By Alan Hadfield
With public and official opinion apparently beginning to swing back in favor of capital punishment, the subject is getting quite a bit of attention from all quarters. The letter to Guardian of Truth (8/2/84) implied questions many are asking, “Is capital punishment contrary to the will of God? What should be the Christian’s attitude?” Because it is so emotional an issue, it is often difficult to disregard our feelings and look at it dispassionately.
An Emotional Issue
One has only to see the demonstrations on TV newsreels, and hear the vehement outbursts that accompany every judicial execution, to realize that this is a highly emotional subject, and it is very easy for us to let that cloud our judgement. Everyone is entitled to his own thoughts and feelings–in fact, as human beings we cannot escape them–but of course, they count for nothing in establishing the truth. And it should be remembered, while thinking of the emotions involved, that there are many–especially the family and friends of victims–who feet equally strongly for capital punishment as others do against it. While we can all feel compassion for those who face execution, it is difficult not to feel revulsion at the sadistic brutality that so often marks the murder of children and old people, and to feel that such are among those of whom the Lord said, “they are worthy of death” (Rom. 1:32).
The approach used by opponents varies from emotional, to rational, to biblical. The death penalty is often equated with abortion as a murder; it is declared to be useless, because “it is not a deterrent;” it is condemned as a violation of individual human rights; it is derided as a barbaric relic of the past; one placard seen on a newsreel proclaimed it to be “cruel and unusual punishment” and therefore, presumably, unconstitutional; over and over we hear that it violates the Lord’s commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” and the New Testament emphasis on mercy and forgiveness.
The Need for Perspective
Let’s get some of these things into perspective. Firstly, it is not in the least equatable with abortion. Abortion is a personal action based on an individual decision, and takes the life of an innocent infant, and as such may be considered murder. Capital punishment is a judicial action, performed within the law by properly constituted authorities after the proper processes to determine guilt, and takes the life of one proved guilty. To term it murder is a gross misuse of the term.
It is claimed that it is not a deterrent, and statistics are produced to show that the death sentence does not lower the murder rate. That may or may not be so, but I would suggest that there is at least one person who is deterred from further murder by execution! And it cannot be denied that without the death sentence, many who are released go out and repeat their crime. Put yourself in the place of the person who has lost a loved one to a released murderer, knowing that the death sentence could have prevented it.
Neither is it “cruel and unusual punishment.” It does not involve torture, or sadism, or the prolongation of suffering. And even if it did, we could still only object to the manner of execution, not to the execution itself. Judicial execution in most countries today is swift, and shows considerably more mercy to the murderer than most murderers show toward their victims.
As to its being a violation of personal human rights, that is about as empty an argument as is possible to present. “Rights” are not inviolable–they can be forfeited, and are forfeited by all law-breakers. The “human rights” argument could be applied to any punishment for any crime, which is manifestly absurd.
“Thou Shalt Not Kill”
Those that put this on a biblical level usually quote God’s command, “Thou shalt not kill,” but in doing so ignore the purpose and subjects of the command. It is a fundamental error to confuse the responsibilities of the individual and of the State. The State can, and must, do many things that the individual may not do. That is why the judicial system, among others, is constituted in the first place. Individually exercised punishment of offences is unacceptable because it is too open to abuse, but the State must take that responsibility or perish.
At the same time that God, through Moses, gave the command “Thou shalt not kill,” He also listed numerous transgressions for which the penalty was to be death. It is not difficult to see how God could forbid the individual from taking a life, acting on his own judgment and exacting personal vengeance, and at the same time require the penalty of death to be imposed after correct judicial process, which would guard against punishing the innocent.
The brother who wrote to Guardian of Truth seemed to think it inconsistent that one should approve the death sentence, yet be unwilling to perform the execution. But that need not be so, I have on occasion had to “put down” sick or injured pets. While it was necessary, I did not enjoy doing it, and would not have done it if I could have found someone else to do it for me. In the case of legal execution, a Christian could approve the principle and leave its performance to one who was not a Christian, without being inconsistent.
The Christian And Capital Punishment
In the course of instructing Christians to be obedient to civil authorities (Rom. 13:1-7), Paul warns us that this is because they are God’s “ministers” to bring His wrath on evil-doers. In v. 4 he warns, “for he (the civil authority) beareth not the sword in vain.” It is significant that he uses the term “sword,” and not “scepter” or some equivalent symbol of authority. The sword is not merely an emblem of authority, but of execution.
In Genesis 9:5-6 God established the principle that the blood (life) of a murder Victim was to be paid for by the blood (life) of his murderer. Later, in giving the Law through Moses, he ordered that such a case be carefully examined, but where found guilty the culprit was to die, and he could not be ransomed (Num. 35:30-31; Ex. 21:12-14). No reprieve!
Vengeance is God’s, and always has been, so the individual may not impose his own vengeance. But in many instances God executes that vengeance through men, and those who perform the execution are not violating the command not to kill. The judicial sword is still borne with God’s approval.
But what of the commands to “forgive your enemies” and “turn the other cheek”? Certainly, the Christian is to be merciful and forgiving, rendering good for evil always (Matt. 5:38-30,44; Rom. 12:19; etc.). But that is for offences against himself! He cannot forgive sins against God, nor crimes against men. God requires those to be paid for, and has appointed the “powers that be” to “execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.” I believe it is properly argued that the Christian should have no active part in that work, but we cannot deny the proper authorities their right to it.
Guardian of Truth XXVIII: 18, pp. 563, 569
September 20, 1984