The Government Takeover of Capital Punishment

If we want to follow the biblical law for capital punishment of murderers, the execution must be carried out by the victim’s next of kin.

The murderer shall be put to death . . . The avenger of blood shall put the murderer to death; when he meets him, he shall put him to death (Numbers 35:16-19).

In the ancient world, to avenge a murdered relative was considered a sacred duty and honor.  In Rome, young Octavian had the obligation to avenge his uncle Caesar’s death–he was Caesaris ultor.  In Hebrew the word was goel.  The goel had other roles as well, but that of avenging murder was considered an essential service.

The laws in the Torah brought due process io an ancient social reality.  Previously the goel would take vengeance summarily; but the Mosaic regulations required a trial, and there could be no conviction without two or more witnesses.  Further, capital punishment could be avoided if there was not proof of premeditation.  But if premeditated murder was established, there was no substitute for execution at the hands of the goel.

The Torah provisions of due process stopped the cycle of bloody vengeance.  They were a great advance over the practices of the ancient world.  But I don’t think we want to copy the Torah provisions for capital punishment exactly in our world.  Those provisions were given to Israel as part of her civil law while living in the promised land.

The laws were based on important principles and the principles have value for us.  Life is sacred and there is no substitute for a human life except another life.  Vengeance is dangerous and the impulse to vengeance must be brought under control through a fair legal process.

I have no bleeding heart for murderers.  I pray for God’s grace, to help me resist my desire for vengeance, but compassion for vicious criminals does not come natural to me.  I understand the impulse toward vengeance.  But I cannot support capital punishment.

I wouldn’t really want to go back to the principle of direct vengeance by the next of kin.  But I also realize that state sponsored execution is a totally different thing.  Three simple reasons convince me to support life in prison without parole for murderers, rather than execution:

  1. Under the best of circumstances, our legal system makes mistakes.  Recently in Kansas a man was exonerated nearly thirty years after being convicted of rape.  He was awarded over 7 million dollars to compensate for the mistake.  The money might be some consolation for the lost years, and the state has given him back the rest of his life; but there is no giving back a life wrongly taken.
  2. Under normal circumstances, the government is run by politicians and the legal system is run by politicians.  Prosecuting attorneys are either elected or appointed by elected officials.  Attorneys play to win, and if that means suppressing evidence or coercing confessions, that sometimes happen.
  3. Under the worst circumstances, politicians use the power of death to silence their enemies.  I don’t know that it has ever happened here, but I know it is happening in Iran today.  Why would we want to be associated with governments like that?  Why would we want to give our government that kind of power?

Another Church Shooting

reformation lutheran

An usher was murdered at a Lutheran church in Wichita yesterday.  Back in March, Clint Van Zandt reported,

So far this year, churches in 39 states have reported 141 incidents, including shots fired, robberies, burglaries and bomb threats. Some shooters are liberals, some conservatives, some act under the belief that God ordered them to do so while others do not believe in God or organized religion.  (Newsvine)

Yesterday’s murder was likely perpetrated by someone who believed he was doing God’s will, since the victim was the late-term abortion provider Dr. George Tiller.  As usual, the Phred Felps family, which celebrates all murders, showed up to applaud Tiller’s murder.

Phred Felps himself is a case of how something can start out apparently good and then go awry.  In the 1960’s and ’70s he represented many African Americans in civil rights cases.   He and his daughter claim they systematically took on and dismantled the Jim Crow laws in the state (more here).  Then sometime around 1977, something snapped, and he was eventually disbarred.

I know many people who describe themselves as Pro-Life.   Most are quiet and humble.  A few have participated in quiet demonstrations, but most have never taken part in any form of public protest.  I don’t know any who approve of violence.  Of course, some will brand all who are prolife as dangerous fanatics.  Yesterday’s violence will be more than a setback for the movement.  I suspect it will quietly fade away, at least as far as being any kind of public political movement.

Maybe some will continue to work to reduce the number of crisis pregnancies and to support women who are pregnant in difficult circumstances.

steve green

The following may not seem related, but to me it is.  Last week a jury in Kentucky spared the life of Steven Green, who had been convicted of murder and rape in Iraq.  You could not imagine a more horrendous crime than the one planned and committed by Green.  If any crime ever deserved death, it was his.  Yet, the jury chose to deal a measure of mercy, giving him life without parole.

This leads me to a simple conclusion: It is time to abolish the death penalty in America.  Capital punishment might  be a deterrent where it is swift and sure, but in our system it will always be rare and agonizingly slow.  It can never be applied consistently, and so it can never be fair.

The Kentucky jury’s failure to choose execution for Green is an insult to the people of Iraq.  Than can see it only as an indication that American’s regard their lives as less valuable than the lives of others.  If capital punishment had never been an option, at least they would have had the consolation that we had given the harshest penalty possible to the perpetrator of this monstrous crime.

My further conclusion is that the only way to be pro-life is to be consistently nonviolent, and to work consistently for peaceful solutions to problems, however difficult the problems may be.