Science in Christian Perspective
CAPITAL PUNISHMENT Letters
Floyd Rawlings, David F. Siemens, Walter R. Hearn , Dwight E. Ericsson
Dwight Ericsson ... expressed my own feelings beautifully. I have never been able to picture the Lord Jesus Christ in the execution room or at the gallows giving his approval. As Mr. Ericsson so vividly points out, our entire prison system, with very few exceptions, is completely foreign to the spirit and teachings of Jesus Christ. A dead man can never be saved but a living sinner (aren't we all?) under restraint is always a potential child of God.Floyd Rawlings
Ericsson's paper in the Journal (Sep. 1962), is extremely interesting. He begins by a wonderful ad bomi nem device which attempts to equate what all Christians believe, namely, that our Lord and the writers of Scripture intended that they be taken seriously and that their writings mark a radical break with the past, with the particular view that he espouses, namely, that Jesus abolished the Old Testament law code. Has Ericsson never read: "Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill" (Mat. 5:17) and the succeeding verses? How this supports his view that Jesus came to abolish the law I do not see.
Again, Ericsson says that love can do no wrong, referring us to Mark 3:1-6. Unfortunately, it takes eisegesis to bring love into die picture, for the only emotions mentioned in the passage are anger and grief. As for the violation of a statute, the only statute which our Lord violated was one of the many devised by man, one of the type that Christ condemned for making the Law of God void. See Mark 7:13. Further, God is love, not has become love; yet He has repeatedly condemned men without opportunity for repentance, from Abiram's family and associates (Numbers 16:31-35) to Ananias and his wife (Acts 5:1-10).
Ericsson continues by trying to prove that man has no restraints in his relationship to God except his own conscience. But how can he overlook such passages as " . . . I command, yet not I, but the Lord . . ." (I Corinthians 7:10; see also I Thessalonians 4:11; 11 Thessalonians 3:4, 6, 10, 12; 1 Timothy 4:11) ? It is not especially useful to continue a point by point consideration of the Scriptural "evidence" collected to back up his views. It should already be obvious that Ericsson has taken a position and has made Scripture conform to his position, rather than the reverse. But a human procrusteanizing is always at fault,
Besides the faulty exegesis, Ericsson has failed to prove his point by being unaware of a difference between the act of an individual Christian, who is to forgive, to suffer wrong silently, to return good for evil; and the judicial act which is necessary for the welfare of society and the state. Let us imagine that the individual's rules were applied in dealing with criminals. The arresting officers could be expected to greet a robbery suspect with, "You got W in that holdup: here is another forty," for this applies Matthew 5:40 41 to the situation. And to the mutdair, the officer should say: "This is only your 437th corpse. We must forgive you 490 times," for this applies Matibew 18:2122.No, neither Ericsson's exegesis nor hi sis will stand up to critical scrutiny.
David F. Siemens, Jr.
Los Angeles, California
I have been reading with interest the discussion on capital punishinent by Pj&Lrd Buk Dwight Ericsson, and others in recent issues of this loomd. As an avid reader of JASA, I am pleased to see controversial issues being thrashed out in its pages in such a stimulating manner; no doubt many of us are tempted to join in the controversy merely because it is stimulating, in spite of the fact that we have done little reading or careful thinking in this field. This is a case in which the most helpful contribution I can make is to refrain from comment.
However, as Book Review Editor, I have recently received a pamphlet by John Howard Yoder entitled The Christian and Capital Punishment (Institute of Mennonite Studies, Series No. 1; Faith and Life Press, Newton, Kansas, 1961. 24 pp., paper, 50c) to which I would like to refer others interested in this problem. Yoder believes that Christians should work to abolish the death penalty and therefore sides with Ericsson. His arguments include those already brought into the discussion, such as the failure of the death penalty to serve as a real deterrent to serious crime and the fallibility of penal institutions, but I feel that his discussion of Christian morality within society introduces some new ideas and that his discussion of the significance of the Old Testament passages in question goes to greater depth.
Yoder points out that one of the indirect influences of Christianity on modern society has been progressive limitation of killing by the state (apart from the problem of war). Thus, "distinctions are now made between die insane and the legally responsible; between accidental manslaughter, self-defense, and premeditated murder. It has come to be recognized that all of society bears some of the blame for the situations of conflict, the temptations, and the weaknesses of personality which result in killing. Faced with this development, the friends of the 'moral order' theory of capital punishment must, it would seem, choose one of o answers: either they may stand by the claim that 'a life is a life,' rejecting all such considerations; or they must claim that there is one dear and sure way of calculating the exact degree of blameworthiness, so that what the moral order calls for by way of punishment is always definite and easy to agree upon. But in the latter case it must be admitted that today capital punishment in law and practice cannot be any nearer to this ideal moral order than its abolition would be, for no two states or nations are alike in the use and severity of punishment."
With reference to such Old Testament passages as Gen. 9:5-6, Yoder points out that the death penalty as stated there is not so much a requirement as a limitation. It is spoken against a background of a story of corruption in which vengeance was die general pattern, In Gen. 4:23 we read Lamech's vicious boast, "I have slain a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-seven fold." The Bible is realistic-vengeance does not have to be commanded; it happens. The hostility of man tends to make vengeance rise out of proportion to the offense. "Thus the significance of civil order is that it limits vengeance to a level equivalent to the offense. In this sense it is one way in which God's grace works against sin. The first murder recorded in Genesis was followed by an act of God protecting the murderer's life against those who could be expected to threaten him (Gen. 4:15)." The life-for-a-life rule is given for limitation of punishment and, furthermore, the authorization of killing in the Old Testament is always more from a sacrificial than a legal or moral point of view since, after all, the death penalty for oxen guilty of murder was also called for in Gen. 9:5. "Since then the death penalty in the Old Testament is expiation, rather than penalty, its antitype in the New Testament is not the sword of the magistrate, but the cross." Yoder's discussion of the pertinent New Testament passages, such as Romans 13, carries this idea further.
While this controversy has been going on in our journal, I was approached by a colleague requesting my signature on a petition to the governor of Iowa to commute the death sentence of a convicted murderer, circulated by "Iowans Against the Death Penalty." After thinking about both sides of the controversy and praying about my own convictions in the matter, I signed the petition.
Walter R. Hearn Ames, Iowa
1. 1 agree fully that the New Testament is "solidly rooted in Old Testament Judaism." Indeed, the New Testament is incomprehensible apart from the Old. Nevertheless, I am a Christian, not a Jew, and when the New Testament seems to take a different position than does the Old, then I must abandon the Old Covenant for the New. As is quite evident from Bube's article (JASA, 13:114-116, Dec. 1961), he who would defend capital punishment will find scant support for it in the New Testament and must base his argument almost exclusively on the negative proposition that a law given in the Old Testament has not been revoked by the New.
2. 1 can only place Mat. 5:38-39 and Lev. 24:19-20 side by side and ask the reader whether or not he can honestly find any other interpretation than that Jesus intended to repudiate the lex talionis:
4. The warning concerning the "predestinating influence of God" is well taken. I would inject the caution, however, that no man knows for certain what it is to which any given individual has been predestined by God. The man who ventures to apply an absolute punishment to one of his fellow men is under obligation to be absolutely certain that the punishment he applies is the one God intended, a condition, I would suggest, which it is impossible to fulfill.
5. 1 approach Bube's final point somewhat cautiously due to my own lack of background in this area, but perhaps I can offer some ideas which someone else might be able to develop more adequately than I can. What is the character of the difference between the functions of the individual and of the state? The New Testament often speaks of a judgment to come upon individuals, but never of a judgment to come upon states. The reason for this must be that the state is only the corporate expression of individual wills. When a state does good or evil, reward or punishment is measured out to the individuals who guided the state into good or evil, not to the state. The state does not even exist apart from the people who make it up, or at least apart from the people who guide its course.
I doubt if a state has any function which is not, at least in theory, the possession of every franchised citizen of that state. Note, for instance, that in a moment of extreme danger to life, our laws allow the individual the right to execute "capital punishment" upon an armed intruder in his house, although normally the state reserves such functions to itself. I cannot believe that the state is granted the privilege of doing things which are absolutely wrong for the individual, for the franchised individual is the state. The state only exercises certain of the individual's rights on his behalf. If capital punishment is absolutely wrong for the individual, then it cannot be right for the state just because the state is an impersonal body.Dwight E. Ericsson