Last week’s botched execution of an Oklahoma inmate brought the death penalty back into the forefront of discussion in the Christian blogosphere. In an Op-Ed piece for CNN Al Mohler argued that Christians can and should still support the death penalty. Others, such as Rachel Held Evans and Jonathan Merritt, responded by questioning what Jesus would do. Can we turn the other cheek and still support capital punishment?
The discussion is an illustration of a larger issue: should we elevate the “red letter words”–the spoken words of Jesus–above the rest of Scripture? It seems to be a belief implicit in many people’s comments on this and other issues. It’s said in different ways:
“Well Jesus didn’t say anything about _______ so it must not really be that important.”
“Sure, the Old Testament says that, but what did Jesus say about it?”
“Paul says ______, but Jesus says ________. Aren’t Jesus’ words more significant?”
Here’s my concern: Jesus is the author and perfecter of our faith. He is God incarnate, the Word made flesh, the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his nature. As we consider ethical issues we need to take the words of Jesus seriously. It carries weight when the King speaks about the kingdom. But we must not approach Scripture as if God speaks with a divided voice. God has revealed himself in his Son. He has also revealed himself in the Word, and the two are not in conflict.
If we are going to take Jesus’ words seriously, we must also assume that Jesus meant it when he said that he did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17). We should take note that he responded to Satan’s temptation by quoting from Deuteronomy (Matthew 4:1-11). We should consider that when Jesus said that “Man should not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from mouth of God (Matthew 4:4),” the “every word” he referred to was the Old Testament, not the Gospels and Epistles that were yet to be written. We should view the Old Testament as the inspired word of God because Jesus viewed it that way.
Would Jesus dispute Paul’s words that “All Scripture is inspired by God and useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16)? Hardly. Paul’s words to a young Timothy are entirely consistent with what Jesus lived out during his earthly ministry. Jesus challenged the Pharisees’ legalism and hypocrisy, but he also taught the people to read the law as it was always meant to be understood: a revelation of God’s heart for his people.
That doesn’t mean that there are not difficult interpretive and ethical issues involved in reading Scripture. There are. But accusations of picking and choosing favorite passages are often a splinter-meets-log kind of issue. Suggesting that Christians are inconsistent in reading Scripture because we don’t stone rebellious children, condone polygamy, or forbid cotton-rayon blends, also fails to recognize that there are systems of interpretation that we follow. We recognize, for example, that biblical narratives are often descriptive, not prescriptive. We recognize that Jesus changed our relationship to the Law, and that cutting off your hand to keep you from sinning is an example of hyperbole. But none of that means we get to simply set aside portions of the Bible as no longer relevant. If we want to know what God says on an issue, we need to take into account the full counsel of the word of God.
When it comes to an issue as complex as the death penalty, there are no easy answers. As Mohler points out in his article, we might begin by acknowledging that God himself told Noah that death was the just penalty for a person who destroyed the image of God by murdering innocents (Genesis 9:5-6). We might consider Paul’s assertion that the government does not wield the sword in vain and that governmental authorities are God’s agents of wrath on those who practice evil (Romans 13:4). We might remember that Peter described governors as sent by the Lord for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right (1 Peter 2:14).
And yes, we should consider the words of Jesus. When Jesus said we should love our enemies, pray for those who persecute us, and forgive as we have been forgiven, he meant it (Matthew 5:44; 6:12,14-15). But do those words apply to nations in the same way as they do to individuals? Do they mean if someone hits me I should not only turn the other cheek but also refuse to press assault charges? And is it relevant that the one who submitted himself to death on the cross will one day return on a white horse, sword in hand, ready to “tread the winepress of the fierce wrath of God” (Revelation 19:11-16)?
We should remember that we serve a God who desires justice and mercy, not sacrifice. We should remember that God judged the nation of Israel for their oppression and exploitation of the poor. Those warnings should be in our minds as we consider the failings of a justice system that disproportionately puts the poor, black, and mentally handicapped to death. When statistics tell us that 1 out of 25 people on death row are innocent, we should take seriously that God hates the shedding of innocent blood (Proverbs 6:16-19).
But these are not the only questions we should ask. Jesus said that “if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depths of the sea” (Matthew 18:6). What would he say about a man who kidnapped and raped an 18 year old girl before shooting her twice and burying her alive? What would Christ consider the just penalty for a man who raped an 11 month old infant and left her with fatal injuries that included a 6 inch skull fracture, three broken ribs, a broken jaw, bruised lungs, and a lacerated liver and spleen? What does justice look like for this type of heinous crime?
We live in a sin-stained world. On this side of heaven we wrestle with what it looks like to live as faithful people in an unfaithful world. As we struggle with these and other questions we must take into account all the resources God has given us. God has spoken in his Son. He has spoken in his Word. All the letters matter–not just the red ones.
Like this post? Subscribe to get updates by e-mail.