The Real Reason For Capital Punishment

Last week we took issue with a local editorial concerning Susan Smith and capital punishment. Frequently, it is the case that society’s liberals (which includes most college professors and newspaper editors) oppose using the death penalty under any circumstances. They are not, however, the only ones who protest its use. Surprisingly, many offer religious objections.

One such individual is Philip Morgan, an Episcopal priest, who wrote a guest column for the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette last December 25th (cute timing, huh?) on the occasion of a recent execution. By the end of his first paragraph, the reader knows where he stands since it ends with the words “state-sponsored killing.” State-sponsored? Sounds like a phrase that should accompany a jogging marathon or a turkey giveaway.

“I believe that most of us would agree that the killing of one person by another is wrong,” writes Mr. Morgan, “yet many people do not hold to that viewpoint in matters of capital punishment” (all quotations are from page 3C). “Most of us” does not include Jack Kevorkian, Planned Parenthood, or abortion doctors, but even if the statement is true, what is the relevance? If the authority is “most of us,” then does it really matter if we are inconsistent (in his eyes)? If most of us “feel” that killing is wrong and that killers should be put to death, why complain? If we base our ethics on what the majority thinks, then we just have to live with the results.

But one would think that an Episcopal priest might be more interested in what the Bible teaches as a source of authority for right and wrong than what the majority thinks. After all, the majority of people shall be lost; only a few will be saved (Matt. 7:13-14). Killing someone who is unworthy of death is murder, and murder is wrong. Murder is not wrong because I think so or because the majority of people think so; it is wrong because God thinks so.


Killing Versus Murder
Those two words are similar but not synonymous. The King James and the American Standard do render Exodus 20:13, “Thou shalt not kill,” but the New King James and the New American Standard more appropriately translate the verse, “You shall not murder.” In the classic book on Biblical Ethics, edited by Terry Hightower, Joe Cox writes in his chapter, “You Shall Not Murder,” the following comments: “It is generally recognized that the word [ratsach , gws] should have been rendered ‘murder.’ There is a vast difference between the definitions. It is possible to kill and yet not murder. All murder is killing; yet one can kill accidentally and not be guilty of breaking this commandment” (247).

The Law of Moses allowed for the possibility of accidentally killing someone. But there are two instances in which God authorized killing. The first was for committing a capital offense (which included murder, rape, incest, kidnapping, homosexuality, bestiality, idolatry, blasphemy, witchcraft, and about twenty more crimes–see Nave’s Topical Bible 1087). God also authorized killing in war(Deut. 7:2). When any of these three situations arose in the Old Testament, God did not regard them as “murder.”

If God did not regard it as inconsistent for a murderer to be killed, then perhaps this Episcopal priest should re-examine his own views and quit making accusations against those who are in agreement with God in this matter. Of course, today we are not under the Old Testament but the New. Have things changed? Accidental killing still occurs; God does not specifically authorize war today as He did when He punished the Canaanites for their sins; but capital punishment is still the right of the state.


“He Beareth Not the Sword in Vain”
Under the Old Testament system Israel was a theocracy, which means the civil government and the rule of God were one and the same. Such an arrangement no longer exists. Christians are scattered throughout the world: their highest allegiance is to God (Acts 5:29), but they must also respect and abide by the laws of the land. “Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God” (Rom. 13:1).

This civil authority is specifically called “God’s minister.” If we do evil, we ought to “be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil” (Rom. 13:4). Mr. Morgan writes his entire column without ever once referring to this passage of Scripture, which settles the whole controversy. Under the New Testament system the state (civil government) has the right to execute evildoers, and it is not murder when they do so any more than it was under the Law of Moses. Is it killing? Yes. Is it murder? No. It is clearly authorized by God through the Holy Spirit-inspired words of the apostle Paul.

Morgan also never mentions Gen. 9:5-6, which explains why God authorizes capital punishment, nor does he discuss Ex. 20:13, as was done above. For someone who is supposed to know the Scriptures, it is amazing that he omits all of the crucial passages on the subject.


“All You Need Is Love”
In order to do away with the death penalty he cites Jesus as correcting “the popular misunderstanding of the code of retaliation,” (referring to “an eye for an eye”). He claims that Jesus transcended that idea in Matthew 6. It’s too bad he didn’t quote the verse since nothing from Matt. 6 pertains to the subject. He may have meant Matt. 7:12, frequently called “the golden rule”? Probably he was referring to Matt. 5:38-39, in which Jesus mentions “an eye for an eye” but then advocates “turning the other cheek.”

“Love is the Answer,” as the once popular song agrees. But what Jesus taught in Matt. 5 is not in the context of murder. Our Lord is not advocating chaos nor attempting to render the civil government powerless. He is teaching that we should not be motivated by revenge on a personal level. The one who leaps from this thought to anti-capital punishment reaches an unwarranted conclusion. It is evident from what Paul wrote in Romans 13 that Jesus was not denouncing the death penalty nor transcending it.

Another argument the Episcopal priest makes against executing criminals is that there have been numerous incidents of the innocent being put to death. Such atrocities do happen–two examples come to mind: Naboth (1 Kings 21:1-14); and our Lord Jesus Christ. God is painfully aware of what false witnesses, liars, and whipped up emotions can cause. He knows that even honest mistakes can be made. But these possibilities do not negate the need for justice. An entire system can not be thrown out because of occasional imperfections. Having watched the innocent Lamb of God be crucified, the Father had ample time to change His mind about capital punishment. He did not do so.

The Proper Punishment

The Denton Record-Chronicle took the position on Monday, July 31st, that Susan Smith had received the appropriate sentence for her crime. The editorial did not appear to be against capital punishment per se (which is fortunate, since the one the next day justified the use of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima), but if this woman was not worthy of death, then who is? Let’s consider the writer’s reasons for agreeing with the jury.
“Killing Susan Smith would not have brought the boys back” (all quotations are from page 4A). Has anyone ever argued that capital punishment should be used in an effort to restore the lives of the victims? Surely, no sane person would think such; so what is the purpose of such a statement, if not to always avoid the use of the death penalty?

“It would have been vengeance, pure and simple, and that is not what the death penalty should be used for.” First of all, how does the editorial writer know that the jury’s motive, had they chosen the death penalty, would have sprung from vengeance? Does he mean that such a sentence is always indicative of vengeance? If so, then he has indicted even God, who authorized it (Gen. 9:5-6). Although punishment can result from vengeance, it can also be a matter of retribution.

“Had she committed the crime in Texas and been tried here, one of the questions the jury would have had to answer would have been whether she was a continuing threat to society,” which the writer did not view her as. Now what exactly is behind this peculiar law? Is the public supposed to distinguish between different types of killers? Are professional “hit men” more worthy of the death penalty than those who just kill off family members? That’s logical–in a strange way: the idea (we conjecture) is that most of us have a finite set of family members where as “hit men” could continue on endlessly. It’s true that Susan Smith has now run out of children to kill just as the Menendez brothers have run out of parents. Therefore, society is safe from them. Great, let’s be sure to communicate this message to everyone: “You are guaranteed life imprisonment rather than the death penalty until you use up your family member exemptions.”

The title of this editorial is “Susan Smith Will Have To Live With Her Actions,” and in the fourth paragraph this sentiment is repeated: “Those 30 years will be terrible if she contemplates the reality of what she did.” If it hasn’t struck her by now, 30 years will probably not make much of a dent, either. But she knew that it was wrong before. That’s why she planned the whole sorry scenario to make herself look like a grieving mother–when all the time she had cold-bloodedly calculated everything. Otherwise, she would have just killed the tykes and looked surprised when she was arrested.

“Her appearance, as a helpless young girl with an innocent demeanor, no doubt was in her favor. She just didn’t come across as a vicious killer.” When will people ever learn not to judge by the appearance? In the final analysis, we ought to know that appearances can be deceptive. Demons can look like angels (2 Cor. 11:13-15). And it does not matter what a person says; it is what they do. Talk is not irrelevant, but actions are much more indicative of the heart than speech. That’s why in court trials we ought to go by the evidence presented, not how guilty or innocent the defendant looks.

“Perhaps she got the worst sentence possible after all,” is the conclusion of the editorial; it’s an extension of the preceding thought. But perhaps she didn’t get the worst sentence–this is only a guess, isn’t it? Speculation. Why is the editor concerned about whether or not she got the “worst” sentence? After all, will 30 years in prison bring back the two boys? And which is the worst sentence for society: the death penalty, or 30 years to life in the penitentiary?

Should Capital Punishment Ever Be Used?
Whoever wrote this editorial seems to contradict himself. The first paragraph reads: “For killing her two small sons she deserved whatever punishment the jury decided to hand out.” That would appear to include the death penalty, wouldn’t it? But then we are told that putting Susan Smith to death would be an act of vengeance (and what is keeping her in the slammer for 30 years and hoping that it is the worst penalty, pray tell?).

Furthermore, if the jury would have decided to end Susan Smith’s life, they would have been “bloodthirsty in their decision.” Spare us, please. Locking her in a car and pushing it into a lake might be considered bloodthirsty. Rescuing her from such a death just in the nick of time and then repeating the process might be considered an act of vengeance. But judging a woman who murdered two innocent children to be worthy of death is neither. If capital punishment cannot be used for a crime as heinous as this one, then when could it ever be used?

After the flood, God set forth this principle: “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed; for in the image of God He made man” (Gen. 9:6). Furthermore, one of the things that God hates is “hands that shed innocent blood” (Pr. 6:17). Even in the midst of Josiah’s great restoration, God determined to destroy Jerusalem “because of all the provocations with which Manasseh had provoked him” (2 Kings 23:26). Among Manasseh’s other sins, he “shed very much innocent blood, till he had filled Jerusalem from one end to another” (2 Kings 21:16).

They are innocent who are put to death for a crime they did not commit. Also innocent and unworthy of death are children–Susan Smith’s two sons. The civil government had the right to take her life (Rom 13:4)–and should have.