This is the final post in a series arguing for Christian opposition to the Death Penalty. The first part describes biblical warrant for the governmental use of Capital Punishment. The second part lays out the biblical value of justice. The third part introduces the injustices present in the American Capital Punishment system.
This final part will now explore how Christians should respond to the injustices of the system.
Bluntly, when race or economic status block access to all the rights and protections of the justice system, the system is corrupt and unjust. When the system is so poorly run that errors abound, the system is corrupt and unjust. The church is not to sit idly by in the face of injustice. Instead, “the Church is called upon to influence the surrounding culture through gentle yet forceful persuasion.” Even more, the cultural mandate would require that “it should be Christians who are able to inform public debate on the great moral issues of our day.”1 Therefore, if the death penalty is being used in ways incompatible with Biblical justice, Christians must call the state to account, even if in doing so one must stand against the government’s divinely permitted function of executing murderers.
Crying out for mercy in the face of just punishment has a long biblical tradition, particularly in the ministry of the prophets. A vivid example of this ministry occurs in Exodus 32 during the Golden Calf incident. The people have broken the second commandment, making an image of Yahweh that they can worship while Moses tarries on Mount Sinai. This is an egregious sin deserving of divine response. “God, while promising severe punishment, nevertheless allows for the mediation of Moses.”2 The mediatorial role of Moses is not one that only communicates to the people on behalf of God. Instead the prophet/mediator engages in “a dual-directional phenomenon”3 in which he also speaks to God on behalf of the people. At times, the Mediator is then called by God to bring God to account in light of his promises and covenant. While this may seem haughty by modern standards, it is an important function for the prophet. Therefore Moses, when faced with the just death sentence of the people guilty of idolatry, beseeches YHWH for mercy. He does not seek this mercy by downplaying the seriousness of the sin or by declaring the punishment of sin unjust. Instead, he appeals to the mercy of God who is the Merciful One (Deut 4:31).
Abraham also performed this mediatorial function before God when presented with the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Instead of appealing to God’s mercy, however, “the force of the argument is its basis in justice.”4 It would be unjust to kill the innocent with the wicked. Therefore Abraham talks God down from destroying the whole city to considering a reprieve if ten innocent were found. Then when they were not found, God saved Lot and his family from destruction instead of letting them perish with the rest.
Is one to understand the relenting of God in terms of Yahweh obeying Moses, evidence of a God who “periodically undergoes a change of heart?”5 Even Jonathan Masters must admit that “it does appear that God’s response in Exod 32:14 is based in some way on Moses’ words.”6 Or is there a better way to understand these divine interactions?
Instances like these must not be used to establish a doctrine of divine mutability. Certainly this would be in conflict with any understanding of God that embraces Malachi 3:6, “For I the Lord do not change.” Instead, such decisions of God seemingly built out of dialogue must be understood in the context of mediator. Together, the instances of Abraham and Moses acting as mediators in accord with their prophetic office “provide a case for the primacy of justice tilted toward mercy and a case for outright mercy”.7 They also show that people of God are called by God to stand for justice even when their opponent is God himself. It is through this mediatorial tension employed by God that reveals both his justice and his mercy. Through the drama of mediation, the glory of God is displayed.
If it is suitable to stand for justice even when God is the “opposition”, how much more should the Christian stand up to unjust governments or the unjust use of otherwise just laws? As it has been shown, the government has the right to wield the sword of capital punishment against murderers. However, when such a right is used unjustly and when injustice defines the function of the system, Christians must oppose the implementation of capital punishment. Until justice is once again the mark of the justice system, capital punishment should not be used.
It has been seen that the Bible permits governmental authorities the use of capital punishment as a tool for justice. Through this method of justice, God’s wrath is exhibited toward wrong-doers and the high value God places on image-bearing life is shown. This permission of the state to require blood for the shedding of blood must not be expanded into the notion of mandate. Therefore, as capital punishment must grow from a place of justice, an unjust system of capital punishment perverts the intention of such an endowment. Christians are called to promote justice and resist injustice. Therefore, when the death penalty is performed unjustly, or when capital punishment is a part of an unjust system, it must be opposed. The actions of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition are therefore not only permissible but demanded by the American perversion of the divine right of capital punishment.
1 J. Daryl Charles, “Crime, The Christian and Capital Justice”, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, Vol 38 no 3, September (1995): 430, Accessed April 29, 2015, ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials.
2 Jonathan Masters, “Exodus 32 As an Argument for Traditional Theism” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, Vol 45 no 4, (December 2002): 593, Accessed April 29, 2015, ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials
3 Reuven Kimelman, “Prophecy as Arguing with God and the Ideal of Justice”, Interpretation: A Journal of Bible and Theology, Vol 68 no 1, (Jan 2014): 17, Accessed April 29, 2015, OmniFile Full Text Select (H.W. Wilson).
4 Kimelman, 19.
5 J. Clinton McCann, Jr. “Exodus 32:1-14”, Interpretation, Vol 44 no 3 (1990): 278-279, Accessed April 29, 2015, ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials.
6 Masters, 594.
7 Kimelman, 25.