Saturday, March 3, 2012

McKnight/ Yoder on the Death Penalty

I am still undecided on the biblical case in support of the death penalty. I think I lean towards situational cases in support of the death penalty, but I view this as a last resort if anything. 

Undecided is the easiest way to view this for now, I guess. 
Most humans conceive of the death penalty in legal terms. That is, whether one if “for” or “against” it, the argument is legal: it is just or it is unjust. Those Christians who are “for” it often contend that “life for a life” is just, while those who are against it, Christian or not, often argue that at least one reason against it is that we are not smart enough and infallible enough to take the life of another — better err on the side of mercy and caution that put to death an innocent person. 
Is the death penalty Christian? Would Jesus support the death penalty? 
John Howard Yoder, in a new book expertly edited by John Nugent, called The End of Sacrifice, contends that the death penalty in the Bible was not so much connected to justice as it was to sacrifice. Namely, a human was sacred since she or he was made in God’s image, and the whole “life for a life” was about expiation and not justice restored or balanced. 
Yoder then adds this point: if sacrifice has realized its end, namely, has found its completion in the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ, it therefore has come to an end. The cross of Christ as the completion of all atonement has meant that the sacred act of expiation is no longer needed. Thus, he sees a redemptive trend or a salvation-historical plot that brings to end death as expiation for murder. 
He argues other points:1. That the law, even Genesis 9:6′s “by man shall his blood be shed,” is to be read like Exodus 21:24-25 (law of retaliation’s limit) — that is, as putting the limit of punishment and not as a commandment to exact the death penalty. 
2. Within the pages of the Bible, and Jewish texts fill this out, most punishments were becoming fines and imprisonment and not death penalty. 
3. John 8, though disputed as a text in canon but not as an event in the life of Jesus, shows that Jesus posed the death penalty over against two issues over which the death penalty fell short: the more authority of the judge or executioner and the authority Jesus had to forgive. Thus, death penalty is put in the context of expiation and not penal judgment. 
4. Society has move increasingly away from the death penalty and has discerned an increasing number of mitigating factors, like insanity, etc.. We do not make these judgments infallibly; our criteria are not entirely justifiable; etc. In other words, development has led to reduction — why not go all the way and end sacrifice completely? 
5. Romans 13′s sword is not about death penalty but is the symbol of judicial authority. Jesus’ words in Matt 5 show that the lex talionis is put on an entirely different order. 
6. Following Jesus is what Christians do and they do this all the time, not just when they are being private or being Christians. 
7. If Jesus is Lord, truly, then he is Lord now over all and that means Christians are to live under his lordship and advocate for kingdom ethics, not “realistic” ethics. 
8. The theory of deterrence is useless; the death penalty does not deter violence. Those States with the death penalty have more murders; those without it have less. Countries without it have fewer than countries with it.
For the entire article -- McKnight and Yoder



  1. That last one, #8, I'm pretty sure is due to the sample used in the statistic... deterrence may not be true in different countries.

    Murder and rape (as well as other crimes) is rampant in South Africa, and the criminals know they can get away with it due to our jails running at far over 100% capacity.

    The death penalty is not just about justice, I agree - but justice is surely one of it's goals. People in my country will definitely think twice about murder and rape if the death penalty was still in effect.

    Also, the argument "better err on the side of mercy and caution that put to death an innocent person" has some radical logistical implications for my particular country. If we're to shelter murderers and rapists just because we want to be certain we don't kill an innocent person, we are feeding and sheltering countless individuals that are in fact, guilty.

    Fact of the matter is, innocent people being punished is an extremely rare case. We have numerous methods of determining a person's guilt (cross examination, forensics, polygraph testing...).

    Shall we now commit a bigger sin, spending tax money to protect and uphold the rights of criminals who themselves couldn't uphold the rights of those who they wronged?

    * We ran out of jail capacity almost 2 decades ago.
    * We can't keep up by building new jails.
    * Our country's resources are scarce enough (worsened by the corrupt and unjustified salaries being paid to the elite, at the expense of their own previously disadvantaged groups they seek to compensate for past injustices...) and we simply can't continue having a large portion of our national budget set aside for sheltering and feeding all these criminals - the injustice this causes against other law abiding citizens is too great.
    * We have unemployment nearing 50%, exceeding 80% in certain geographical areas
    * I believe strongly that your rights as a human should be reduced when you commit a criminal offense. The rights of law abiding citizens should be held in much, much higher regard than those of criminals.

    I try to think holistically, so I look at the Bible, as well as practical implications of subjects not necessarily explicitly mentioned or covered in the Bible, for the decisions I make.

    In South Africa, the pro's of the death penalty will surely outweigh the con's if applied to murderers and rapists.

    But again, that's just my humble opinion...

  2. I always love humble opinions. ;)

    It sounds like the entire structure itself cannot support the type of justice Yoder seeks. I personally am uncertain about the "deterrent" arguments as they tend to rely on situational statistics.

    My one question would be a more general and personal one -- does a government/nation sacrifice it's moral authority IF it condemns an innocent man to death?

    I'm inclined to think no, but I do think the implications of being wrong are incredibly damaging.

    Thanks for the post! Thoughts?


  3. yeah, statistics can be great, but they always depend on the sample(s) of the population being used.

    you'll have to elaborate again to illuminate my foreign mind: what do you mean by a government sacrificing their moral authority by condemning an innocent man to death?

    i'm going to give a preliminary answer based upon my current understanding of your question:

    No, it's not sacrificed. Humans are sinful by nature. Humans are not, and will never be perfect until we are one day, fully reconciled with our savior. We simply do the best we can in spite of our imperfections and biases, with the best knowledge and wisdom available to us as humans.

    I think it is therefore somewhat shallow to look at the mistakes of the justice system. It is no different in any other area of life, where humans make mistakes on a daily basis - in fact, I think a government/nation sacrifices it's moral authority by doing the opposite: not implementing the best possible means of justice that they have available to them (albeit not perfect, but imagine the alternative to employing the best we humanly can...)

    I'm going to end with a pretty radical statement that I've just come up with, just to test it's strength:

    The mistakes of a government/nation can not be justified (specifically referring to death penalty applied to an innocent individual), but it can certainly be softened by a passage from Paul's Epistle to the Romans: "we have all sinned, and fall short of the glory of God"

    My interpretation of that, in the light of the death penalty which we already deserve as sinners, is that it softens the mistakes of an imperfect government AND imperfect justice system, which seeks to serve it's imperfect people's needs, by employing an imperfect but best effort to keep and maintain the imperfect order of an imperfect society.

    like always, just my humble opinion. what's your thoughts?