a guess that the reason it feels so wrong is because it is wrong. Christ would not approve of it, and neither should we.
Where would we be if God had poured out his righteous anger on us for our sins? Hasn’t Christ charged us to preach a gospel of love, forgiveness and repentance? And how will they repent if they have been executed?
Thanks for reading as always. Comments welcomed.