8 Matt. 5: 43-45, “Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust” (King James Version). 5
This is acerbated in situations where the murderer is a hardened criminal with thoroughly ingrained patterns of violent behavior. Who aught we to love first? Who should we love most? It might be argued that, in contrast to others in our community, the murderer has voluntarily relinquished his claim to our love, and that therefore we ought to love him less and love others more, not abandoning our love for the murderer but rather prioritizing our love for the innocent and protecting them from him through the death penalty. But we must keep in mind that we could protect them through a life sentence without parole instead. We do not need to choose between loving one and loving the others when the lives of both can be spared. Counters to this small argument against the death penalty abound. It can be argued that the death penalty, when imposed on those who have committed murder, restores justice, that it saves taxpayer expenses, that it serves as a deterrent to others, and that it has biblical precedent. In this paper I am not at all concerned with the first three of these arguments, for here I am not trying to argue from the perspective of common good, but rather from the perspective of Christian ethics. Hence I will not entangle myself in the important but difficult debates over the comparative cost-effectiveness of the death penalty or its purported (and disputed) effectiveness as a deterrent. I direct our attention instead to the question of whether or not the death penalty is biblical. Most people are familiar with the principle of lex talionis (law of retaliation) enshrined in Genesis 9:6, “Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man.” 9 Many conservative Christians take this as a carte blanche endorsement of capital punishment. But unless we are willing to mandate that every single time one human kills another the life of the killer must also be sacrificed, a much more nuanced understanding of this text is required, for a woodenly literal reading of the text would result in absurdities. If a murderer is put to death, must the executioner also be put to death? And how about the 9 Genesis 9:6 (King James Version). 6
executioner of the executioner? Or how about the person who kills another in self-defense or to defend his family? There are a variety of situations in which an act that results in the death of one human at the hands of another should not result in the death of the latter.
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