You’re probably gonna tell me to stop reading Charisma News when you hear I was stunned to come across their recent lead article, Executing 8 Murderers Isn’t ‘Unchristian’ by Bryan Fischer.
Fischer is a broadcaster with American Family Radio. His article was originally published on their website. In it, he offers the usual reasons why capital punishment is necessary, sprinkling his commentary with various Old Testament references and then detailing the crimes of the eight men about to be executed by the state of Arkansas (one of them, Ledell Lee, has already been put to death by lethal injection).
But his outrage isn’t entirely directed toward the men on death row. It’s also directed at Christians who have the temerity to oppose the death penalty.
Grousing about a Christian Today article entitled Christian campaigners horrified by Arkansas execution, Fischer takes the site and the article’s author to task for daring to imply that the Christian position on capital punishment is to oppose it.
Wrong, wrong, wrong, he says.
“This headline is written as if that is the only acceptable ‘Christian’ position to take,” Fischer bemoans.
In fact, he goes on to say, “It would be unbiblical and unChristian not to carry out the death penalty for cold-blooded murder.”
Bryan Fischer then quotes Martin Luther King, as if to imply that Dr King would agree with his own stance on the death penalty.
In actual fact, Dr King was vehemently opposed to capital punishment. In 1957, he said,
“I do not think that God approves the death penalty for any crime, rape and murder included… Capital punishment is against the better judgment of modern criminology, and, above all, against the highest expression of love in the nature of God.”
Look, if all we had was the Old Testament and personal moral outrage, you can quite easily make a case for capital punishment. It’s called, in Latin, lex talionis, which means a legal retaliation in which the punishment corresponds in kind and degree to the offence.
In other words, an eye for an eye.
But we don’t just have Hebrew Law. We’ve got Jesus’ words too:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.” (Mt.5:38-39)
This isn’t Jesus rejecting Hebrew Law. He is fulfilling it. In effect, he’s saying, “Without me, all you’ve got is lex talionis. On your own, justice will only ever be retaliation and repayment – an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life. But with me, you can be free. I can satisfy the covenant. I can fulfill the Law of Moses and free you from this endless cycle of vengeance and retaliation.”
And not only from the death penalty. Jesus came to fulfill the Mosaic laws regarding Sabbaths, circumcision, sacrifices, new moons, feasts of unleavened bread, distinctions of foods, drink, and clothes, and a bunch of other things too.
While tangling with Jewish religious leaders over his fraternization with “sinners” and his apparent lack of observance of the Sabbath, Jesus snarls, “Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’.” (Mt.9:13 and 12:7)
Without Jesus all we’ve got is sacrifice. Endless sacrifice. A life for a life. Forever and ever. But Jesus’ death and resurrection satisfies Yahweh’s covenant with Moses and makes us finally and forever free.
You see, Christians who advocate for the death penalty based on passages from Deuteronomy and Exodus are quite happy to be free from circumcision or eating kosher. So, why not capital punishment?
Because moral outrage is delicious.
At one level, sacrifice is way more pleasurable than mercy.
I told you Fischer’s article details the horrific crimes of the eight men on death row in Arkansas. He takes more time to do so than he does to build his Old Testament case for capital punishment. He’s building our sense of outrage. He’s enticing us with the deliciously repugnant feelings of vengeance and retaliation.
We know these feelings well. They breach the surface of our consciousness every time we see an action film in which Bruce Willis or Tom Cruise or Denzel Washington or Liam Neeson hunt down and kill the bad guys, saving the baddest guy until the end in order to mete out peculiar pain and suffering on him.
If one of the Arkansas 8 had murdered someone I love the way they did their victims I would want vengeance too. Who can blame someone for feeling that way? It’s natural. Perfectly natural. But aren’t we called to resist our natural desires?
Hasn’t Jesus shown us the more perfect way? And didn’t he promise to send us his Spirit to transform us, to enable us to live supernaturally? To prefer mercy over sacrifice.
And this brings me back to Charisma News and it’s print version Charisma magazine. It claims to be news source for charismatic and Pentecostal Christians.
What’s more charismatic than being filled with the Spirit? And what’s more Spirit-filled than to desire that which Christ desires? The Holy Spirit should free us from a hunger for lex talionis and remake us as merciful, long-suffering, good and true followers of Jesus Christ, the one who taught us to turn the other cheek.
In his remarkable demolition of the Christian case for capital punishment, Executing Grace, Shane Claiborne (originally from Arkansas himself) writes, “When we receive the gift of grace, it should transform us into grace-filled people who want to see other people given a chance, and other people loved back to life again.” And later:
“We now are invited to extend that same grace to others. We are to be like God and forgive. We are to see people who do evil with the possibility that they can be healed. And we are to extend to them the same grace God extends to us. We are all victims of the crushing power of sin, and all in need of liberation.”
It is indeed biblical and Christian not to carry out the death penalty for murder. To suggest otherwise is to give in to our most base desires and to act on our most natural and understandable impulses. Jesus came to free us from this and to show us the better way.