The Death Penalty: A Theological Dliemma For Christians

American politics has, historically, had several ongoing major moral debates and perhaps the one that defines our moral dilemma best and most vividly exposes our hypocrisy is the death penalty. The recent Supreme Court decision, by a 5 to 4 vote, outlawing the execution of those who rape children, has brought the dilemma over the death penalty into the political spotlight again.

As a father, I find the rape of children, and the sexual abuse and exploitation of children, and that includes child pornography, extremely revolting. It is my considered opinion that these practices are symptomatic of a society with some very unhealthy attitudes about sex, nudity, and gender, but that is a topic for another post, not this one today. I do believe that child rapists deserve to be severely punished, but I agree with the Supreme Court that execution should not be an option for them or anyone else for that matter. As far as I am concerned, the death penalty violates the most basic principles of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic religious tradition – the Ten Commandments, and specifically, the sixth commandment: Thou shalt not kill.

The text is very simple and straightforward. It provides no exception or qualifications. If we, as religious fundamentalists so often argue, take the teachings literally, then the death penalty, along with war, murder, and suicide, are violations of God’s most basic laws for humanity. Yet it is these same fundamentalists who are some of the most rabid supporters of the death penalty. Why is that?

In order to answer that, I think we need to look, first at the historical context of early Israelits and the founding of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition. All three religions trace their ancestry back to Abraham. Whether Abraham was a real historical figure or just a symbolic one is irrelevant. His story is the foundation myth of the tradition, and more than likely, even if Abraham did not exist as a specific historical person, his story provides a great deal of information about the founding of the tradition.

The tradition says that Abraham was from the city of Ur in the kingdome of the Chaldees. That means that Abraham and those who followed him were from Mesopotamia – Babylon as it is referred to in Christian tradition. Abraham is believed to have lived about 1800 BCE, which makes him contemporaneous, to some degree, with Hammurabi, the man credited with establishing the first official set of laws – the Code of Hammurabi, which is based on the principle of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Or, in the case of the death penalty, a life for a life. Given that what Hammurabi did was take already existing and accepted practices and put them into an organized code, it can be assumed that the laws of the early children of Abraham followed the same general pattern. That assumption is confirmed by the extensive legal discussions in the Book of Leviticus.

The Exodus and the events on Mount Sinai are generally dated about 1440 BC, about 400 years after Abraham. According to tradition, Moses was raised in the household of either the Egyptian Pharoah Thutmose II or Thutmose III, depending on jow old Moses was in 1440 BCE. Thutmose III was Pharoah during the Exodus and had been on the throne for almost 40 years prior to the confrontation with Moses. I tend to favor Thutmose III because he did have several daughters and his oldest son died before his father. Perhaps it was this son who chased Moses and the Hebrews and who died in the Red Sea.

There was an attempted religious coup to make the state religion of Egypt monotheistic during the reign of the Pharoah Amenhotep IV who supported this shift, changing his name to Akhenaten. This coup occurred about 100 years after the Exodus. I have often wondered if Moses and Akhenaten were part of the same tradition of religious dissent in Egypt.

So, starting with the Ten Commandments and continuing to this day, we see a conflict between the interdiction on killing and the desire for what we often refer to as justice. And the kerygms of Jesus adds even more fuel to the fire. From my reading of Christian scripture, both orthodox and apocryphal, I conclude that Jesus would be vehmently opposed to the death penalty. That would be consistent with everything he taught and how he lived his life.

The problem for Christians is that, along with the Ten Commandments and Jesus’ message of love, forgivenees and peace, the Old Testament is full of stories of God, directly or indirectly, exacting justice – an eye for an eye – on sinners like Sodom and Gomorrah, or on enemies of the Hebrews like the Egyptians or the Philistines.

The question that has plagued Christians since the second century AD still plagues us today: Is the Christian God the God of love and mercy as preached by Jesus or is he the hammer of justice we see in the Old Testament. In the second century, Marcion was condemned as a heretic for saying the two are not the same. Ever since then, orthodox Christian theologians have gone through all kinds of sophistry tying to reconcile the two. Well, I am a firm believer in Occam’s razor – the simplest solution is the best solution. Applying Occam’s razor to this Gordian knot makes Marcion’s solution the sinplest and the best. Accept the God who spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai as God the Father. Accept the God of Jeremiah’s theology of the heart as God the Father. Accept the God that Jesus talks about as God the Father. Most of the rest is Baal-worship.

True Christians who reject Baal-worship must reject the death penality. True Christians who reject Baal-worship must reject war. True Christians who reject Baal-worship must reject murder. Those are not political statments; those are moral and ethical statements. How those statements play out in politics depends on the moral position of the electorate and those we elect. Politicians cannot and should not impose morality through legislation. Morality comes from the heart and must be burned into the heart for it to be effective. And morality is not limited to one religion or another either.

We are all Americans. We are not all Christians. My message is to those who profess Christianity and is not intended to force Christianity on others.  That is why I so strongly support the separation of church and state. The fundamentalist theocrats want to re-establish a Puritan theocracy in this country because they equate morality with their brand of Christianity. They are so narrow-minded and ethnocentric they refuse to accept the possibility of a person having high moral standards without being a Christian fundamentalist. They refuse to accept the reality of there being more than one way to the Light. They want to use the government to enforce their path, their map on the rest of us. It was to protect us from theocrats like this that the Founding Fathers included the First Amendment in the US Constitution:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

For an excellent analysis of the First Amedment,click here.

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2 Responses

  1. It’s true that “Thous shalt not kill” is listed in the commandments in Exodus 20. It is also true that when the Hebrews reached the promised land, God commanded them to completly wiped out the inhabitants. They were to leave no one alive. The 10 commandments is only a part of the Law given to Moses; plenty of laws dealt with stoning disrespectful children, those caught in adultery, murderers, and so on. “Thou shalt not kill” specifically refers to a violent act, such as murder, and also accidental killing due to neglect or reckless conduct. “Do not murder” is one modern translation, and is very true to the original Hebrew text.

    Many critics of Christianity (and all conservatives, for that matter) point out that the same people opposed to abortion usually are for the death penalty. They think that’s really weird. It doesn’t strike God weird that the guilty should face judgement, but that the innocent should not be slain.

  2. Clark,

    Welcome to the community here.

    Two questions:

    1. Which conservatives are you talking about that “point out that the same people opposed to abortion usually are for the death penalty”? In my experience, it is the conservatives aka fundamentalists that are most guily of this hypocrisy.

    2. You said, “It doesn’t strike God weird that the guilty should face judgement, but that the innocent should not be slain.” When did God inform you of this? Please do not presume to know what God finds weird unless you have been in direct contact with him and can substantiate what he or she said.

    I disagree with your statement about the law given to Moses. According to Scripture, specifically the Book of Exodus, all God gave Moses were the Tem Commandments. Anything else is man presuming to speak for God.

    And finally, your first paragraph clearly points out that you missed my point. I do not consider the god who led the Israelites into battle and the God on Mt. Sinai as the same deity. I agree with Marcion – read my article that I link to in this post – that most of the Old Testament has no place in a Christian Bible.

    Peace!

    John

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