CNN Belief Blog released an opinion piece by Al Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, in which he argued that Christians should support execution.
If you’re familiar with me, you know that I’m against violence of any sort. But one need not be an advocate for nonviolence in order to know that what Mohler has presented here is morally reprehensible at best.
Mohler is arguably the most powerful person within evangelicalism. That is why the evangelical response to this issue is of utmost importance. More important than our response to “the gay debate” or “the liberal agenda.” This is literally a life-and-death issue. And, unlike many petty issues touted as such, this is a gospel issue.
Here are four reasons why we should reject Mohler’s argument:
Mohler argues that morality in America is in decline. However, in terms of murder (which is what we are dealing with), this is patently false. A 2008 study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics shows that homicide rates were lower than they had been in four decades, and another study from 2011 shows that the rate has fallen by almost half since 1992.
Furthermore, he states matter-of-factly that the death penalty is a deterrent, and argues that Christians ought to support execution to prevent more homicides. However, many criminologists dispute the claim that execution effectively deters homicides. In fact, after reviewing the research for and against execution, this study in The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology concludes that most criminologists agree that execution has little to no deterrent effect.
Perhaps what makes Mohler’s argument most deceptive is his attempt to scapegoat those who oppose the death penalty.
He suggests that those who oppose the death penalty have “lost confidence in human dignity” and further argues, “the secularization of human identity has made murder a less heinous crime in the minds of many Americans.”
Quite a bold accusation against people who argue against execution on the basis that all human life is sacred (others, on the basis that execution is entirely ineffective).
He even goes so far as to blame execution opponents for the recently botched execution of an Oklahoma inmate. (I’m still scratching my head over that one.)
Mohler writes, “They have attacked every form of execution as ‘cruel and unusual punishment,’ even though the Constitution itself authorizes the death penalty.”
To which I say: Who cares?! The Kingdom of God is not dictated by the Constitution of a worldly empire. The Kingdom of God is led by Jesus.
Therein lies Mohler’s political genius.
He demonizes those of us who are against execution by suggesting we are somehow at fault for the “declining” state of morality, he sets us up as a scapegoat to rally support, and he uses fear tactics by suggesting there is an “attack” on the Constitutionally permitted act of execution.
These moves are, quite literally, textbook political campaigning.
Mohler confidently asserts, “the Bible clearly calls for capital punishment in the case of intentional murder” (emphasis mine). Though, as you can see here, it rarely works to say that the Bible is clear—especially on an issue as debated as this.
He appeals to Genesis 9 for his main support, noting that God told Noah, “Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed.” He also notes that in some places in Scripture, capital punishment is mandated.
This would be a valid argument if not for the fact that those mandates were under the Old Covenant and/or law code of the nation of Israel.
Jesus established a New Covenant and a new way to live for the church:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person…You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” (Mt 5:38, 43-45)
Speaking of Jesus, he is strangely missing from Mohler’s evaluation. Not a single reference to Jesus or the gospel. Though, I suppose that should come as no surprise to us, considering that everything Jesus said about treatment of enemies, and everything the gospel accomplishes would completely dismantle his argument.
Come to think of it, the New Testament is almost entirely absent save a remark about Romans 13 being permission for Christians to support government-sanctioned killing.
Yet, even here, one only needs to read the verses immediately preceding in order to see that Paul vehemently rejects Christian involvement in such retributive actions. He explicitly states that vengeance is the Lord’s—not ours. In fact, rather than reestablish the Lex Talionis (eye for an eye, etc.)–which is what Mohler’s suggests–Paul echoes Jesus almost word-for-word, urging us to love and care for our enemies.
To make matters confusing, Mohler admits that some of the most righteous men in the Bible (Moses, David, Paul, etc.) were murderers who were given second chances. Wouldn’t that be sufficient reason to oppose the death penalty?
According to Mohler, the death penalty is “the ultimate punishment for the most serious crimes.”
Yet, I assume he would agree that the most serious crime ever committed—the one of which we are all guilty—is the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. What crime is more serious than taking the Son of God, stripping him naked, beating him senseless, and nailing him to a cross?
And what verdict is issued by Jesus–the only one worthy to judge humanity–to the ones who committed this crime (i.e. you and me)?
“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Therein lies the grace of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.
The gospel is the wonderfully unfair proclamation that God extends forgiveness and favor to all people—even you and me; the one’s who willingly murdered the Son of God.
I, for one, am glad Jesus repealed the Lex Talionis; otherwise, I’d be the first on the executioners table.