Sentenced to Death

Just a few days ago Dylann Roof, the 21-year old who shot and killed nine black congregants at a Charleston church in 2015, was sentenced to death. His atrocious acts and subsequent behaviour in the courtroom were repulsive. The courtroom testimonies from the victim’s families were heart-breaking and overflowing with pain. The smirk-faced and remorseless Roof revealed a deep hatred within me. The news of his verdict gave me satisfaction, though I couldn’t help but wonder if my reaction was warranted as a representative of Jesus. More than Roof in particular, I continued to wonder how Christians ought to approach capital punishment in general. What, if anything, did Jesus (not Paul or other witnesses) have to say about punitive death?

(*The following blog is not about Roof’s case in particular, but the death penalty and Jesus.*)

Jesus and the Great Omission

I am immediately drawn to the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7), particularly Matthew 5:38-42, where we find Jesus’ teaching on the lex talionis (“law of retaliation”). Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount aimed to provide an ethic for the present followers of Jesus at the time (cf. Matt 7:24) and also embodied the reality of ethics in God’s eternal kingdom (cf. Matt 6:10). In other words, the ethics of Jesus are the ethics of God’s domain…past, present, and future.

Matthew 5:38-42

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 evil. 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.

In verse 38, Jesus begins with “You heard that it was said,” thus recalling the Old Testament (OT). The lex talionis is found in only three places in the OT: Exodus 21:23-25, Deuteronomy 19:21, and Leviticus 24:19-21 (See verses below). The “eye for an eye” in the OT ensured punishment was commensurate to a violation, and not beyond it. For example, the lex talionis limited the innocent party’s retribution to the actions of the murderer, and not his family. Also, the lex talionis safeguarded human equality in Israel as other law systems based punishment on one’s social class (the code of Hammurabi comes to mind)…i.e. in Israel the life of the lowest class was equal to that of the highest.

Exodus 21:23-25

If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.

Deuteronomy 19:21

Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.

Leviticus 24:19-21

Anyone who maims another shall suffer the same injury in return: 20 fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; the injury inflicted is the injury to be suffered. 21 One who kills an animal shall make restitution for it; but one who kills a human being shall be put to death.

What is interesting about Jesus’ usage of these OT passages is what he chooses to omit. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus notoriously reinterprets the OT to better reflect the paradigm-shifting kingdom of God he preaches. Notice, Jesus avoids the phrases “life for a life” as well as “one who kills a human being shall be put to death.” In essence, Jesus omits all the parts that encourage taking the life of a murderer in retaliation. Verse 39 confirms Jesus’ position, “Do not resist evil,” i.e. do not exchange evil for evil. Jesus’ teaching goes on to explain situations in which evil is perpetrated on the innocent (e.g. slapping the right cheek, taking ones tunic in court, and unjust demands of Roman soldiers) yet he encourages non-violent resistance and denies using evil against evil. The principle is helpful for thinking about capital punishment. For Jesus, violent retaliation never dismantles the vicious cycles of violence.

Do Not Murder

Earlier in Matthew 5:21-24 we find this pattern of omission once more. Jesus, teaching on the Ten Commandments, states, “You have heard that it was said… ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’” Again, Jesus echoes OT texts on murder, like Exodus 21:12, Numbers 35:30-31, and Leviticus 24:17 (see below), but refuses to align himself with the capital punishment they proscribe. Even though Jesus concludes that perpetrators “will be liable to judgment” (Matt 5:22), he never expands on the actual “judgment.” He certainly doesn’t command capital punishment.

Exodus 21:23-25

Whoever strikes a person mortally shall be put to death.

Numbers 35:30-31 (for the fuller exposition on murder see vv. 16-34)

30 If anyone kills another, the murderer shall be put to death on the evidence of witnesses; but no one shall be put to death on the testimony of a single witness. 31 Moreover you shall accept no ransom for the life of a murderer who is subject to the death penalty; a murderer must be put to death.

Leviticus 24:17

Anyone who kills a human being shall be put to death.

Love your Neighbour

Another teaching of Jesus should be mentioned. Jesus’ saying in Matthew 5:43-48 comes after both sections from Matthew mentioned above and helpfully concludes them by stating that enemies should be loved and not hated, prayed for and not against; for in these actions the children of God reflect their heavenly Father (v. 45) who causes good upon both the upright and evil.

Caught in Adultery (John 7:53-8:11)

I hesitate to use this example, since our earliest manuscripts suggest it is a later addition, though many scholars suggest its an authentic Jesus saying. However, it is the clearest case of Jesus refusing a death sentence in the NT. The scene begins with Jesus teaching to a gathering at the temple. It follows by the approach of a Scribe and Pharisee who are escorting a women “caught in adultery” (v. 3). The religious leaders place the woman in the center of Jesus’ onlooking crowd and ask Jesus if they are to stone her as Moses (i.e. the OT) had recommended. The OT is clear, adulterers (both men and women) are to be punished by death (Lev. 20:10; Deut. 22:22-24). John presents the entire ploy and misuse of the woman as an elaborate trap to “test” Jesus (much could be said about the exploitative nature of the woman..where is the man “caught in adultery” since he would be sentenced to death as well?). Jesus doesn’t respond with words at first, but by bending down and writing something on the ground. Perhaps, Jesus is buying time, though whatever the reason, the religious leaders get impatient and “continue asking him their question” (v. 7). He finally stands and answers them, “Let any among you without sin throw the first stone” (v. 8). After his statement he bends back down to write again. While writing the second time, the crowd–beginning with the religious leaders–slip away from the narrative. Jesus is left standing alone with the woman and says, “Has no one condemned you?..’Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.” If Jesus had condemned the OT command of death for adultery, his life would have been under threat as well (this was the point of the “trap” in the first place). Instead, Jesus answers in such a way that dismisses the religious leaders. In fact, their own sin might put their life in threat. Notice, once the religious leaders are out of ear range, Jesus shows himself to be in disagreement with the proscribed execution and chooses not to follow it (“neither do I condemn you”). The woman is set free from a death sentence.

Jesus’ Murder as a Paradigm

The unjust murder of Jesus provides us with another powerful example of Jesus’ teaching on retaliation. It is on the cross that we find Jesus, the soon-to-be murder victim, praying for forgiveness (“Father forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” [Luke 23:34]). He does this in lieu of sending fire from Heaven (Luke 9:54) or legions of angels (Matt 26:53) in retaliation. The New Testament provides us with a strong tradition of Jesus forfeiting retaliation to instead offer redemption to his perpetrators (cf. Lk 6:29–30; Rom 12:14, 17–21; 1 Pet 2:23). Noticeably, Jesus’ assailants are presented in the Gospels as stone-hearted and remorseless (Matt 27:38–43; Mark 15:27-32; Luke 25:35-38) much like Dylann Roof. Additionally, Jesus leaves the vengeance to God alone, to whom all humanity is ultimately accountable. Justice, in this way, is not forfeited along with retaliation, but dealt to God who remains the responsible and appropriate party to execute justice.

In the end, we find that Jesus offers us forgiveness against those we hate, those who have taken everything from us…and in Jesus’ case, his very life. The injustice is not forgotten, but is dealt with by a God who arbitrates with full justice in this life and the next. In this, we are offered the opportunity to stunt the vicious cycle of murder not by proscribing it in retaliation, but through allowing love to interrupt the cycle.