The Debate in Christianity on Capital Punishment

Today in the news we hear of how the Arizona convicted murderer Joseph Wood seemed to have suffered over 100 minutes during his execution by lethal injection before he finally died. It is quite a story that it seems to be getting harder and harder for the state to execute its criminals because the drugs that used to be so effective in killing are unavailable now.  Drug makers have either ceased production of them or simply refuse to sell them because they object to their use in these executions.

Capital punishment has been a hot topic for many decades of course, but I am not really sure that people are all that aware of the philosophical debate generally, or the debate among Christians. Most people I think determine their view on the death sentence by how they “feel” about it… But it is really quite a fascinating topic if we stop to learn more – with good points on both sides!

The debate over capital punishment actually has broader implications – implications for the whole of our criminal justice system. The question at issue is “What is the aim of our criminal justice system?” The historic view of almost every culture and society has emphasized the “justice” issue. If a crime has been committed then the purpose of any sentence is to administer punishment. This view has been called “Retributionism”. Sounds nice and simple.

But then in the last couple centuries another idea has begun to gain a lot of traction. This idea is that the main aim of the justice system is not so much punishment, but “rehabilitation”. A couple years ago I visited the Eastern Pennsylvania State Penitentiary in Philadelphia – and the history lesson there was summed up in its name “Penitentiary”. It was where criminals were to come and learn to be “penitent”, to repent of their sin and learn to reform their lives. Its original “Rehabilitationism” vision was not so much punish criminals, but to reform them and make them into responsible citizens. This view came out of the “Enlightenment” and a high view of human nature and the capacity for the will of man to change.

So which view is more Christian? Some Christians would argue that the main point of the Bible is that God hates death and that he loves mercy. It is plain that God certainly desires the reformation of the heart life through repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. They would point to places in the scripture where God spared the murderer – such as with Cain and King David. But the Retributionist Christian certainly has lots of scripture to back their view up as well. Certainly capital punishment was included in the laws given by God that governed the early Israelite nation. And certainly St. Paul admonished all Christians to respect the sword of the government that was instituted by God to keep the peace in the land.

I personally take the view that although God certainly does desire every chance for repentance and loves mercy, and that every opportunity should be taken to minister to the criminal so that he might repent and reform his life, all this does not take away from the principal of justice in the Kingdom of the Left (Civil realm) and that the government and society have every “right” to implement capital punishment. HOWEVER: I also take the view that capital punishment is not a requirement of government and that in mercy we might desire to cease its practice. I suppose the one thing that makes me hesitate the most in being a vocal advocate for it is that our Justice System is so fallible. The sinful and often corrupt law enforcement and Judicial system has proved so incredibly wrong so many times that you have to suspect that almost any conviction is suspect. It is so very difficult for me to think about how many people have been wrongly executed.

Ultimately with this and so many of our vexing problems in life, the reality is that there is most definitely no “good” answer. We desperately need good sound thinking on the subject, but we also need a fleeing to the Savior who loves us even though we can’t get a handle on life. Even the fact that we even NEED a criminal justice system is sobering! It drives me to repentance and love for my savior Jesus the Christ!

Ships Passing In the Night – Guns Blazing?

It was always encouraged in the seminary that every pastor should have relationships outside of the church. Although I have never had hugely important social outlets outside the church, for the last few years I have been a member of a local club of interest. I tried to enjoy it as much as I could. And I did enjoy it. It was important for me. I enjoyed it even though people generally don’t know how to handle being “friends” with a pastor. I felt the club members’ pain, and I gave them credit for at least trying to be nice to me – especially if they were not particularly religious themselves.

But something really sad has happened over just the last few months. With the rise of the gay rights issue, my relationships with several members of the club have just really soured. The problem started, of course, because being “friends” on Facebook exposes me to many of their views on marriage and their bolder and bolder expressions of anger and outward contempt toward the Christian faith and its opposition to “gay marriage”. But then, being the Christian fool that I am, I attempted to at least give something of a considered defense of our Christian faith and life. I tried valiantly to do this in a very humble way – but it was to absolutely terrible affect. This was so disappointing for me. It was disappointing not because I dreamed of actually changing the minds of these younger and seemingly quite articulate and educated individuals. It was disappointing because all I wanted to do was help them come to a basic understanding as to WHY a Christian could think the way he does on the issue. I failed miserably!

A few things disturbed me especially. Firstly, the basic tenants of Christianity were so incredibly foreign to the minds of these individuals. Sinful human nature, Repentance and Good Works, Grace, Salvation, Heaven, Hell – so much of it was completely misunderstood. Often it was like they had never even heard of these concepts.

Of course that was bad enough for me to come to grips with. But the worst of it was that they either didn’t have the mental framework or conceptual tools to understand the Christian faith, or they just so truly hated anything that smacked of religion that they simply could not – or would not – understand it. Nor could they consider how they might live alongside of someone who thought like a Christian. You get the distinct feeling that for some of them a Christian was trash and needed to be discarded.

Finally, the third issue that disturbed me was that absolutely no one else had anything to say in support of my attempts to dialogue and explain. Plenty of others had plenty to say about Christians (i.e. me) being bigots, etc., but no other person in all my discussions defended a Godly and reasonable point of view along with me. I heard someone today talk about a “silent majority” who are not well equipped to make a defense of what they believe… But at this moment, I am not sure I feel that is a good explanation – even if it is true.

This whole experience has been vexing for me. Not only do I just mourn for lost friendship, but I am struggling over how I am to live my very public faith out in the world where it is not accepted. How can I have meaningful relationships with those outside the church? The huge problem we have in our nation today is that we are becoming more and more polarized in our thinking and beliefs… and for some reason we can’t seem to communicate and understand each other. You would think that technology like Facebook would be a really great at bringing the world together. Unfortunately, studies have shown that, left to our own devices, people will gather only Facebook “friends” who have similar views and concerns. I know this to be true for myself! We have failed in the skills of both understanding each other – and disagreeing with each other!

I do believe it is important to have friends outside the church… But what are the limits? Sometimes I have no heart to go to another club meeting when it has been plainly said by a number of them how they feel about Christians. What am I to do when they do not want to be friends with me? It is true that Jesus said he came not to bring peace, but the sword and division… but am I really ready for that truth of the name of Jesus to come true? Perhaps I should I just be a “secret” Christian and just keep all my beliefs to myself? Haha… Now THAT will be the day! But this is my prayer… that the Lord help us in this difficult time to live with each other!