The Case for Mercy

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.

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3 thoughts on “The Case for Mercy

  1. Roy-Gene,
    I think what needs to be added here is that death by stoning and many of those practices, were from the Old Testament and mostly under Leviticus law. They reveal a certain character of God which is His Character of Judgment. The New Testament and the teachings of Jesus brought us the understanding that none of us are perfect, but all have sinned and come short of the Glory of God.

    We’re not under the law of the Old Testament but instead are under the law of Grace and Forgiveness, which comes from the character of God that brings us Love which surpasses all of God’s other characters.

    There are several distinct characters of God and they are revealed through the Law of Leviticus and through the Old Testament, but it was because He loved us so much that even though He is perfect in all things; Righteousness, Judgment, Mercy and above all, Love, He sent His son to die for us so that we might be able to stand before Him holy and righteous through the blood of Jesus that washes us white as snow.

    Jesus taught us the most significant part of God’s character and a pathway back to Him and that is by forgiveness. Forgive and you shall be forgiven. We all deserve to be put to death or stoned for our sins but we are forgiven because we forgive. If you don’t forgive, then you can’t be forgiven.

    For someone to preach that the death penalty is okay because they did it in the Old Testament is to say “Let us live under the Law of Moses and let us also be judged by the Law of Moses” If that’s what they want; fine then that’s what they will have. I myself choose to live under the Law of Love instead and forgive instead of choosing to judge others.

    • It is important not to stereotype one time-period of the scripture/words of God from another time-period. The most unBiblical page in most Bibles is the line seperating the OT and the NT. Although it is still important to know when the scriptures are written, it is a theological thing entirely to have a such a strong divide, (although I am not specifically accusing you, for I do not directly access to your complete beliefs). “For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ” (John 1:17, KJV). “For as Torah was revealed through Moshe, grace and truth were intensified more fully through Yeshua the Anointed One” (John 1:17, Hebrew Heritage Bible). The word “but” is in italics in the KJV and does not appear in the Greek text at all. The addition of the word into the translation makes it sound as if there never was any grace and truth in God’s message in the Hebrew Bible. This would eliminate Psalm 103 and many other texts as well. Every careful student of the Bible must recognize grace in Torah and Torah in grace. Jesus did not come to destroy the message of Torah, but rather to intensify its true meaning. A sequential development affirms and strengthens divine revelation, but does not cancel and replace what was already given. – Brad Young (http://hebrewheritagebiblesociety.org/Documents/John-transl&interp.pdf) The Law is still the word of God, although fulfilled in Christ, it still exists as a schoolmaster for us(words of Paul), and it exists in the work of Christ in the past and also the work that he will do in the future. There is plenty of judgment in the NT too. I would actually go so far to say that there is MORE judgment in the NT. While there are a few verses that talk of a Gehinnom-like place in the Tanakh(Hebrew word for the OT), there are an exceedingly more explicit amount in the NT, and such passages like Rev. 21, and 1 Cor. 6, as well as plenty in the Gospels, that are nothing like you would get out of the Tanakh! Because of this grace, we may have a much greater responsibility to share the Gospel in truth and love, and a greater responsibility to live out the Word that he has shown us in his Messiah. It may even be true to say that the Messiah, the anointed one, will play a role in the final judgment. I incredibly enjoyed the article written by you(Roy-Gene) and Justin! I could not have done better myself. Kudos to giving a response to his first/primary premise. There are many other aspects of this debate beyond the primary Biblical conceptions, and your part in this communal discussion has allowed for a deeper multifaceted understanding of the issue.

  2. Regarding the statement, “In saying that capital punishment is justified because God commands it, one necessarily must ignore passages of Scripture where the Lord says otherwise,” where are the scriptures in which God says otherwise?

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