Tuesday, November 15, 2011

On the Death Penalty - to a Christian Audience

(I had to write this for my Christian Ethics class.  It had to be less than 500 words.  I concede that my non-Christian friends may think that parts of my reasoning are silly.  Just act like you are eating Thanksgiving with me and I am debating with Uncle Ted.)

Since Rick Perry became governor of Texas in December of 2000, 237 individuals have been put to death by the state judicial system.[1] Of the 46 individuals put to death by capital punishment in 2010 in the U.S., 17 were executed in Texas. Currently capital punishment is illegal in 16 states.[2] This is obviously a divisive issue. Should Christians be supportive of the death penalty? Let us begin with scripture.

Biblical support of capital punishment is prevalent in the O.T. In Genesis 9:6 God said, “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God He made Man.” Exodus 21 commands that capital punishment be used for the following offenses: if a person deliberately kills another (21:14), if a person attacks his/her father or mother (21:15), if a person kidnaps another (21:16), if a person curses his/her father or mother (21:17), if a person is fighting an kills a pregnant woman or her child (21:23), and if a person owns an aggressive bull but refuses to pen up the bull and the bull kills a person (21:29). 

Christian proponents of the death penalty often quote Genesis 9:6 and the parts of Exodus 21 that make sense. However, they conveniently leave out the verses in Exodus 21 like kidnapping, cursing one’s parents, and allowing an aggressive bull to be put in a situation where the bull kills a person. 

The most difficult task of a theologian is determining when a section of scripture is timeless truth and when the section is simply a specific message to a specific group of people at a specific time. Nobody who participates in these arguments sees Exodus 21 as a complete timeless truth, which means there are two camps. There are those who see Exodus 21 as completely written to a specific culture at a specific time and there are those who think that parts of it are timeless truths. All of this begs the question, who treats scripture with more respect? 

I would contend that those who argue in favor of the death penalty using Exodus 21 but who do not even mention the ridiculous verses are committing a lackadaisical and dangerous form exegetics. Why is it dangerous? Because they wholeheartedly embrace a principle based on half thought through biblical passages without thinking through the individuals influenced by the principles. The startling reality is, our judicial system does not only put to death guilty people. At times, people are put to death even though there is evidence that they are innocent. [3]   Moreover, only 5% of criminologists think that this form of punishment deters people from crime (a non-biblical argument for capital punishment). [4]  With such biblical uncertainty combined with the statistical uncertainty, should we not give people the benefit of the doubt and allow them more time to heal, grow, and surrender to the Lord Jesus Christ?

 [1] The Dallas Morning News, “ Prediction: Politics Will Be Hank Skinner’s Lifeline,” http://deathpenaltyblog.dallasnews.com/archives/2011/11/prediction-politics-will-be-ha.html (accessed November 7, 2011).
 [2]  The Death Penalty Information Center, “Facts About the Death Penalty, ” http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/documents/FactSheet.pdf (accessed November 7, 2011).
 [3] “Georgia Executes Troy Davis After His Last Plea Fails,” http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/44592285/ns/us_news-crime_and_courts/t/georgia-executes-troy-davis-after-his-last-pleas-fail/#.TsJtQ31Ng00 (accessed November 7, 2011).
 [4] The Death Penalty Information Center, “ Facts About the Death Penalty, ” http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/documents/FactSheet.pdf (accessed November 7, 2011).


Ashleigh said...

Such a hard topic! But well thought out.

Coby said...

hey there! I agree..it is a tough topic. Thanks for the kind words.

The Guy on the Couch said...

I enjoyed this article, Coby. I've never read the bible verses in question. I'll be sure to keep my bull penned up from now on! :D

I, too, think that we should do away with the death penalty. I believe that the vast majority of those executed deserve it, but our criminal justice system is clearly too flawed to be entrusted with life and death. Far too many innocent people get caught up in the machine.

Also, there is the question of precedent. As long as the death penalty is a widely available option, the potential will exist for abuse. Even if it were strictly used today to punish 100% proven murderers, what is to prevent its use one day against political dissidents? The same argument applies to torture.

Anyway, it's a difficult topic, on which reasonable people will disagree. I agree with your premise, by the way, about taking bible verses out of context.