Although I was out of town during the rest of the series, I was not surprised by the footprint that The Birmingham News made when it put its left foot forward in its Sunday, November 6, 2005, death penalty commentary. Since Birmingham is located in what some call the Bible Belt, it was also not surprising to see some of the motivation against the death penalty fueled by religious fervor. Therefore, let’s compare the bible with commentary from The Birmingham News.
Tom Scarritt, editor of the News, stated, “People who commit the same crime should face the same punishment, regardless of the county where the crime occurred or the race of the victim.” Scarritt touches upon two issues: (1) judge without respect to the plaintiff or defendant, and (2) no subset of government should be allowed to pervert judgment. Is Scarritt’s statement in tune with bible-based morals? The answer is,”Yes.” Although other ancient legal systems, such as the Code of Hamurabi, would disagree with Mr. Scarritt’s position, he is in agreement with Leviticus 19:15: “Ye shall do no unrighteousness in judgment: thou shalt not respect the person of the poor, nor honor the person of the mighty: but in righteousness shalt thou judge thy neighbor.” On the second issue, law that does not change as you cross county or even country boundaries is predicated upon absolute morality, and such absolutes are taught in Scripture. The Nazi’s, for example, were guilty of murder even though the German government legalized killing Jews. Why were they guilty? Because there existed a law above that of Hitler’s regime.
Alabama’s Attorney General, Troy King , framed his approach to the subject by saying, “If justice ever becomes consumed with protecting the guilty from a just sentence, it will have become unjust. To be sure, the death sentence must never be carried out in a way that allows the innocent to die. Just as surely, though, it must also never be allowed to operate in a manner that allows the justice we seek to die of old age.” Perhaps King means to go against the many attorneys who desire to allow a hundred guilty men go free if such kept an innocent man from being condemned. In either case, the prophet Ezekiel pointed out that true justice is a double-edged sword that aims dead center against two unjust possibilities: “Will ye … slay the souls that should not die and save the souls alive that should not live?”
Mr. King also touches upon a significant factor: no state in the United States has a death penalty of the biblical sort. Although it is somewhat counterintuitive, the bible teaches that a government that has a death penalty which takes years or decades to execute will have a greater number of crimes involving capital offenses than a government with no death penalty. However, a government not having any death penalty will have a higher rate of crime compared to a government having a biblical form of capital punishment. In other words, though there are other factors bearing upon crime rates, whenever a state has a death penalty whose justice risks dying of old age, it also runs the risk of having a higher crime rate than a state without the death penalty. Why is this generally true? As King Solomon declared, "Because sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil" (Ecclesiastes 8:11).
Today we have very few death sentences for crimes biblically worthy of death, especially murder. Federal Bureau of Investigation Uniform Crime Report (UCR) reveals that between 1973 through 1996, there have been approximately 560,000 murders, but only 5,900 persons sentenced to death, and of those sentenced, only 358 executions. 560,000 murders verses 358 executions over 23 years! It took an additional 12 years to finally reach the 1,000th execution while the murder rate continued to climb wildly. In 1995, a record number of death row convicts met their Maker, giving a grand total of 56 executions for that year. However, the average time on death row before being executed was 11 years and 2 months, breaking the 1994 record of 10 years and 2 months on death row. Our murder rate is currently about 24,000 a year but our execution rate no where comes close to giving justice to those who were murdered.
Brian Stevenson, Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative, takes the death penalty argument into the realm of the biblically illiterate. Stevenson states, “The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that executing the mentally retarded is unconstitutional, but the Alabama Legislature has refused to enact laws enforcing this limitation.” However, in keeping with the Bible’s mandate to judge without regard to who the person is, it also does not allow for mitigating circumstances - especially in cases of premeditated murder. The Lord charged His judges by stating, "Moreover ye shall take no satisfaction for the life of a murderer, which is guilty of death: but he shall be surely put to death” (Num. 35:31-33), and to have no pity for any plight of the murderer (Deuteronomy 19:21). Stevenson’s call for pity is a plea to be nicer than God.
Stevenson also states, “The Supreme Court has called for greater deference to jury verdicts, but Alabama persists as the only state in the nation that allows elected trial judges to override jury verdicts of life imprisonment to death with no restrictions or standards.” Perhaps Stevenson believes that God was befuddled, incompetent, or somehow remiss when Moses received the Lord’s version of a justice system. Why? Because God’s criminal justice system nowhere advocates juries, but rather places the responsibility and accountability of judgment upon a judge. The bible expects a judge to be held accountable for a miscarriage of justice, but the same cannot be said of a jury disbanded into anonymity after a trial. The closest thing the bible has to a jury is the crowd standing before Pontius Pilate condemning Christ to the cross.
In essence, Stevenson called for us to be nicer than God and corrected the Lord for failing to empower juries to convict and sentence a criminal. But his next statement may be an indication of how weak Alabama has been in representing the Bible Belt to him. According to the New Testament, the law, which included capital punishment, was not made for the righteous, but for the lawless and disobedient, for murderers, and any other thing that is contrary to sound doctrine according to the glorious gospel of grace (1 Timothy 1:8-11). But Stevenson unabashedly proclaimed, “The death penalty is an enemy of grace, redemption and all who value life and recognize that each person is more than their worst act.” Interesting. If the death penalty is somehow innately evil or an enemy of all those who value life, then what does that say about a God that demanded the penalty of death upon Jesus to pay for our misdeeds? Just what kind of God is he trying to paint for Christians? Did God and the New Testament writers not have the insight of Stevenson to know that it was wrong of God to demand a criminal sentence of execution? If Stevenson's anti-death penalty ideas were in place two-thousand years ago, Christ's execution and atonement for our sins could never have taken place.
What about Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles whose Gospel of Grace he boldly called his divinely revealed message? How did this preacher of God’s grace view the death penalty? Did he view capital punishment as being subversive to his preaching Christ crucified? No. In the King James Version, the Apostle referred to a law enforcement officer as a “minister of God” twice as much as he did regarding fellow preachers. He also said that law enforcement bears a sword for the purpose of being an avenger to execute wrath. When called into court for cross-examination, did the Apostle Paul denounce the appropriateness of Rome’s death penalty since he knew that both Rome, which had crucified Christ, and he, who had hunted down Christians in the past, had executed innocent people? The answer is, “No.” Paul believed that he was more than his worse act, but he also believed in justice if he committed a capital offence. Paul affirmed before Roman officials that if he committed a capital crime, he would willingly accept the just punishment of death at the hands of a less than perfect government. Paul declared, “For if I be an offender, or have committed any thing worthy of death, I refuse not to die.”
Perhaps Paul was misguided because he believed vengeance and revenge were not inconsistent with his ministry. Would it be more convincing if Christians no longer influenced by the flesh stood up calling for blood to avenge a murder? Fortunately, the New Testament provides such a testimony. The Apostle John stated, “I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held: And they cried with a loud voice, saying, How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?” Did Jesus rebuke these victims for a lack of forgiveness? No. Instead, Christ rewarded them with white robes and comforted them by saying it would only be a little longer (Re 6:11).
The Birmingham News Editorial Staff, directly appealed to religious value. The staff wrote, “Supporting the death penalty is inconsistent with our convictions about the value of life, convictions that are evident in our editorial position opposing abortion, embryonic stem-cell research and euthanasia. We believe all life is sacred.” The concept of sacredness is uniquely religious in nature, so what is truly sacred in Scripture? As alluded to by Ezekiel, the teaching of Scripture is that civil government should not knowingly execute someone it believes to be innocent. On the other hand, the record left in the bible is also that civil government should not spare the life of someone guilty of a capital crime - even for pity’s sake or mitigating circumstances. Apparently, the editorial staff does not acknowledge this dichotomy, even after their careful research and deliberation. They tend to confuse the two different situations into one – thus approaching the subject like pacifists.
Concerning the sacredness of life, when engineers construct a highway, they do so knowing that the odds are that someone will be killed while using it. Does this stop us from having highways built? Not hardly. Highway planners seek an optimum sweet spot in design plans where the maximum number of people can use the highway without fatality. It is still understood that there is a chance someone might be killed, but the highway will not be shut down merely because of that fact. Likewise, when God's criminal justice system is utilized, God has already determined optimal principles for using the death penalty. For example, it is obvious that criminals who are put to death cannot then commit murder. Yet, in 1984, criminals that had previous murder convictions murdered an additional 821 people after their release from prison. Executing each of those convicts upon their murder conviction would have saved 821 lives! Even if the system of quick executions accidentally claimed an innocent life, it would have saved 820 other innocent lives from perishing. On the contrary, when the biblical form of capital punishment is ignored, people still die, but instead of it being the criminal dying, it is additional victims who would not otherwise have died.
The death penalty is at the heart of the gospel wherein the Father required the death of his Son for our sins. Also at the heart of the gospel are two other kinds of criminal punishment: corporal punishment and restitution. Christ was wounded because of our transgressions and bruised for our iniquities through corporal punishment (Isaiah 53:5). The blood of Christ fulfilled restitution upon His death in that His life was the propitiation (restitution of value) making us whole and satisfying God the Father (Mark 10:45, Romans 3:25, Ephesians 2:13). It is no accident that Jesus was brutally beaten via corporal punishment, became the thing of value offered for restitution, and suffered unto death as one guilty of a capital crime: all three forms of punishment are authorized means of criminal justice God designed into civil government.
The most ancient legal systems never knew of prison sentences. So where did we get prison, probation, and parole sentence which are often heralded as the proper alternative to capital punishment? Very simply put, we have such sentences in America due to the efforts of religious groups, such as the Quakers and their belief in the inherent goodness of man. Their 18th and 19th century movements followed a five point process that is being repeated today. First, a criminal justice system strays from God’s original design and distorts aspects that God had ordained. Second, someone clothed in an aura of religiosity heralding good will toward men takes exception to some criminal sentence, such as capital punishment, and blames its misuse on a corrupt, unfair, or unreasonable criminal justice system. Third, their claim against the system is disingenuous. They never seek to dismantle the criminal justice system and replace it with one in tune with God’s Word. Their real qualm is not with the system. Forth, their suggestion generally strays further away from godly punishment, only to add a form of justice of which they are either the creator or prophet. Fifth, to make God’s way appear unreasonable, they may justify themselves by pointing to biblical passages that they do not understand. For example, some try to discredit a convict’s death sentence by pointing to an Old Testament Israelite death penalty or by misrepresenting the New Testament as being against all capital punishment, but their real agenda may only be to replace capital punishment with a manmade solution, not fix the system.
Read current newspaper articles on criminal justice and you will eventually run across this five-step pattern of offering prison, probation, parole, or other novel ideas, such as community registration of certain types of criminals. Like the religious movements of the past that helped bring prison, probation, and parole sentences into reality, modern religious spokespersons fail to thoroughly study the ideals of biblical jurisprudence before offering their solutions. The bottom line is that the majority of people have examined and valued their solution to crime more than the one proposed by God. To them, I pose Ezekiel's question, “Will ye slay the souls that should not die (i.e. pre-born children and the handicapped) and save the souls alive that should not live (i.e. murderers)?”
Does Absolute Morality Exist?
Why is Biblical Law Better than Muslim Law?
Moses Vs. The Ancient World
Are Prison Sentences a Good Alternative?
WHY DO THE FOLLOWING ORGANIZATIONS THINK THEIR WAY IS BETTER THAN GOD'S WAY?
ALABAMA COMMITTEE TO ABOLISH THE DEATH PENALTY
ALABAMA DEMOCRATIC CONFERENCE
ANTI CHRISTIAN LITIGATION UNIT (ACLU) OF ALABAMA
ALABAMA NEW SOUTH COALITION
ALABAMA PRISON PROJECT
EQUAL JUSTICE INITIATIVE
NAACP OF ALABAMA
PROJECT HOPE TO ABOLISH THE DEATH PENALTY
RESTORATIVE JUSTICE TEAM, NORTH ALABAMA CONFERENCE - UNITED METHODIST CHURCH
THE BIRMINGHAM NEWS EDITORIAL STAFF