Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Jesus and the Death Penalty

Below I made the negative argument that Jesus never overturned the death penalty. Here I make the positive case that it is essential that he supported it.

First, for God to overturn his own good law gifted to humanity is an inconsistency in the character of God. It makes him look schizophrenic and makes his people look self serving in their convenient modifications to their core theology.

Second, how could Jesus be the spotless lamb of God, sacrificed for our sins, if he broke God's commandments? We want Jesus to be a rogue and revolutionary against Old Testament laws we are uncomfortable about and simultaneously want him to be good and obedient to God. We can't have both.

Third, I don't think there is any evidence that anything 'changed' with Jesus, except in one matter of law which I will address at the end. Everything he taught was already taught in previous scripture, love for enemies, forgiveness based on sacrifice, salvation by grace through faith (Paul argues that this is what is taught by the Torah, and many rabbis of the time did so too). The only time he is seen contradicting law, he is doing one of two things: 1) fighting things listed in oral tradition, not scripture. This is verifiable by looking up where these laws are recorded; or 2) arguing over which commandment takes precedence over another, which was an established rabbinic practice. Since two laws routinely came into conflict and could not both be followed, there was a simple rule that the greater law suspends the lesser one. This prioritizing of the commandments should not be alien to us since Jesus made an explicit point about what the greatest commandment was, along with the second most important, both of which can never be put aside to obey another law. This is not dissimilar to the Jewish notion that you may tell a lie to save a life. This instance of adultery is not a case of mercy vs condemnation though. Mercy was already written into the laws governing court trials and thedifficultlyof obtaining a guilty verdict.

Fourth, if there is no place were Jesus is found overturning scriptural law, then we should ask ourselves where we get the notion, the feeling that he did? Is this not our bias? A safer rule of interpretation based on this evidence would be no law is overturned unless it is explicitly stated to be so. This is not to say certain laws are not suspended in deference to greater laws, it simply means there is no fundamental shift of which laws are greater.

Fifth, if Jesus meant that the death penalty is invalid because only sinless people have the right to enforce punishments then the applications are absurd. Then parents should never disciple their children for any infraction they did as children, employers could not fire workers for lack of productivity, the American government could not prosecute racism, cops could not give tickets for speeding, teachers could not flunk a student for lack of study, etc. What's worse is that an uneven standard would be erected. A judge that never lied could convict someone of perjury, but a judge who told even one white lie could not. There would be chaos.

Sixth, in my opinion, it is not only safe, it is necessary for governments to model themselves after the government of God. Paul does say that earthly governments are his agents of wrath doesn't he? If God has the right to judicially execute individuals, then execution itself is not wrong. Ananias and Sapphira were killed by God at the word of his apostle, after Jesus came, after Pentecost fell. As all powers can be abused, the death penalty also has been abused, but God can, has, and will repay crooked judges for their decisions. I seem to remember a lot of the prophets talking about judges who closed their eyes to justice and what God would do to them because of it. Jesus doesn't want us too close our eyes to justice either.

Seventh, it is our modern philosophy which pits grace against judgement as if they areoxymoronsor incompatible opposites held in tension. The rich stories of the Bible, especially the Old Testament, do not make mercy and punishment mutually exclusive. God's punishments are always mixed with mercy, delay, and the potential of forgiveness upon repentance. And God's love is always mixed with discipline, rebuke, and seriousness. Most of us just can't get rid of our cultural baggage to see this in Old Testament.

The obvious question is if Jesus didn't change anything, why was his coming necessary? I believe Jesus did not change the character of salvation, but its scope. He raised it, intensified it, enlarged it, made it effective by changing humanity itself into something it has never be able to become on its own. He made it more available, to more people, more easily. Jesus is the exponent on the compassion, salvation, and judgement already found in the law. He is the messiah factor. He is God in your face.

The one thing that does seem to fundamentally change, (my ideas on this are still in flux) are the food laws. The intent of the food laws were to distinguish Israelite from gentile, God's covenant children from all the run aways. Every time a Jew separates his food, he's modeling the history of how God separated Israel from everyone else to be a treasured possession. But, the New Testament clearly teaches that Gentiles can be full children of God without being Jewish. The dividing wall has been torn down by the unity of a shared faith in Jesus. If this is true, the command by Jesus to eat whatever is set before you on your missionary campaign makes at least some sense. Gentiles were saved by incorporation INTO Israel before Jesus. After Jesus, they are not saved by becoming Jewish, but by binding themselves to Jesus directly. Though, in one sense, if your king is the king of the Israel, have you not become an Israelite? This is the sense in which the New Testament sometimes calls calls the Church the new Israel. Since there has been a fundamental redefinition of who the people of God are, the laws which divide and distinguish within the body of Christ have all become obsolete. Are there other laws which may fall into this category, whose sole purpose was to draw a line between covenant children and non covenant people? Maybe, but the food laws are the only ones that stand out to me at the moment.

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