Last post I presented what I consider the best case for capital punishment based on what the Scriptures say. Now, as fairly as I can, I’m going to present the other side and why I think they’re wrong.
People who are completely opposed to capital punishment (the abolitionists) tend to be “Red-Letter Christians.” This means that they tend to emphasize what Jesus says (the “red” portions) in the Gospels over what the rest of the Bible says. Their claim is that the church as a whole has tended to neglect what Jesus said over what Paul and Moses said. Jesus talked about helping “the least of these” and allegedly called upon Christians to give up their possessions in a more radical way (like here) than Paul did (like here), for example. The passages that pacifists and abolitionists tend to like are found in the Gospels, such as “turn the other cheek” and “love your enemies.”
Here’s the problem. I really believe that all Scripture is God-breathed, or inspired. This means that the words of Paul are no less authoritative than the words of Jesus himself. And if I can explain “their” passages” but they can’t explain mine, then that says something.
And in order for a society to function, we need a little more nuance than “turn the other cheek” in regards to government policy. There aren’t too many people who honestly believe that society could function if the police didn’t resist evil people. Judges, soldiers, police officers, FBI agents, etc., seem to fall under the Romans 13 motif that we examined before. God has put a sword in their hand in order to keep the public peace. If they don’t do that, then civilization will fall.
By the way, if the good guys don’t have weapons, then that doesn’t mean you have anarchy, at least not for very long. No, nature abhors a vacuum, so if regular law and order falls, then you’ll still have order. But instead of the rule of law--where the weak and defenseless are actually protected from the strong—you’d have rule by the strongest and any protection of the weak would be stripped away. That’s what God’s system under Romans 13 is supposed to prevent.
So we have to somehow reconcile the words of Jesus above with Romans 13 (and common sense). The way theologians have attempted this, and it’s the only way that makes sense to me, is to use something like a “sphere of responsibility” paradigm. It goes like this: Imagine three spheres, and they’re named “church,” “family,” and “state.” These are the three main institutions which God has created for us. These spheres touch in some ways and possibly overlap to a small degree, but for the most part they each have very distinct responsibilities.
It’s the responsibility of the family to raise children in the way of the Lord, for example, and it’s the first resort for benevolence when someone meets unfortunate circumstances, such as a job loss or a catastrophic illness. It’s the job of the church to provide comfort, evangelism, discipleship, church discipline, corporate worship, and (this is extremely important) benevolence to the poor when family isn't an option.
And it’s the job of the state to provide order and the rule of law and to protect the weak from the oppression of the powerful. And in order to do that, it must have a sword in its hand. And God has given it one.
That’s how we interpret Jesus’ commands and reconcile them with Paul. Our Lord was speaking to individuals in their personal relationships, not to soldiers or judges as they carried out their duties. If someone hurts you as an individual, then God commands you to forgive. But if you’re a police officer, when you point a gun at someone and tell them to put their hands against the wall, you’re not ordering them to do so as an individual. You’re a representative of the city government, and God has placed a sword in your hand for a reason: To protect those who can’t protect themselves and to uphold the rule of law.
Before we wrap this up, I’d like to address a passage they might use; in fact, I’ve had to wrestle with this one myself. John 8:1-11 tells us about the encounter between Jesus, the teachers of the law, and a woman caught in adultery. Let me say first off that I believe that this incident really happened and was written down by John, despite the problems concerning textual criticism about it. Someone might say “The woman was caught in the middle of committing a capital crime under the Mosaic Law, and Jesus called for her to be let go. How do you handle that?”
Well, there are lots of things to consider. First, God’s system has always had checks and balances and rule by law, not by mob. There’s no mention of a trial, not to mention the guy (this particular sin by definition has two participants), and this smells to high heaven of a setup for Jesus. They were obviously trying to set him up for humiliation and to lose some public credibility based on whichever answer he gave.
And my final response: “How do you handle it? I’m not calling for capital punishment for adultery, but let’s stipulate (for the sake of argument) that Jesus is calling for the abolition of capital punishment based on the principle that ‘If you’re guilty of X, then you can’t judge someone else in a court of law who’s accused of X.’ Actually, based on what you seem to be proposing, if I’m guilty of any sin, I can’t sit in a court and judge any person who accused of a crime. Is that what you’re proposing? Really?” There are a lot of interpretive difficulties with the story, but one thing I think we can rule out is that Jesus is calling for the abolition of all punishment in our legal system. Unless you’d like to present Jesus as opposed to Paul in Romans 13.
That’s what it all comes down to, at least to me. To the Red Letter siblings among us: I love you dearly, and I don’t question your sincerity or your devotion to Christ. I do question your interpretation of Scriptures, however, when you act as if Jesus’ words are somehow more inspired or more applicable to Christians than the words of Paul. They aren’t. I’ve explained how Jesus’ commands in the Gospels fit within my “system.” How exactly do Paul’s words fit into yours?