Scripture and the Death Penalty

A recent exchange of letters in the Rocky Mountain News illustrates the utter futility of arguing for or against any narrow political policy based on scripture, especially in criticism of some standard or wide-spread Christian view. While it can be interesting to look at whether Christians follow the text of the Bible as an afterthought or minor polemical point, scripture can never be the center of discussion.

On March 4, Roger Balmer argued:

With regard to the death penalty, what is there about the following verses from the Bible that “Christian” America doesn’t seem to understand: “Thou shalt not kill.” “Recompense to no man evil for evil.” “Love your enemy.” “Avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath.” “Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.”

Of course, this was unpersuasive to a Christian who advocates the death penalty. On March 17, the Reverend Douglas Van Dorn (apparently of the Reformed Baptist Church) replied:

With regard to picking and choosing some verses from the Bible over
others instead of taking “the whole council of God” together, what is there about these other verses that some Christians don’t seem to understand: “Whoever does [insert any number of sins] shall be put to death.” “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.” “They were given authority to kill with the sword.”

There are only two answers. Either people intentionally create another God besides the one who wrote the whole Bible, or they ignorantly conflate laws that respect individuals (“Love your enemy,” “Thou shalt not murder”) with the lex talionis (“an eye for an eye”) which respects the state, thereby inventing contradiction where none in fact exists. In the process, they deny the words of the New Testament that the one in authority “is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.” (Romans 13:4).

So let us only briefly note the (rather large) problem that Van Dorn’s phrase, “insert any number of sins,” includes “sins” such as adultery, homosexuality, and dishonoring one’s parents. If Van Dorn does not promote the death penalty for those cases, then he has fallen into the same alleged error of which he accuses Balmer. But that, as I have suggested, is irrelevant to whether the death penalty should remain in force. (My point here is not to argue for or against the death penalty, but merely to note that scripture cannot and should not answer the question as a political matter.)

To take another example, I ran a quick Google search of “bible abortion.” Of the top four hits, two pages — one and two — claim that the Bible prohibits abortion. The others — one and two — claim that the Bible does not prohibit abortion.

As Sam Harris notes, in many cases the Bible says whatever its readers think it says. (On other matters, such as the exhortation to kill homosexuals, Biblical passages seem rather clear, though few readers of such passages take them seriously.)

But it simply does not matter what the Bible says — about the death penalty, abortion, or anything else — we do not and should not live in a theocracy, and political policy ought not have any basis whatsoever in religious teachings. I don’t care if the Bible said, “The United States of America, and every state thereof, shall institute the death penalty for crimes of premeditated murder between the years 1800 and 2100 of the Common Era, and this passage shall take precedence over every other passage of scripture;” that would not be a legitimate reason to maintain (or repeal) the death penalty.

Any legitimate political policy rests on a secular foundation. While some secular reasons might have something in common with various religious beliefs, if the policy is not separable from religious doctrine, it is not legitimate.