This is the second of a four-part series which builds a case for opposing the death penalty. I began last week by looking at the biblical support for the state’s use of Capital Punishment. This week, I will briefly analyze Scripture’s understanding of justice and injustice. Next week, we will investigate the injustice of the American capital punishment system. Finally, I will mount a case for Christian resistance to the American death penalty and offer some concluding remarks.
If you missed Part One, you can read it here.
In any discussion of public theology, justice – an ideal that permeates Scripture – must be biblically considered and Christianly defined. We begin in the Old Testament and move forward through the New.
Leviticus 19 demands that the court be a place of justice, a justice that is grounded in the character of God himself (Deut. 32:4) This principle is violated by David in his conspiracy to murder Uriah and steal his wife, a violation met with divine vengeance as God takes the life of David’s newborn child (2 Sam 11-12). Yet David is later praised as being a just ruler over the house of Israel throughout his administration because, despite his gross misconduct, he saw to it that justice was carried out in the courts of the king (1 Chron. 18:14).
The prophets are well-known for their demands that justice be a mark of the people of God. Isaiah prophecies that “a king will reign in righteousness and princes will rule in justice” (Isaiah 32:1) and declares that such justice is a result of God’s Spirit resting upon the servant He has chosen to act as king (Isa 42:1), a prophecy that finds its fullest expression in the arrival of the eschatological Davidic King, Jesus Christ. Jeremiah also prophesies of a Just King that will come and save Israel and Judah, reestablishing the kingdom once and for all. The writer of Lamentations longs for the just recompense of the Lord against those who persecute him (Lam. 3:64), while Amos excoriates the leaders of the nation for “turn(ing) justice to wormwood and cast(ing) down righteousness to the earth.” (Amos 5:7). Micah and Zechariah turn away from the injustice of their day and envision a day when justice would reign and peace abound (Micah 4:3, Zech 8:16).
This brief survey shows that justice is a cause near to the heart of God and is grounded in his character. Yet some would argue that justice is no longer an important theme in the New Testament. Instead, it is traded for an ethic of love that dominates the New Testament age. This simply cannot bear the weight of the New Testament itself. Two examples should suffice to show the error in this line of thinking.
First, Jesus himself describes his ministry as one of justice when he begins his earthly work. The gospel of Luke sets the start of Jesus’ ministry in a local synagogue in Nazareth, the synagogue that he had regularly attended while growing up. He stood up and read from Isaiah 61, declaring the start of his messianic ministry. Included in this ministry is the proclamation of good news to the poor and the liberation of captives and the oppressed, both actions of justice. Justice is certainly the controlling theme of Jesus’ quotation from Isaiah as evidenced by a statement later in chapter 61, “I the Lord love justice”. Is it to be believed that Jesus would quote from this section of Isaiah as the “vision statement” of his ministry all-the-while eschewing a love for justice? Certainly not.
Second, the Decalogue, which summarizes the whole of the Mosaic Law, is built on a foundation of justice. Just punishment, often described as being placed under a “curse” of God, was the result of breaking even one of God’s commandments.(Deut. 9:14, Gal 3:10, James 2:10). The New Testament, by importing the Mosaic Law into the New Testament economy (albeit through apostolic interpretation) also imports the ideal of justice. The two cannot be divorced. When one embraces the law one also embraces justice. It is special pleading, then, to argue that love has unseated justice in the ethic of the Christian life, for the Decalogue – and therefore its correspondent, justice – finds its “starting point and goal” in love!1 Justice and love are cohabitant in the ethic of the Christian.
Equality is another facet of biblical justice that must be considered. The fundamental equality of all persons is a value found everywhere in the Scriptures and is highlighted by the New Testament. Salvation is available to all (Titus 2:11), the dividing line between people groups is destroyed (Eph 2:14-16) and the least of society are elevated to a place of equality (women – Acts 2:17, slaves – Philemon 17, children – Matt 19:13-14). Thus equal protections and opportunities are a key facet of biblical justice.
If justice is an important biblical ethic, then injustice is inherently anti-ethical and therefore anti-Christian. Positive ethical ideals include the corresponding negative value. Simply, if justice is good, then injustice is bad. Therefore if justice is to be upheld and pursued by believers, then injustice is to be decried and resisted. Justice, then, becomes the defining characteristic for the right implementation of the death penalty. The just use of the death penalty is to be upheld by the church as a good execution of divine wrath against wickedness. The unjust use of the death penalty, however, is to be resisted and denounced with equal vigor.
It is important to note that the death penalty cannot be discussed on a case-by-case basis. It is part of a judicial system that determines whether an individual can be rightly executed. Therefore if the system itself becomes infected with injustice, then the whole of the system must be opposed by Christians with the hope of system renovation. Once the system is renovated and justice is again central, then the system can rightly be supported by the righteous.
If justice is the deciding factor in the implementation of the death penalty, then a definition of justice is important. “Justice seeks the welfare of the ‘other’ to assure the well-being of the whole.”2 Justice, however, does not sit autonomously apart from other ideals. In fact, “justice needs truth for its content and energy, and truth needs justice for its outworking in the historical process.” For the Christian, “justice is the implementation of truth and love in particular situations.”
Christians should not be interested in supporting a neutral definition of justice that is divorced from the character of God as revealed in Jesus Christ. It is the truth and love of Jesus Christ that grounds true justice, for true justice must find its genesis in the character of God. Under these conditions, a just capital decision is one that accords with truth and is equally distributed in light of the love given to all people created in the image of God. One must attain proven knowledge that the individual committed the crime as well as a truthful and equal utilization of the justice system with no prejudicial considerations brought into view by virtue of the defendant’s identity.
It may be argued that the bestowal of capital punishment rights to the state gives ground for divorcing the implementation of state justice from the Christian ethical system. However, it is the Christian God who bestowed these rights, and it is he who displays his wrath through the sword of the government. Whether or not the government recognizes God as the bestower of all good gifts, justice being included, this does not give room for the Christian to also turn away from a Christian definition of justice. Therefore when deciding upon the question of a Christian support for the death penalty, the Christian definition of justice is what comes into play.
1 J. Douma, The Ten Commandments; Manual for the Christian Life, trans. Nelson D. Kloosterman (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1996), 238.
2 This and the following quotes from Thorwald Lorenzen, “Justice Anchored in Truth: A Theological Perspective on the Nature and Implementation of Justice”, International Journal of Public Theology Vol 3 no 3, (2009): 286, Accessed April 30, 2015, ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials.