The Bible Says Death to Sinners: What Canst Thou Say?

April 13, 2012

Where are Quakers with the death penalty?

The death penalty is a good question to consider the week after we mark Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection.  Do we believe any human being should ever be executed, whatever the means: cross and nails, electric shock, guillotine, poison gas, or stoning?

The Old Testament prescribes the death penalty for a wide variety of misdeeds: murder, kidnap, rape, adultery, even false prophecy (Deuteronomy 13:5).

How about homosexual acts?  Yes, Leviticus 20:13 prescribes “if a man lies with a male as he lies with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination. They shall surely be put to death.” But Leviticus 20:9 prescribes “‘anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death. Because they have cursed their father or mother, their blood will be on their own head.”  If you take the one Leviticus text as the inerrant, unchanging instruction of God, don’t you have to take the other?

Jesus never urges that anyone be put to death, and sidesteps the question with the adulteress in John 8 (“let he who is without sin cast the first stone”).  But in Romans 13:1-7, Paul appears to sweepingly underwrite all the customary actions of governments, including, presumably, the death penalty.  “The powers that be are ordained by God.”

Certainly there is no straightforward Biblical edict against the death penalty.  Does that mean we should allow for its use even if only in rare circumstances?

For some evangelicals, the death penalty must be supported because the Bible supports it.  Says, for example, “we must remember that God has instituted capital punishment in His Word; therefore, it would be presumptuous of us to think that we could institute a higher standard. God has the highest standard of any being; He is perfect. This standard applies not only to us but to Himself. Therefore, He loves to an infinite degree, and He has mercy to an infinite degree. We also see that He has wrath to an infinite degree, and it is all maintained in a perfect balance. “  And “Christians should not fight against the government’s right to execute the perpetrators of the most evil of crimes.”

Acting on behalf of U.S. Quakers, the Friends Committee for National Legislation has been working for the abolition of the death penalty for many years. Said its statement of Legislative Policy in 1994:

“We seek the abolition of the death penalty because it denies the sacredness of human life and violates our belief in the human capacity for change. This irreversible penalty cannot be applied equitably and without error. Use of the death penalty by the state powerfully reinforces the idea that killing can be a proper way of responding to those who have wronged us. We do not believe that reinforcement of that idea can lead to healthier and safer communities.”

The question of the death penalty is back in the news because Connecticut, this week, will become the seventeenth state (and the fifth in five years) to abolish the death penalty.

I am an opponent of the death penalty, and for reasons that follow from my being a follower of Jesus.  I believe He came to teach us that “loving thy neighbor as thyself” calls for us to extend mercy to those who commit bad deeds, even very bad ones, and to believe that redemption is possible for everyone, even those who commit very bad deeds.

I draw that understanding from Scripture and from prayer, but I acknowledge that I cannot point to a single Bible text (a snippet) to support this conclusion.  Rather, I am carried along by a strong current I find in Jesus’s teaching as recorded in Scripture, a current that is reinforced in my efforts to hear God’s will in prayer and worship.

Indiana Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice says (in the section on Essential Truths) “The Holy Scriptures were given by inspiration of God and are the divinely authorized record of the doctrines which Christians are bound to accept, and of the moral principles which are to regulate their lives and actions. In them, as interpreted and unfolded by the Holy Spirit, is an ever fresh and unfailing source of spiritual truth for the proper guidance of life and practice.”

So on the question of the death penalty, how are we to read the guidance of Scripture as interpreted and unfolded by the Holy Spirit? Is it the clarity of Leviticus to which we adhere, or the mercy that Jesus teaches in proclaiming a New Covenant (Luke 22:20)?


About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
This entry was posted in Beliefs, Bible, Homosexuality and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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