This week, we're talking about Christian ethics and how, then, we should live, and we started yesterday by looking at what has been come to be called our "pro-life" stance, which is really nothing more than the Christian position on abortion. You might have been surprised at the direction that post took, not particularly making a case against abortion (or for it, in case you didn't read yesterday's post), but the truth is - Christians already know what God believes about life. We don't need one more post telling us what to believe. What we need is guidance on how to live in the real world. What we need is not to know what is right, but to know how to hold onto love as our core value in the midst of the debate.
So today, we turn from abortion (life) to something a bit more difficult - death. Specifically, the death penalty.
Our culture likes to link these two. It likes to put them together and then tauntingly ask Christians how they can claim to be "pro-life" while also supporting something like the death penalty. They claim it to be a point of our hypocrisy, and they use it to show how fickle we really are.
This one really is more complicated. On one hand, we have a Bible that clearly gives us guidance on who to stone to death and when and for what reasons. We have a law given to us by God that supports the death penalty in certain situations. And yet, we also have a Savior who was Himself crucified. And who, we might add, had ample opportunity to act upon the law allowing for the death penalty and never once took it.
We usually resolve this tension by waxing theological on the difference between the old covenant and the new covenant and talk about how grace comes in to replace the law in so many situations, but how the law still applies when it is convenient for us or when it's still a really good law. But all of our theological waxing keeps us from the Christian heart of the matter, and it's what makes this issue a lot stickier than it needs to be.
The original law was intended to help keep the people of Israel, as a community of God, pure. You could not tolerate certain sins within the community because they were a stain on the image of God. That made it difficult for God's people to bear His name in the world. How could you, when you're all running around killing each other and committing adultery? God is a God of life, of faithfulness, and of love - to see His people like this makes it hard to claim He is who He says He is.
At the same time, our God is a God of persons more than He's ever been the God of peoples. That is, He cares about each individual one of us, and He showed that through the tender care administered through His Son - one on one, touch by touch, encounter by encounter.
What's happened with the Christian ethic, tragically, is this: we have become a people who are disgusted by persons. We hear the stories of a murderer or a rapist or someone else who we believe deserves to be put to death, and it is because that person has become repulsive to us. We are offended at the crime, sure, but this person is a despicable human being, and we often say things like, "He doesn't deserve to live." He is not capable of rehabilitation. He doesn't deserve a second chance. No one in their right mind would go and touch this person with grace. He disgusts us, even more than his crimes did.
Do you get that? Our conversations around the death penalty have slowly, but surely, turned around to become discussions about criminals. And all of a sudden, we're in the business not of keeping a people pure, but of deciding who is worthy of grace and who isn't. And our standards are fairly arbitrary. We love to take into account every little detail that we can - well, did he have a rough childhood or is he just a psychopath? Did he enjoy it or does he feel sorry about it? We start judging intentions and motives and stories, and none of these things change the atrocity of the crime that was committed - none of these things make a woman less violated or a person less murdered. Yet we claim that this matters. And so, we have become a people who judge the criminal and not the crime.
And that has never been God's ethic. Never.
So it cannot be ours.
If we want to talk about the death penalty - and I believe there is good reason for us to talk about it - then we cannot let the conversation be about persons. We cannot let ourselves derive some perverted joy over being judge, jury, and executioner. We cannot let it satisfy our souls that this person, specifically, "got what was coming to him." We cannot take pleasure in the act of taking a life, no matter how justified we can make it in our hearts.
Stoning a person to death was a somber occasion. It was a moment at which the people had the righteousness of God on their hearts. No one was cheering as they threw those stones. No one was rejoicing that their brother was dead. So under no circumstances can we now be a people who scream, "Let him fry!" or even utter "Good riddance" under our breath. That's not Christian. It's not the heart of God.