Capital Punishment, Part 5
Steve Robinson · August 20, 2009
Why does God allow imperfect and fallen human beings make life and death decisions? Have Christians permitted the atheists to define our doctrines? Who has a greater problem justifying being against the death penalty, the Christian or the atheist? What does iconography have to do with the death penalty? All this and more...
Last week we essentially looked at the historic Christian view of the relationship of the Church to the State in general. It is clear that both East and West see the state having its own realm of authority ordained by God and does not need the Church to validate or direct its operation in order for it to be an agent of God’s will for humanity. However, it is also clear that the Church is called to be leaven and there is no prohibition of the Church influencing the State’s decisions in matters moral and ethical.
So, I believe that a big part of the tension about capital punishment is that we have a muddled mix of our “personal convictions” or what we feel compelled to do in individual relationships and our understanding of how the State should function for the good of society. If we accept the essential separation of the gospel’s demands on the Church and the State, the issue boils down to these questions: Can I, as a Christian, personally participate in killing a human being? And, am I by default participating in it by not protesting the act through the political system? (And of course a larger question is, can a Christian keep his soul and participate in the political arena at all?)
At another level, if we accept that civil authority is God ordained and human beings are invested with the powers of life and death, we have to ask: How does an individual who is finite and imperfect whether a Christian or not, perfectly join justice and mercy within civil order? If an individual cannot accomplish that, how can society or systems of government do that when the offices are occupied by fallen, finite humans? If civil authority cannot be trusted to judge justly in every capital case, what is our responsibility as a Christian?
I’ll address the second question first, because it lays a foundation for our discussion of personal convictions. It is undeniable that human beings are neither personally nor collectively omniscient, but does that mean necessarily that we can only take a life if we can know everything that only God knows? If we accept that as a legitimate boundary against the use of the death penalty, then we have to ask, if God knew we could not know what only He knows, why then did He ordain civil authority for both believing and unbelieving pagan societies and give it the power to judge and punish evildoers by death? We might ask, “Is God concerned about the possibility of injustice due to human limitations and even human evil occupying authority?” And the real bottom line is, if someone dies unjustly under a flawed civil system, which is one of the primary arguments against the death penalty, is that an eternal issue?
I don’t think it’s an accident that the groundswell of anti-death penalty activism began predominantly in Europe on the heels of WW II and the experience of the gross abuse of power manifested in the Nazi regime, and in the context of post enlightenment Western Europe’s decline of faith. Avery Cardinal Dulles, a noted Roman Catholic Jesuit theologian, observes that without a belief in the afterlife, humanistic and utilitarian philosophy has essentially defined physical death as the ultimate evil and insult to human worth and dignity. (And this could easily segue into several discussions of the parallel rise of abortion, the utilitarianism of de facto eugenics, and the cult of youth, health and virtual immortality)…but regardless of the self contradictory manifestations of the humanist’s view of the value of the human being and death, it remains a fact that the decline of Christianity and a belief in eternal life, went hand in hand with the rising opposition to the death penalty in Europe by humanist activists. Cardinal Dulles notes in a 2001 article in “First Things”, that “many governments in Europe and elsewhere have eliminated the death penalty in the twentieth century, often against the protests of religious believers. While this change may be viewed as moral progress, it is probably due, in part, to the evaporation of the sense of sin, guilt, and retributive justice, all of which are essential to biblical religion and Catholic faith. The abolition of the death penalty in formerly Christian countries may owe more to secular humanism than to deeper penetration into the gospel.”
So, in the end, I believe that the issue has been largely framed for modern Christians by the atheists. Christians have accepted the Godless categories of secular humanists (and I use that term not pejoratively, but with exactitude) and their reframing of the death penalty as unjust, contrary to the dignity of the human being, and cruel and inhuman in the face of the biblical rationales for the validity of the use of the death penalty. It is clear from the Biblical witness that it can and should be applied even in the fallen order, it is applied precisely BECAUSE of the dignity of human life, and cannot be defined as “inhuman” because the creator of humanity, God Himself, not only commanded it but exacted it Himself.
So the root of the issue comes back to what we discussed in the second podcast: a definition of death. If death is the end of the human being then yes, it is to be avoided at any cost (or on the other hand, it can be dealt out without fear of any ultimate consequence beyond it.) But for the Christian, death, in the end, is NOT the final affront to the dignity of our humanity, it is the loss of our humanity in eternity separated from its true source and definition in God.
Thus, the philosophical waters of the death penalty get even muddier when we begin talking about “life”. The humanist will attempt to frame the definition of life and point up that it is inconsistent to believe in capital punishment and be “anti- abortion” or in other words, “pro life”. Some Christians have accepted the humanist’s philosophical definitions and would hold Christians to the false categorical equality of “Christian pro-life”, anti-abortion, and “anti-capital punishment”. This ignores several underlying qualifying assumptions of Christian theology regarding definitions of life, evil, guilt, innocence and justice. The taking of an innocent life through abortion or eugenics and the taking of the life of an evildoer are not categorically the same based on a right understanding of Genesis 9:6 in which God requires the life of the murderer because man is created in the image of God.
So, again, we cannot let the humanist define the categories of life and death for the Christian. Being “pro-life” because we believe the human being is created in the image of the “Living God” does not necessarily mean one must believe in the prolonging of the life of the evildoer any more than not believing in God and man in His image means someone should be de facto pro death penalty. As we mentioned, one can be anti capital punishment and an atheist and much of Western Europe is anti-capital punishment but pro abortion derived from secular humanistic philosophy. But it seems to me that the atheist has a harder time justifying being anti death penalty than the Christian. If one is a true materialistic atheist, the bottom line is that murder is merely one mechanically materialistically determined biological unit doing something driven by his chemicals to make another biological unit to cease functioning. “Justice” and “mercy” are merely chemically determined brain constructs that ultimately have no objective teleological meaning or purpose. One cannot even say they are utilitarian or the marks of an enlightened society because then that would become a metaphysical statement requiring an objective standard for defining what is or is not enlightened or morally and ethically progressive. In the grandest scheme of deterministic materialistic atheism, murder doesn’t matter and neither does murdering the murderer. Any meaning attached to any of it (or to anything or everything for that matter) is a personal fantasy created by my chemicals in MY head. But if we take even a small philosophical step out of the boundaries of materialistic determinism and into the realm of “something more”, then we are forced to define what that “something more” is, where it comes from outside the material order, and what it does. Is it malevolent, disinterested, engaging, controlling, mad (in both senses of the word), or in love with us? In other words, we have whole ‘nother thing going on here.
To the Christian, because we believe that the “Whole ‘Nother Thing” is a personal God who is indeed in love with us, ultimately retributive justice is about love, even under the Mosaic Law which demanded capital punishment. At the root of it, because we believe in objective love, the killer is killed because more than mere biology has been violated, something more than just a mass of chemicals has ceased to function, and our reaction to that is more than just vague evolutionary sentimentality and another mass of chemical interactions in my head. Objective love has been violated. At the core of our existence because we are created in the image of God who is love, we know that if we have no love, we have no life. Whether we affirm a Judeo-Christian theology and ethic or not, we must still must come to terms with the innate human notion of “Society”. Even a secular humanistic definition attempts to define society by love in some way. What is society? ...an amalgam of beings that economically join together in a community mutually respecting and affirming life for the wellbeing of all: which is really a dim definition of “love” at a primeaval level. This is what makes murder and other heinous crimes inhuman even within a humanistic framework: The killer exhibits no love and kills someone who is loved by someone else thus not just violating the individual but also the community.
From a Christian theological perspective that community includes God. However, it is in the Orthodox theology of iconography that we have the fullness of the exact exposition of Genesis 9:6. It is on the basis of the Incarnation of God in Christ that we believe that the honor given to a material icon passes to the person whom the icon depicts. Materiality and the spiritual are not divorced. It is in, by and through the material that we ultimately honor the spiritual. God ultimately honors the image of Himself in man by becoming man. It this reality that Genesis 9:6 points us to: Murder is not merely the ending of a material existence. It is a sin against the entire man created in love by God in His image, thus, and this is the crux of the matter, the disregard for and destruction of the image passes to the one in whose image man is created: it is ultimately a rejection and desecration of God Himself. The murderer rejects the entirety of the order of the cosmos both external to himself and within himself. It is because of this that God ordains civil authority with the power to condemn and kill the ones who are so un-human and anti-social that they do not live according to their own created image in respect and honor for the love of God and the love of man in others. In short, the death penalty honors the image of God in both the perpetrator and the victim by holding the perpetrator responsible, AS A HUMAN BEING in the image of God, for his actions.
So now we go back to the original question, why does God allow fallen, finite human beings to make life and death decisions? When we are discussing the pragmatics of human justice, both the Christian and the atheist will acknowledge that the world is not just. (And just to let the listeners know, I am very aware of the research regarding the wrongfully convicted and executed, the racial and poverty issues surrounding the justice system, but more on that later.)
That said, I don’t believe we can interpret scripture according to a hermeneutic based on statistics of injustice. We cannot say, “the death penalty is categorically wrong” because of travesties of justice. We CAN say, “a particular person was unjustly executed”. Those are two different issues for the Christian. So, what we are discussing at this point is the scriptural validity of the death penalty in the fallen world, not specific cases of injustice and how the Christian can or should respond to human failure within a particular civil order. (More on that later too.)
So no one has any illusions about the perfection of our justice systems in this world, including God. Why did God command the human race to execute evildoers? Because, like us, God has no illusions of either the human potential for evil nor of the possibility of humanity to achieve a perfect justice system. The fallen human condition is bent toward sin and virtue is an uphill struggle. Unrestrained, and dare I say, unpunished, evil generally results in greater evil. While we affirm the image of God in the human being is never lost, it seems God is more realistic than most humans about how deeply that image can be buried in evil, and as St. Thomas Aquinas noted, how that leaven can influence society. Hence God requires the death penalty. The corollary, that God has no illusions about the possibility for humans in the civil arena to rise to perfection either individually or corporately is important. No matter how meticulously crafted a system of justice is, even the American legal system that has 28 separate processes and steps and within them hundreds of procedures before an execution, it will never rise above human failure. There will be injustice, both purposeful or through negligence and ignorance. The hard fact of the matter is innocent people will die, both directly from evildoers and as a consequence of the limitations of humanity in this fallen order. The Christian world view includes the tragedy of random injustices and does not cringe from the possibility of it occurring due to human error for greater purpose of the curtailing of even greater evil and the stability and order of human society. In the end, both the atheist and Christian must come to terms with an imperfect world. Legal injustice is not the only affront to our sensibilities of “what is fair”. The world is full of “normal” injustices like being a victim of random human evil, natural calamities, poverty or handicap by virtue of birth, and tragic accidents visited on the undeserving or innocent. Civil injustice is merely another sorrowful reality of the fallen order. Within the civil realm, unlike the “natural realm”, there are avenues for righting purposeful injustice, which includes war, righteous civil disobedience, and the use of the civil order and the political structures of a particular governmental system. For the Christian, if all these things fail, there is a higher justice that will deal with the ones in authority who abuse the power or use it in an evil way.
The humanist on the other hand, because of his materialistic concept of death as finality, the Romantic philosophy of the upward evolution of humanity, and having no theology of a fall appeals to the necessity of the achievement of perfect human justice and construction of perfect restraint instead of exacting the death penalty. Christians on the other hand, because of our understanding of death and the consequences of the fall, should have a higher tolerance level for the fact the world will NEVER be perfect and human beings are fallible. Christians have no illusions that imperfect and even evil men occupy places of God ordained authority and they make life and death decisions for members of society. The best we can hope for is that those in authority are sober, humble and fearful of the great burden of the sword they are bearing. The fact of the matter is many are not. I read an estimate that in the 20th century over 160 million innocent people have been killed by despotic rulers or governments. The call to abolish the death penalty for justly tried and guilty evildoers is a separate issue, and the abolition of the death penalty would not keep despotic rulers from genocide or rule by terror. So the Christian call for justice notwithstanding, death, even an unjust death, is not the end of the story. The Cross of Christ, and the two crucified with Him, is a microcosm of the divine order. It is the ultimate witness that the power given from above is, in human hands, both just and unjust, but that gross injustice in the providential hand of God in a much grander scheme of the universe than we can imagine, is in the end redemptive in some way. It is with this understanding that the Saints could command us to submit to unchristian, imperfect and even unjust civil rule.