Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Bible and Capital Punishment

A few years back, I was listening to a Christian radio station in my car when some pastor cited Romans 13:3-4 to show that capital punishment could be supported from the New Testament. He said “Paul could not have been any more clear.” When I got home, I pulled out my Bible to read it for myself:
For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do
you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and
he will commend you. For he is God's servant to do you good. But if you do
wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God's
servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.
I could not help but think that Paul could not have been much more obtuse if it was truly his intention to endorse the death penalty. Most Christians don’t seem to believe that Proverbs 13 requires them to use an actual rod to whack their children. Why should they believe that Romans 13 requires a literal sword and literal bloodshed rather than seeing the sword as merely symbolic of the state’s right to punish criminals?

Jehovah was very big on killing people who displeased him in the Old Testament, but it seems to me that Christians who want to use this to justify the death penalty have to do a lot of cherry picking. For example, the Old Testament prescribes the death penalty for blasphemy, adultery, homosexuality, witchcraft, and disrespect for parents. Moreover, it prescribes stoning and burning as appropriate methods of capital punishment. I don't really see how the Old Testament can be used to establish the inherent morality of the death penalty without also accepting that it establishes the crimes to which it should be applied and the methods by which it should be carried out.


  1. Cherry picking: I'm not sure whether it's a Christian art or a Christian sport. Whatever it is, they are certainly the world champs.

  2. Sez you, Chappy.

    I wouldn't necessarily say your tract proscribes CP, but I think it's saying the state is an instrument for exacting God's punishment. From the earliest OT stories, where God says, in not so many words, that those who take a life will be put to death by men, the moral is clear: Life is precious. To murder requires justice that only CP can provide.

    BTW, sparing the rod refers to the rod, or staff, used by the shepherd. He would use it to guide the lead animal toward the desired direction. It was never meant as withholding a beating, but withholding guidance. The fact is, for a long time, most Christians DID think it meant a whuppin'.

    Also, in one of my very first posts at my blog, I cut and pasted (before I learned how to link) a somewhat lengthy explanation for why some OT laws still apply and some don't. You read a lot of stuff. I hope that you would, unlike many with whom I debate, actually take some time to check it out. It eliminates the need for bringing up shellfish and killing one's kid for talkin' trash.

  3. What about Proverb 23:13-14? Withhold not correction from the child: for if thou beatest him with the rod, he shall not die. Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and shalt deliver his soul from hell. That does not sound like the gentle guidance of a shepherd to me.

    I have in fact read some of the theories used to distinguish laws that must still be obeyed from those that no longer need to be obeyed, but they always sound to me like rationalizations rather than reasons.

  4. Your Proverb offering is different from the "spare the rod" example most often used to justify corporal punishment. That is the one I was addressing. Your's, however, sounds more like a consideration that some cases require corporal punishment, but not that it should be taken as the only form of correction. If a kid needs a whuppin' it won't kill 'im, and it's better to whup 'im than to let him drift toward damnation. Sounds kinda like, "if all else fails".

    As for the Levitical laws, are you sure it is not YOU who is rationalizing? Go ahead and read what I posted, then see what you think. Not all explanations are good ones.

  5. MA,

    Throughout Proverbs, the author suggests beating various ne’er-do-wells with a rod. What makes you think that he is suggesting a different use of the rod in Chapter 13 then he suggests throughout the rest of the book?

  6. Vinny,

    Once again, my primary response was to the most commonly known, "Spare the rod..." Perhaps I'll go through Proverbs and see how and when the suggestion is used, but at the start, I didn't think we were talking about anything more than that one verse.

    However, that being said, though I've never felt the need to inflict more than a single swat on the ass in disciplining my kids, I don't hold that more agressive corporal punishment is child abuse generally speaking. Of course there's a line that shouldn't be crossed, but even the spankings I got as a kid fall within my parameters. No lasting marks were tattooed on my ass, no blood, bruises, etc. And no psychological damage (that I can tell). The bond between my old man and myself was a strong one despite his philosophy of child rearing, and likely because of it.

    That being said, it seems that you're pointing this out in Scripture validates my perspective. In other words, a whuppin' in and of itself isnt' necessarily non-Christian. Good to know.

  7. Once again, my primary response was to the most commonly known, "Spare the rod..." Perhaps I'll go through Proverbs and see how and when the suggestion is used, but at the start, I didn't think we were talking about anything more than that one verse.

    I am talking about the meaning of "spare the rod" in that verse. Doesn't proper interpretation require me to look at the verse in the context of the book in which it appears? Throughout the book of Proverbs, the author recommends that rods be used for beating people. I know that the 23rd Psalm has a lovely image of a rod that comforts, but that is not how Proverbs uses it.

    Personally, I don't think the occasional slap on the butt does a child any permanent harm either, but I am not going to take my guidance from a book that advocates beating a child with a big stick.

  8. Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord. That's all that capital punishment is - vengeance.

    Even in the most heinous cases - a serial murderer/rapist for example - nothing is actually gained by execution. Society is protected by incarcerating the criminal, and murdering him provides no additional protection.

    Our whole attitude toward criminal activity is un-Christian (assuming we are recognize Jesus as the arbiter of the faith rather than some "interpretation" of the entire bible). Jesus taught forgiveness, loving your enemies, giving them the cloak also, restricting stone casting to the sinless, etc.