Thursday, July 23, 2009

Reflections on the death penalty at lethal injection number 1,000

Marvallous Keene and three accomplices went on a three-day murder and robbery rampage in Dayton, Ohio that began on Christmas Eve 1992 and left six people dead. His victims included an 18-year old mother gunned down in a phone booth. He was executed on Tuesday and he became the 1,000th person to be put to death by lethal injection in the U.S. since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.

Keene's crime was horrible and the state was right to take his life but it should have done so through life imprisonment rather than execution.

You might respond that the Bible supports the death penalty. If the scriptures support the death penalty, it certainly cannot be argued that they support a mandatory death penalty. If the Bible supported a mandatory death penalty then Moses would have been executed for murdering the Egyptian who was beating a Hebrew. If the Bible supported a mandatory death penalty then David would have been executed for murdering Bathsheba’s husband. If the Bible supported a mandatory death penalty then Cain would have been executed for killing Abel.

Cain’s case is particularly interesting. Moses and David went on to become biblical heroes even though they were also murderers. But Cain, according to the Bible, had no redeeming qualities whatsoever. In the New Testament, 1 John 3:12, we are told that Cain “belonged to the evil one.” Yet, even though Cain is said to belong to the devil himself, God spared this murderer and warned that anyone who dared to take matters in to their own hands by killing Cain would suffer a harsh punishment. So God punished Cain, the first murderer, but he would not execute him and he took steps to see that no one else executed him either. That’s God’s direct pattern to us for punishing murderers based on his own punishment of the first murderer.

So if you say the Bible supports the death penalty you cannot say it supports a mandatory death penalty. However, if you wish to strictly follow the biblical guidelines for capital punishment, then you need to push for some new laws. You need to press for legislation that makes provision for the execution of rebellious children. The Bible allows this (Deut. 21:18-21). I know some parents who may from time to time wish this were the law of the land, but are you ready to start state executions of rebellious kids?

If you want to do the death penalty strictly as the Bible allows then you need to push for legislation providing for the execution of adulterers. The Bible allows this too (Lev. 20:10). I know some spouses who may wish this were the law of the land, but do you think we should have state sponsored killing of unfaithful spouses?

We as a society have never practiced the death penalty exactly as the biblical law allows.

Our culture outlawed slavery over 140 years ago even though the Bible allows slavery. The Bible regulated slavery in a society in which it was strictly the norm as it regulated the death penalty in a society in which capital punishment was strictly the norm. While it could be argued that the Bible allows slavery, historians say principles of the New Testament ended the practice here and in other Western societies. In like manner it is time that the principles of the New Testament end the death penalty as well.

Romans 1:16 tells us that the gospel is "the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes" (TNIV). The power of God is powerful enough to transform anyone, even murderers, but not if we give them lethal injections first. We can protect society from murderers short of killing them. Because life is precious and because the gospel, the power of God, can transform anyone we must put murderers in prison for life rather than executing them.

Evangelical Christians tend to have a serious inconsistency in their thought process on this point and this inconsistency has shown itself several times down through the years, perhaps most pointedly in one particular case. Back in 1998 Karla Faye Tucker was to be executed in Texas for murdering two people with a pickax. But Tucker had also undergone a jailhouse conversion. You may remember the TV news footage showing her worshipping and reading her Bible. By all accounts she underwent a genuine salvation experience. Because of her profession of faith, many evangelical Christians, including the likes of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, began to plea for Karla Faye Tucker to be spared the death penalty.

If she had been unconverted, hardened criminal headed for hell, many evangelical Christians would have said, “Yeah! Serves her right! Let her have it!” But since she had been converted and headed for heaven many fought to keep her alive in her prison cell. Didn’t these evangelicals have this backwards?

I mean, if we care about keeping people out of hell, shouldn’t we be begging for a little more time to witness to those on death row who are headed for hell? Why fight for the lives of inmates going to heaven while pushing for the deaths of inmates going to hell? It does not seem to make good biblical sense.

Do you see the inconsistency here? We believe the gospel is the power of God that can transform anyone, even murderers. We believe that Jesus wants for us to use the gospel, the power of God, to keep people out of hell. But then many evangelicals want to hurry up and execute inmates headed for hell while they try to save inmates headed for heaven.

There is a serious problem in that thinking, and do you know what the problem is? Hate. We love inmates like Karla Faye Tucker that are headed for heaven, but hate the other inmates that we think are going to hell. Did Jesus call us to hate?

"Life for life" is the principle given in Deuteronomy 19:21 and several other passages. I agree with that principle. I am in full agreement that the state should take the lives of murderers like Keene. But this should be done through life imprisonment. Either way they die in state custody where they are no threat to society and with life imprisonment we uphold the biblical principle of "life for life" while also upholding the crucial scriptural principle of the sanctity of human life.

Being true to the biblical principles related to the punishment of murderers does not require us to execute murderers. We can take their lives behind bars where they are no longer a threat to society and where the gospel, the power of God, can still transform them. Study after study has shown that capital punishment has no deterrent effect on crime. Moral questions should not be decided based on money, but if we were to factor in dollars and cents, the death penalty costs a lot more than life imprisonment. Furthermore the Bible does not require the death penalty for murderers even in the Old Testament and it could be argued that principles of the New Testament are against the death penalty.

Would that we could end the death penalty in this country before we get to lethal injection number 1,001. But, since Ohio has another execution scheduled for next month, this seems unlikely.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Hat's off to Albert Mohler

In case you missed it, Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said in April that "President Obama's statement [on April 6 in Turkey] that America is not a Christian country is ... both accurate and helpful, though he is being criticized by many conservative Christians for making the claim." Mohler's support of President Obama's comment is in line with another Baptist writing 218 years ago. As noted below, Baptist minister and leader John Leland wrote in 1790, during the ratification process of the Bill of Rights, "The notion of a Christian commonwealth should be exploded forever."

Dr. Mohler is correct that many conservative Christian leaders (including James Dobson) have attacked Obama's contention that the United States is not a Christian nation. Hat's off to him for breaking ranks and affirming both the veracity of the president's statement and his own Baptist heritage. Making Christianity the official religion of the government would not be a Christian thing to do.

Baptists in Virginia in the days of John Leland knew what it was to be severely persecuted by a "Christian" government establishment. This experience along with the teachings of Christ inspired them to be advocates for the complete separation of church and state. That effort was wise at the founding of this country and it remains wise today.

" ... marriage between church and state ... "

Consider this opinion concerning the union of church and state:

Never promote men who seek after a state-established religion; it is spiritual tyranny—the worst of despotism. It is turnpiking the way to heaven by human law, in order to establish ministerial gates to collect toll. It converts religion into a principle of state policy, and the gospel into merchandise. Heaven forbids the [proclamations] of marriage between church and state; their embraces,therefore, must be unlawful.
Who said it? It was Baptist minister and leader John Leland writing on July 5, 1802. His view was typical of Baptists at the founding of the United States. Baptists of today who decry the separation of church and state are at odds with their heritage and the teachings of Jesus who rejected the use of government to achieve his mission.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Which church has the whole truth?

In 1791 Baptist minister and leader John Leland said, "It is not supposable that any established creed contains the whole truth and nothing but truth; but supposing it did, which established church has got it?" He was underscoring one of the many problems in uniting church and state. If Christian principles are to be promoted by the government, whose version of Christianity is to be advanced? Catholic or Protestant? (Think Northern Ireland here.) If we pick a denomination, which one should we choose? What will we do about the doctrinal differences within the ranks of that denomination?

Would we try to develop a governmental form of Christianity that resolves all the differing views within Christendom? Does anyone think that would ever work? Does anyone like the idea of a government approved gospel?

Better to let the church advance the cause of Christ and leave government out of the effort. After all, when Satan offered Jesus the governments of the world, the Lord turned him down.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

A Baptist leader said it too

In the presidential election of 1800, Thomas Jefferson's political enemies labelled him an infidel largely over this line penned in 1782: "[I]t does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg." One newspaper declared the choice between John Adams and Jefferson to be a choice between "allegiance to GOD--AND A RELIGIOUS PRESIDENT; or impiously declare for JEFFERSON AND NO GOD!!!"

You might think that Baptists were on the front lines opposing Jefferson who was branded a heretic by many, but such was not the case. Indeed, prominent Baptist minister and leader John Leland borrowed the "twenty gods or no God" phrase from Jefferson on at least two occasions. Commenting on the notion of religious tests for public office, Leland wrote in 1790, "If a man merits the confidence of his neighbors ... let him worship one God, twenty Gods or no God -- be Jew, Turk, Pagan, or infidel, he is eligible to any office ..." In 1791 this Baptist leader wrote, “Let every man speak freely without fear—maintain the principles that he believes—worship according to his own faith, either one God, three Gods, no God, or twenty Gods; and let government protect him in so doing …”

These words were not written by guy who did not believe in evangelism. Leland preached nearly 8,000 sermons and baptized over 1,500 converts. He was passionate about the gospel and because he was passionate about the gospel he and his fellow Baptists were also advocates of religious liberty expressed through the separation of church and state. It was his zeal for religious freedom that led Leland to write his own version of the "twenty gods or no god" line.

It was dedication to liberty of conscience that also led Baptists to actively campaign for Jefferson in the 1800 election even though he was widely maligned as "an enemy to pure morals and religion" as one newspaper proclaimed. When Jefferson won the election, Leland celebrated saying that his "hero" was victorious. He was glad that Jefferson, "the defender of the rights of man and the rights of conscience", was in the White House.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Baptists preferred a "Godless" constitution

Today many evangelicals, Baptists in particular, would love to see explicit references to God in the Constitution of the United States. This desire is completely at odds with that of Baptists of the early days of this country. When the Constitution was proposed in 1787, Baptists opposed it because it contained no explicit guarantee of religious liberty. The document contained no reference to God at all, but that did not bother Baptists. Indeed, they preferred it that way.

Baptist minister and leader John Leland led the Baptist charge for the addition of a Bill of Rights to the Constitution, including the guarantee of religious liberty for all. But Leland and his fellow Baptists wished the Constitution to remain "Godless." Later Leland pressed a revision to the Massachusetts state Constitution. One item in that document that Leland and his fellow Baptist opposed was the assertion that "it is the right and duty of all men publicly, and at stated seasons, to worship the Supreme Being." Leland wrote in 1794 that he agreed with the statement but he and his fellow Baptists maintained that it "would read much better in a catechism than in a state constitution."

Baptists of earlier days preferred "Godless" government Constitutions because they were firm advocates of the complete separation of church and state. Virginia Baptists suffered severe persecution at the hands of fellow Christians in the government sponsored Anglican Church from about 1760-1780. This ugly example of the mingling of church and state taught Baptists that the two should be kept separate.

And so "Godless" government Constitutions were just fine with Baptists of the late 1700's and early 1800's. Would that this were still true today.