Thursday, May 21, 2015

Scot McKnight Against the Death Penalty

I agree with Scot McKnight on more important issues than I disagree.  We're on the same team.  Nevertheless I demure on his recent post on capital punishment.  I am going to skip over the part where McKnight talks about the Old Testament and head right to the part where I have disagreements.  Also, I have not looked at the 100+ comments about his post; perhaps some of the issues I raise are addressed by him there.
Third, Jesus clearly undermines the lex talionis. Not because Jesus didn’t believe in justice, or that the death penalty was unjust. Here’s what Jesus says:
 Matt 5:38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42 Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
The Torah of Moses specified justifiable revenge; Jesus contends that his followers are to extend grace. He knows what justice permits; he just doesn’t think that is the way to proceed for his community of faith. Yes, he seems to be saying, the lex talionis is just, but among my followers there will not be the pursuit of revenge. As I point out in The Sermon on the Mount, what was “show no mercy” in the Torah under Jesus becomes an opportunity to show mercy. [my highlights in bold]

McKnight focuses on Matthew 5 and says that lex talionis is just, nonetheless for Jesus's followers there will be no pursuit of revenge.  This seems to be problematic on two scores.  First, we need to be careful to separate vengeance--acting for the sake of evening the score--which I agree Jesus rules out, with rendering to another his due regardless of intent.  For instance, I might think that for the good of my son I will stand him in the corner because he deserves it and it is good for him to get what he deserves in this instance, not because I am vengeful or seeking to even the score in the abstract with no mind to my son's good in this instance.  I might explain to him what justice is, explain to him that it is good for him to experience getting what he deserves, that I love him and want him to be just, that I am punishing him not out of vengeance but out of love and on the basis of my authority over him and his brothers and sisters, and so forth.  So to be clear, on my reading, Jesus dismisses revenge but does not rule out just punishments being implemented by rightful authorities.  

Second, Jesus addressing a message to Christians does not thereby entail that the lessons are only to apply to Christians (which the quotation in bold above suggests), in the same way that God addressing the 10 Commandments to ancient Hebrews does not entail that the laws are only to apply to ancient Hebrews. 

Wasn't Jesus, in addressing his disciples, addressing Jews (Jews who were Christians)?  When he says "You have heard that it was said...," he's appealing to their knowledge of the Law (which he didn't come to abolish but to fulfill).  It would be odd indeed if the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount apply only to Christians and not Jews.  But then if it applies to Jews and Christians why think it doesn't apply to Muslims, etc.?

But we have more than Matthew's Gospel upon which to base our view. Luke's version of the Sermon on the Mount characterizes the Sermon as being addressed to a wider audience than just Jesus's disciples.  Here is Luke's account:
17 He went down with them and stood on a level place. A large crowd of his disciples was there and a great number of people from all over Judea, from Jerusalem, and from the coastal region around Tyre and Sidon,18 who had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases. Those troubled by impure spirits were cured,19 and the people all tried to touch him, because power was coming from him and healing them all.
20 Looking at his disciples, he said:
Luke's version suggests that, although Jesus looked at his disciples, the message is also conveyed to a much wider audience that had come to be healed and listen to him (even from port cities like Tyre and Sidon suggesting that some might not have been Jews).  In addition, Luke seamlessly moves from an account of the Sermon on the Mount to relating to the reader about the faith of a Roman Centurion in the next chapter.

So if the Sermon on the Mount contains a message against capital punishment, I suggest that it's a message for all and not just for Christians.  But even if it were only addressed to Christians, since (from the Christian point of view, certain Calvinist/late-medieval views aside) all are called to be Christians, the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount are an ethics for everyone.  If capital punishment is impermissible, it is impermissible simpliciter or at the very least it's impermissible in practice for all

But of course we know from the Old Testament (as McKnight cites) and Romans 13 (and common sense) that some acts of killing are indeed permissible.  True, Jesus calls us not to retaliate or seek vengeance and to love even our enemies, but some uses of "the sword" are permissible as well as just.  Presumably there were just instances of capital punishment in Old Testament times.  But then does Jesus change the law such that no instances of capital punishment can now be just?   I fail to see that he does.
Fourth, forgiveness is a notable emphasis of Jesus, of his followers, and of the Christian faith. In Jesus Creed, chp. 23, I explain that forgiveness, or at least the emphasis given to it, takes a path that the Judaism of Jesus’ day was not prepared to take. And, I would contend that Jesus and the early Christians sensed this shift: they were to create an alternative community, one not marked by a justice system of offense and retributive/strict/undifferentiated punishment, but of offense and redemption/forgiveness leading to restoration through repentance. (Hence, a good expression of restorative justice that goes beyond retributive justice.) Grace and forgiveness unleash the power of God that re-makes humans. That is the way of Jesus.
Forgiveness is indeed a notable emphasis.  I take Jesus to be giving his ethics of love and reconciliation in the Sermon on the Mount.  Love.  Love even your enemies. And don't get even.  Don't set yourself on trying to settle the score.  You say an eye for an eye, I say, Don't get even and stop thinking in terms of the code of reciprocity. If a soldier asks for your tunic, you should love that soldier--you should have in mind the well-being of the soldier.  If someone slaps you on the cheek, you are to love that person and are to think of that person's good and not simply your own rights. Give up your right to get even for the sake of love and unity.  If someone asks you for money, you are to love that person and not think selfishly about your own good and exclusively about your rights to your money.

Jesus replaces the ancient and ubiquitous ethics of retaliation and retribution--the mindset of evening the score, with an ethics of love.  Instead of having the mindset that we are to get even when wronged, we are to consider the good of others, even our enemies.  In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus is giving a general ethic of love, beginning with the Beatitudes, which beautifully illustrate God's blessings for the spiritually pure as well as the spiritually, emotionally, and physically downtrodden.  Nonetheless, all of this seems compatible with (e.g.) killing in self-defense, to stop a serial killer in the act of killing, and capital punishment.  In loving (for instance) a murderer, one is take into account his well being and one is to treat him as a human and not a lesser animal.  One is not simply to aim at evening the score.  But love and forgiveness are compatible with punishment and governmental systems of punishment (Romans 13.)  If not, then McKnight's claim about forgiveness would seem to entail that no punishment is permissible whatsoever.  But then we need a further argument for why capital punishment is an impermissible form of punishment.  If, for instance, capital punishment deters or prevents more murders of innocents than life imprisonment, it is not clear how it is less consistent with love than life imprisonment.
Fifth, the system of embracing grace in the Bible sabotages the system of justice.   God’s love for us restores us by forgiving us.  God’s grace is a system in which revenge is denied and punishment absorbed. Cracked Eikons are restored to be glory-producing Eikons as a result of this gospel.
This passage seems to smack of universalism (this is not to say that McKnight is a universalist, but this passage at least suggests it.)  But if universal salvation is true, then it undermines a good deal of the force of some of the arguments against capital punishment, since regardless of whether one is put to death, everyone--even the unrepentant murderer on death row--will make it to the party.  But suppose McKnight does not have universalism in mind and thinks that God will render to some people what they deserve in the form of punishment.  Then we need an additional argument for thinking that capital punishment is inconsistent with rendering to people what they deserve, with God's forgiveness, etc.
The reason Christians should oppose the death penalty is because they believe that (1) humans are Eikons of God who, because of the redemptive work of the trinitarian God in the Cross, Resurrection, and Pentecost, (2) can be restored to union with God and communion with others. Christians can oppose the death penalty because they have hope and believe that God’s grace can undo what has been done and remake the criminal into a person he or she was not previously.
The argument is invalid.  Regarding (1), yes, Christians should believe that all are made in the image of God.  But McKnight fails to tell us why this should lead us to believe that Christians should be against the death penalty. If someone murders a four-year-old, one has murdered someone in the image of God.  Why should that person then not face the death penalty for destroying someone made in the image of God?  Further, why should this murderer, made in the image of God, face life in prison?  Why should someone made in the image of God be punished at all?   One answer is because he deserves it.  But then we need an argument from the image of God that either he doesn't deserve it or that there is some overriding good such that even if he deserves it, he should not face the death penalty.  Regarding (2), yes, for some, they can be restored to union with God and communion with others.  Some.  But why should we think that all can be restored?  If we have good reason to think that universalism is true, then we have good reason to think that all can be restored because all will be restored.  But, again, does McKnight's argument hinge on there being good reason to think that universalism is true?
I do think life imprisonment is just, but I see no reason to go any further than that
Here is a reason: Someone who kills someone in the image of God deserves to be killed.  Presumably this is a defeasible reason, but a reason nonetheless.  But this passage still confuses me.  Here, it sounds as if McKnight does not think that capital punishment is unjust for Christians, but it's intrinsically unjust.  But then how is one to reconcile the intrinsic injustice of capital punishment with some of God's commands for capital punishment in the Old Testament?
[O]f course, it is not just to keep someone alive who has murdered another human (who is also an Eikon), but the system of grace taught by Jesus deconstructs the system of justice by taking it to an entirely new level. 
I am confused by this passage.  I don't know what it means for Jesus to deconstruct the system of justice by taking it to a new level.  McKnight seems committed to the following irreconcilable propositions : (1) life imprisonment for a murderer is unjust (presumably because it renders to one less than what one is due) whereas capital punishment is just; (2) Life imprisonment is just but not capital punishment [see the previous quotation]; (3) Jesus's ethics does away with justice.  But, again, I am not sure how to understand this passage.

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