Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Capital Punishment

In just a few minutes, John Allen Muhammad, one of the two "D.C. Snipers" from the 2002 Virginia-Maryland killing spree, will be put to death by lethal injection. His ten-victim murder rampage was the hot topic at lunch today. One of the killing was just fifteen minutes north of Richmond, in Ashland, Virginia; and the killings ran up and down the I-95 corridor. My coworkers recalled how everyone was gripped with fear, refusing even to go out to get gasoline.

It's an eerie, unsettling thing for me to think about actually taking someone's life and what is involved in the whole process. Of course I have to wonder, Is taking Muhammad's life really the best way to make up for his crime? God perplexes me. Would not the One who creates life and upholds it value rather that the criminal live his life in a way that gives life back to those whom he hurt? This is, after all, the ethic of Zaccheus' repentance, and that of Paul as well (Luke 19:8; Ephesians 4:28). But what can a man give in return for ten lives--ten sons, daughters, husbands, wives, mothers, fathers?

Even today I think about what a life really is. This weekend two boys, one of whom was a student at my high school, died from injuries sustained in a house fire. Ashton Black and Aaron Brown were people with names, with histories, with stories. They were people looking for love and who loved others as well. Their loss leaves a real hole. Yesterday I saw it reduce some of the most hard-nosed kids to tears.

Nonetheless, the Lord of Life has apparently decreed that when a life is lost at another's hands, the only fitting recourse is the death of the murderer. When God blessed Noah and his kin and reissued the "creation mandate" after the Flood (in which God himself wiped out men's lives as a consequence for their wickedness), God told Noah this:

"And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each man, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of his fellow man.
"Whoever sheds the blood of man,

by man shall his blood be shed;
for in the image of God
has God made man." (Genesis 9:5-6)

God made mankind in his image, and anyone who willfully kills another commits a hate crime against God himself--a crime worthy of death. This was no civil law that was to be embodied for a passing time in the Torah. This was God's establishment of the creation order, of the rules by which man would live in this new post-Fall, post-Flood world. Some say that with this fiat, God established the State--official government--as one of his governing graces in his "left-hand" kingdom. And that seems to hold in the era of the Gospel as well. In Romans 13 Paul says that Christians must submit to all governing authorities, for they have been appointed by God.
"Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. For he is God's servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God's servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer." (Romans 13:2-4, emphases mine)

So when governing authorities, be they the Commonwealth of Virginia or, more likely, the State of Texas put a convicted killer to death, they're doing exactly what God has appointed them to do. But that's not to say that God condones zealous vigilantism. I can only imagine that the right spirit is a purposeful, tempered, somber and sorrowful one when a government must put a man to death.

Why is this God's choice? I don't know. Something about this makes God difficult for me. If he would at least wipe out all murderers and evildoers this way cart blanche, then perhaps I would then feel a bit more at rest knowing that all murderers and terrors are being snuffed out. But this life isn't that way. The tension of the psalmists' cries is the very tension of our own lives: "O God, why are you waiting so long to set things right? Your people are harrassed and put to death while the wicked get off Scott-free!" But he doesn't. And I know that he desires to uphold, preserve, and promote life in all its wholeness and fullness. I guess that's a tension I can only rest with for now until its secrets will be revealed in Glory.

Then again, maybe God has instituted capital punishment, a life for a life, precisely because he does value life. One life is being put down so that many others will be spared. As not only citizens of heaven but also citizens of the earth, removing a murderer really is a necessary act of love for our neighbors and fellowmen. (I believe this was the logic of the murder attempt on Adolf Hitler linked to Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church.) And we all ought to be glad that's the way God works. As Caiaphas prophesied on that fateful day in A.D. 30, "You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish" (John 11:50). Only on the day that criminal was put to death, it wasn't for sins he had committed, nor was it to save him from killing others. When Jesus was sentenced to death and nailed to a tree, he was dying for our sins; it was to save us from killing ourselves in this life and then to save us from being killed by God after that. And because "in our place condemned he stood," we are now free men. Thank God for capital punishment.

1 comment:

Ted M. Gossard said...

Good post, and very good ending.

I'll never forget the story of Jim Elliot (himself a Christian pacifist by the way, who filed as a "conscientious objector"). Nor the chapel in which the Auca who is now called "Grandpa" by the grandchildren of the ones he murdered. An amazing and wonderful account and demonstration of God's grace.

Capital punishment is just and according to Genesis 9:6 and from that it would seem to stand to this day. Jesus said those who take the sword will perish by it, not necessarily an exact correlation, yet points in that direction to me.

In the new Israel Jesus brings it's no longer an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, or even a life for a life I believe.

I can't put it together, and maybe for now the powers have to execute, and Christians do serve in the military and do shoot to kill (I wonder about the rightness of that, even for the many good Christians who accept "just war," etc.). But a light has dawned in Jesus, and while the church has co-opted with the world in this, in my view, it is a light which points the nations to a justice present that is higher. That by Christ's death makes capital punishment unnecessary.

Just thinking out loud, and through a most difficult issue. Thanks for your good thinking through this, and please forgive me for the length of my reply.