Last week the Nebraska Unicameral voted 32-15 to abolish the death penalty in my state. Governor Pete Ricketts may veto the bill, but since it only takes 30 votes to override the veto the bill is likely to pass regardless of what the governor does.
After the verdict was announced one of our local pastors took to his blog to explain why he is opposed to capital punishment:
I wish I could say that I am so full of godly love and peace at all times that I simply can’t fathom how one could justify the taking of a human life. But I can’t. The truth is every time I see that another innocent little girl has been raped and killed at the hands of some sociopath I feel about as Christian as a switch blade. As a dad to two little girls of my own, I want vengeance (ahem, I mean “justice”). Shoot, depending on the day, I may even volunteer to pull the switch. But that’s my flesh talking, not the Spirit of God.
If I base my beliefs on what I feel is just, I can get on board with the death penalty most days. But when I set aside my own thoughts for a moment and open up the scriptures to consider what God thinks on the issue, things start to get a little uncomfortable. I find myself confronted once again with the possibility that perhaps God is very unlike me.
As he continues to develop his argument we are, unfortunately, met with the sort of reasoning that we've heard far too many times before. The way many American Christians get around this is by essentially saying that Jesus's example overrides the endorsement of capital punishment given in the Old Testament. We might call this the President Bartlett Maneuver so named for the president in Aaron Sorkin's (very good) The West Wing.
The maneuver is simple enough to understand: Any time someone uses an Old Testament passage to argue for a specific idea about morality, you should start talking about shellfish and mixed fabrics. This works particularly well if you can adopt the sermonizing tone of Martin Sheen and have an impressive-looking Allison Janney standing behind you:
Now I can flip to various passages in the Old Testament to try to make me feel better. I can pull from Leviticus or other places to justify any blood that I want spilled. I may even to venture to call it God’s will, as some have been known to do. And as long as I don’t turn the page from Malachi to Matthew, I’m generally okay. But the moment I fix my gaze on The One in whom the law was fulfilled, this Jesus in whom we see God as He truly is, all of my arguments and thoughts on the matter fall painfully short.
Pastor Loy, of course, is hardly unique in making such an argument. Here is Jonathan Merritt one year ago:
Such thinking requires a bit of arbitrary Biblical picking and choosing. Sure, the Old Testament prescribes death for anyone who commits pre-meditated murder. But it doesn’t stop there. The Hebrew Scriptures also prescribe the death penalty for kidnapping (Exodus 21:16), bestiality (Exodus 22:12), rape (Deuteronomy 22:24), making a sacrifice to a false god (Exodus 22:20), adultery (Leviticus 20:10), homosexual behavior (Leviticus 20:13), and premarital sex (Deuteronomy 22:13-21).
A priest was instructed to burn his daughter alive if she was guilty of prostitution (Leviticus 21:9). If a “son or daughter, or the wife you love, or your closest friend” entices you to practice a false religion, they were instructed to “show them no pity” and “stone them to death” (Deuteronomy 13:6-10).
Do you have rebellious children (Deuteronomy 21:18-21) or kids who’ve hit or cursed you (Exodus 21:15-17)? Off with their heads!
And, not to be outdone, Shane Claiborne has made a similar argument at--you guessed it--Red Letter Christians. I bring up the name of the site that hosted Claiborne's article for the simple reason that their name alone make my point for me: What all these arguments have in common is the idea that we can basically dispense with whatever we want in the Old Testament by appealing to a few obscure verses in the Pentateuch meant to horrify modern listeners.
All we need, apparently, is the red letters. The Old Testament God is angry and vengeful and not very Christian, but New Testament God is great. Old Testament God is just God in his teen years when he was ready to fight if you looked at him the wrong way. But New Testament God has grown up. He doesn't lose his temper over little things any more. He's chill now. He listens to NPR and loves Portlandia and is kinda embarrassed by all that wrath and judgment stuff in the Old Testament. So don't worry about that 2/3 of the Bible. Just read about Jesus and you have everything you need to understand Christian ethics.
Of course, to any student of church history this thinking should sound familiar. All of these arguments trade in a form of Marcionism, the ancient Christian heresy attributed to Marcion, a second century Christian who rejected the Old Testament.
What particularly frustrates about this approach to arguing about capital punishment--or any other ethical issue where an Old Testament text is often mentioned--is that it needlessly gives away so much. The argument ultimately turns on a basic reductio--you appeal to this Old Testament text to support your argument, be it something concerning capital punishment, same-sex marriage, or something else entirely--and I whip out an obscure OT law that appears to us today to be obviously absurd, thereby destroying your argument.
But there are two things to note here.
First, this sort of reductio tacitly establishes contemporary WEIRD norms as the standard by which something is judged absurd and, therefore, a good example to use when running a reductio. In other words, we tacitly baptize the norms of rich white people living in the contemporary west and act as if they are the measure by which we judge something absurd. But why should we treat the presuppositions of such people as valid? This argument is little more than a quite brazen form of ideological imperialism which is particularly ironic given the writings of Claiborne on other issues in the past.
Second, this line of arguing functionally acts as if Christians have never dealt with this problem before, as if it has never occurred to anyone in 2000 years of church history that there might be some difficulties in reconciling certain OT texts with certain NT texts.
But, of course, this problem had occurred to Christians living prior to the year 2000 and it has been dealt with in a way that has generally been considered satisfactory by many Christians. For centuries many Christians have said that the Mosaic law can be divided into three portions--the ceremonial law, the civil law, and the moral law. The civil law and ceremonial law are specific laws given to the people of Israel that were fulfilled and done away with by Christ. They are no longer in force--which is why I can have shrimp for dinner tonight if I feel like it. The moral law, however, is the set of moral norms that stands behind the civil and ceremonial law.
This distinction is not a new thing, either. The Westminster Confession, a confession written in the 1640s, makes this distinction quite clearly and argues for its legitimacy. Going back still further, you can find Thomas Aquinas arguing for a distinction between moral and ceremonial parts of the law. Armed with this distinction it's incredibly easy to deal with the rather trivial arguments made by President Bartlet or our functional Marcionite friends linked above.
None of this means that Christians are obliged to support capital punishment, of course. We ought to reject the argument that the death penalty is innately unjust, but as I said earlier this week, it's quite reasonable to express serious reservations about how the death penalty is functionally carried out in the USA. And if you wish to argue on those grounds it's possible to do so. What you can't do, particularly as a Christian leader, is talk like a functional follower of a man the church condemned as a heretic 1800 years ago. Unfortunately, that is precisely what many younger evangelical leaders seem most eager to do.
NOTE: I did some revisions on this post last night that somehow didn't get saved so I've made a couple edits this morning to try and restore the work I did last night that was lost. I don't know what happened but I'm going to blame Wordpress.
Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).