Letter to the editor
Unparadoxical Capital Punishment
David F. Siemens, Jr., Ph.D.
2703 E. Kenwood St.
Mesa, AZ 85213-2384
From: PSCF 46 (December 1994): 286-287.
Hancock and Sharp fail to make relevant distinctions in "The Death Penalty and Christianity: A Conceptual Paradox" (Perspectives, 46:1, pp. 61-65). This failure, along with the suppression of relevant biblical passages, produces paradoxˇand worse.
When they say that the "Supreme Court has not ruled on whether the death penalty is right or wrong for society" (p. 61), they seem to assume that government should establish morality, though they deny this later (p. 64). The state can only determine what is legal. We hope that it will not try to force its citizens to acts they deem immoral. But this expectation is nowhere guaranteed. The United States has been sensitive to this, for example in providing noncombatant and alternative service for conscientious objectors. But no government can accede to the principle implicitly espoused by many minorities: Let my conscience be your guide. It seems to me that something like this underlies the authors' claim that "states have failed to address the moral issues" (p. 62). Do they tacitly hold that those who have not reached their conclusion have not considered the matter?
They approvingly cite a couple authors who think that executions promote social problems (p. 62). They are correct that the criminal mind is warped. See, for example, Tony Parker and Robert Allerton, The Courage of His Convictions (Norton, 1962). Some will, as noted, twist everything to support their actions. Others care nothing for consequences. However, the threat of penalties does have an effect on the majority of human beings. I recall one converted robber who said that, during his entire criminal career, he never loaded his gun for fear of the gas chamber. I think everyone has noted how much driving improves when a police car is present.
The authors might have noted the failure of deterrence when penalties are neither swift nor sure. In the first place, a judicial system ought to strive for truth and justice. Granted, this is never guaranteed when human beings are involved. Mistakes will sometimes be made even by the well-intentioned. But this cannot nullify the attempt. Second, the proverbial "justice delayed is justice denied" is accurate. In contrast to these principles, courts in the United States depend more on procedure and obfuscation, with endless appeals and reversals on technicalities. The best criminal defense lawyers are those who can turn their mastery of sophistry and legal technicalities into acquittals, reversals, reduced charges or lesser sentences. Justice and truth are often hard to find in the legal morass.
The authors misguide when they quote scripture (p. 63). The source of "Thou shalt not kill" (Exodus 20:13; Deuteronomy 5:17) also commands that mediums, blasphemers, murderers, idolaters, adulterers, homosexuals, rebellious sons, harlots and those engaged in human sacrifice be put to death (Exodus 21:12, 15-17; 22:18; Leviticus 19:20; 20:2, 10-13, 27; 24:10-17, 21; Numbers 35:16-21, 30f; Deuteronomy 13:5-11; 17:2-7; 21:18-21; 22:20-24; see also Exodus 21:29; 22:19; 31:14f; 35:2; Leviticus 20:9, 15f; Numbers 1:51; 3:10, 38; 15:32-36; 18:7). The authors' view forces one of two conclusions. Either God is too confused to give consistent commands, or some megalomaniac claimed divine authority for his contradictions. The truth is different. The Sixth Commandment prohibits murder, the unlawful taking of human life. There is no contradiction between forbidding murder and commanding that criminals be executed. A malefactor may legally forfeit his life. "Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed" (Genesis 9:6) seems reasonably clear.
If I deny the divine authority of scripture, I can join the critics in denouncing capital punishment as immoral. But, if God is the revealer of the Law, executions are moral, for He is the ultimate source of right and wrong. Do Hancock and Sharp know better than God? Or are they merely claiming greater moral insight than what they hold to be the purely human enactments of ancient Israel? Lying about the Sixth Commandment surely demonstrates their ethical superiority.
When they turn to the New Testament, they try to make what is commanded to the individual Christian the principle for secular government. I am ordered not to retaliate against one who would defraud me. Indeed, when one sues me for my suit, I am to let him have my overcoat also (Matthew 5:40). Does this mean that the IRS must not prosecute those who cheat on their income tax? that the defense contractors who overcharged shall be given larger bonuses? A single moment of reasoning would have prevented such a nonsensical transfer of personal principles to public policy.
Does God's judgment on murderers (p. 63) preclude judgment in this life? Paul noted that the ruler bears a sword as God's servant to punish evildoers (Romans 13:4). Only incredible feats of twisted eisegesis can make a sword into a mere instrument of admonition and have Paul refuting Genesis 9:6. Further, the declaration of Genesis 9:6 immediately follows God's declaration that he will require an accounting (v. 5). It can hardly be more clearly stated. God's future judgment on murderers is compatible with their divinely commanded execution. This flatly contradicts the inference Hancock and Sharp make.
The reference to throwing the first stone (p. 63) also misleads. In the first place, what the mob was doing runs counter to the Law (see Leviticus 20:10; Deuteronomy 22:22). Second, Jesus called them to strict obedience, whereupon they slunk off. Third, in strict obedience to the Law, Jesus exonerated the accused woman (see Deuteronomy 17:6f; 19:15). Finally, John 7:53-8:11 is probably not authentic, for it is not found in the most ancient texts. This passage seems a favorite of those who would try to deny the relevance of the Law to modern life. But the attempt fails. Even if it were somewhat successful relative to the Mosaic enactments, it can hardly be counted on to dismiss the Noahic Covenant of Genesis 9. This latter was confirmed by the early church (compare Acts 15:19f, 29 with Genesis 9:4).
The authors perversely accuse Christians of forcing their faith into the current mold and thereby approving capital punishment. Reality is the opposite. The authors are trying to compel biblical faith to fit their Procrustean bed. They amputate Scripture to match their covert sentimentalism and rejection of standards. They even twist the fact that a minority will not be deterred into a claim that deterrence should be abandoned (p. 62). In this they take a novel tack. Propagandists usually belabor a straw man, whereas they have made it their authority. Consequently, their paper has neither empirical nor theological relevance. A full acceptance of the Bible requires the belief that God authorizes capital punishment.
These last statements do not solve the problems of jurisprudence, federal or state. Punishment, especially capital punishment, should be applied fairly. But it is not always even-handed. Racism sometimes biases sentences. So does fear of riots. The answer is not a quota system. That fewer women than men are charged and tried, and that a still smaller ratio are sentenced to death, does not statistically demonstrate sexism. The numbers primarily reflect the fact that males are more likely to engage in crime, especially violent crime. Cultural, economic and religious factors are similarly relevant. They all should be faced squarely, with no fudging for political correctness. I understand the fear that certain facts, if they are scientifically demonstrated, may be misused. But I am persuaded that ignorance has a far greater potential for mischief. I recall reading that the Nazis suppressed a report that the "master-race Aryans" and despised Jews reacted identically to noxious stimuli, and imprisoned the scientist whose results were ideologically wrong. I know that the great plant geneticist, Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov, died in prison because his plants did not follow the official Marxist line. Ideologues, not honest citizens, fear truth and exposure. Only ideologues must misrepresent and suppress the truth.