Not peace but the sword in capital punishment
At the risk of throwing the you-know-what into the fan and causing one of those wars that rage in The Observer every so often, I would like to make the following three statements:
I am Catholic.
I believe in the use of capital punishment.
These are not mutually exclusive beliefs.
Although Marlayna Soenneker's column last Thursday was correct in that Jesus' gospel preaches forgiveness and mercy, it did not completely overturn the Old Testament themes of strict justice.
For openers, how can God contradict God? How can God's New Testament Law abolish His Old Testament Law? It's illogical to think that God's perfection could exist for thousands of years, and then Jesus, who is God, could say it was wrong and establish a new Law. Jesus came "not to destroy [the Old Law], but to fulfill [it] " (Matthew 5:17).
The notion that capital punishment has no place in the New Testament is flat-out wrong. Jesus upheld the Old Testament decree that those who violate the Fourth Commandment should be executed (Matthew 15:3-7). In the book of Revelations, the apostle John says, "he who kills with the sword must be killed with the sword" (13:10).
Some might argue that verses such as that last one inspire vigilante justice. But Paul teaches that justice is to be dealt with by justly acting governing authorities: "Do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, `Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,' says the Lord ... Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities ... For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil ... For [the ruler] is God's minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God's minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil" (Romans 12:19, 13:1-4). With these verses, Paul instructs us not to seek vengeance, but to "give place to wrath" to justly acting governments, "God's ministers."
This still leaves room for individual forgiveness and mercy as preached by Jesus. In fact, when Jesus was on the cross, one of the criminals alongside him says that he is receiving "the due reward of [his] deeds" (Luke 23:41). Jesus forgives him, "today you will be with me in Paradise" (23:43), but does not exonerate his crime or stop his execution. Believers are called to forgive; justly acting governments are called to punish. Both are following the Laws of God.
The Scriptural trump card of those who oppose capital punishment is the story of the woman caught in adultery, found in John 8:3-11. The scribes and Pharisees bring the adulteress to Jesus, but instead of following the Mosaic Law which commanded she be stoned, he says, "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone." Death penalty opponents state that this is explicit proof that Jesus negates the death penalty.
However, some background information needs to be applied. The Romans had voided the Jews' authority to commit their own executions (John 18:31). This is why Jesus needed to be delivered to Pilate, the Roman consul, in order to be executed. By delivering the adulteress to Jesus, the scribes and Pharisees were "testing Him, that they might have something of which to accuse Him" (John 8:6). Had Jesus allowed the execution, he would have been brought up on charges of usurping the Romans' authority, and His story would have ended there. So, as He did many times, Jesus cleverly evaded the Pharisees' and scribes' trap: "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone." Obviously, Jesus had the ability to cast whatever stone He pleased. That He did not is testament to His wisdom and mercy. God had forgiven adulterers before. King David committed adultery and murder (2 Sam 11), but God forgave him (Psalm 32:1-5). We as humans, however, are not in a position to forgive sins committed against others, since we are not God (Mark 2:7).
The New Testament does not prohibit capital punishment by a governmental authority, such as the United States or the state of Texas. However, it calls upon governments to judge rightly. Therefore, I applaud Illinois Governor George Ryan's decision to call for a moratorium on executions to ensure that those people sentenced to death are truly guilty, so long as they are temporary.
Next time you see a statue of Blind Justice in a courtroom (hopefully, you won't be the defendant), look very closely. The side of the balance dedicated to Justice hangs only slightly lower than the side devoted to Mercy. The New Testament calls for both mercy and justice, but commands the preeminence of the latter.
Even with the death penalty, the American criminal justice system follows through on those teachings.
Mike Marchand is an off-campus junior English major who is not ashamed to admit that he is driving a red minivan to classes while his truck is on the disabled list. He would like to apologize to former Observer columnist Sean Vinck for blatantly ripping off his column name to use as the headline of this column. Mike's column appears every other Monday and his e-mail address is Marchand.firstname.lastname@example.org.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.
All Viewpoint Stories for Monday, April 10, 2000