The student newspaper at Oral Roberts University, the Oracle, which I used to lead as editor-in-chief, printed an op-ed titled “Capital Punishment is Biblical” on January 20, 2012. The op-ed was written by Dr. Winston Frost, an ORU faculty member in the History, Humanities, and Government department, who argues that capital punishment is right because it’s biblical, among other things. The following is a response I co-wrote with a friend, Justin Allen (@AllenJustin on Twitter), for the newspaper released today.
In his op-ed printed in this publication on January 20, Dr. Winston Frost was correct in classifying capital punishment as a controversial flash point within Christian communities. We do, however, find dubious the idea that the death penalty’s biblicality affords it a guaranteed position in the modern repertoire of criminal discipline. Since his op-ed fields a discussion on capital punishment from a purely biblical standpoint and avoids secular argument, we shall as well.
Most importantly, we think it crucial to define the meaning of the word “biblical,” which means simply “of, relating to, or contained in, the Bible,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. To say something is “biblical” doesn’t assign it value. And, indeed, an argument predicated on the idea that something is good simply because it’s “biblical” should raise more than a few eyebrows.
Stoning rebellious children, for example, is “biblical;” it’s found in the twenty-first chapter of Deuteronomy. Polygamy, too, is “biblical,” as is the practice of slavery and animal sacrifice. Even claiming something should be done because God at some point commanded it is problematic, especially when consideration isn’t given to context. The list of biblical crimes that require the death penalty includes adultery (Lev. 20:10-12), lying about your virginity (Deut. 22:20-21), homosexuality (Lev. 20:13), being raped inside a town (Deut. 22:23-24), and not keeping penned a known-to-be-dangerous bull (Exodus 21:29).
Moreover, a logic that says, “If it’s in the Bible, it has to be good,” couldn’t possibly exclude the multiple pictures of God’s mercy toward those who, according to the law, deserved his wrath. Take, for instance, the case of the woman caught in adultery. According to the law, she should have been put to death and, indeed, the Pharisees fully believed so. Christ, however, who was really the only one in any position to condemn, saw that none of her accusers held the moral high ground and, when they had all departed, sent her on her way, her sins forgiven.
“Well,” a person might think, “she was just an adulteress. Murderers definitely deserve death.” Perhaps. But, what about Moses? And the Apostle Paul? Both were guilty of murder and yet are two of the most well-known figures in the Christian faith: the former, the receiver of the Law, and the latter, the Apostle to the Gentiles.
In saying that capital punishment is justified because God commands it, one necessarily must ignore passages of Scripture where the Lord says otherwise. Furthermore, failure to take into account that different portions of the Bible were written at different points in history to serve different purposes opens the door to acceptance and advocation of any number of grotesque practices. In that light, the scriptural foundation for support of a punishment that achieves neither justice nor reconciliation is shaky at best.
On a side note, Frost’s concluding quote from Gervais Carey, who advocates execution as a way of encouraging wrongdoers to repent, borders on the absurd, quite frankly, and differs only marginally from the logic of jihadists. In other words, if the threat of death really is a good incentive for repentance—and if people are feeling nostalgic for the Crusades—then ORU’s Outreach and Missions department might consider equipping its teams with AK-47s to maximize their effectiveness.
While it might be possible to argue either side of this issue from a scriptural standpoint, there’s more at stake than simply being “biblical” in our beliefs. Of greater importance is being Christ-like in our lives, for it was Christ who declared, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” As Christ’s Church and, consequently, the physical manifestation of his Kingdom on Earth, it’s vital that we model ourselves after his sacrifice on the Cross, not after the sword of the Roman Empire that executed him.