Condemning the Death Penalty Requires Condemning God

Death penalty opponents protest the planned execution of J.W. Ledford for the 1992 murder of his elderly neighbor at the State Capitol on Tuesday, May 16, 2017, in Atlanta.(Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

Over at Religion News Service, Shane Claiborne pointed his finger at Christians and blamed them for the continued presence of the death penalty. As a word of caution, Claiborne should be careful about assigning blame for the death penalty. In doing so, his finger of blame points at God, too.

His willingness to stand as judge and jury over God doesn’t surprise me since Shane Claiborne adheres to Red Letter “Christianity.” In a nutshell, that means that he picks and chooses which parts of the Bible are authoritative and which parts he dismisses.

My insistence that progressive “Christianity” does not reflect the Bible’s definition of Christianity is met with more pushback from acquaintances than almost anything else I write. “You’re being ungracious, John,” friends assert. “You’re judging.”

Why, yes, I am judging, and I’m happy to be judged by the same standards. You see, unlike progressive “Christians,” I believe the Bible to be the authoritative, inspired Word of God. This means that when God reveals something in His Word, I take it seriously and pray for the grace to not allow shifting social trends to hold my response to God’s Word hostage.

Claiborne’s article about the death penalty is a tragic demonstration of his low view of God’s Word versus conservative Christians’ high view of God’s Word.

In the article titled “Christians Are Why the Death Penalty Lives On,” Claiborne writes:

Wherever Christians are most concentrated in America is where the most executions have taken place. While we Christians have prided ourselves on being pro-life on the issue of abortion, too often we have proven ourselves to be anti-life when it comes to capital punishment. The truth is that the death penalty has survived not in spite of Christians but because of them.

I have little reason to doubt Claiborne’s claim. It’s his tone of judgment that I find troubling. Blaming Christians for the use of the death penalty is like blaming Christians for society’s insistence that stealing is wrong, or that adultery is wrong. When society adheres to God’s ethics, then I’m not going to be surprised if Christians are to blame.

The bigger problem with Claiborne’s argument is that he denies that the death penalty adheres to God’s ethics. However, in doing so, he must rebel against God’s direct Words in Genesis 9:6 that clearly command the death penalty: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.”

Taking his judgment of God up a notch, Claiborne goes on to compare defending the death penalty to defending chattel slavery:

It does not take courage to say that slavery is wrong a generation after we have ended it. It takes courage to say that slavery is wrong when it is still legal and socially acceptable. So it is with the death penalty. I believe we will look back at the death penalty a generation from now just like we look back at slavery: with horror and shame, wondering how we ever thought it was OK and how we used the Bible to justify it.

Christians use the Bible to call for (justify) the death penalty because in the Bible God explicitly commands it. The rejoinder, of course, by Claiborne and his fellow Red Letter “Christians” is along the lines of “Jesus taught love and mercy.”

Of course, Jesus did. But Jesus also taught God’s wrath and judgment for those who refuse to conform to His loving and merciful plan. Integral to that is the requirement that sin be punished, ultimately through eternal death under God’s wrath. This is why Jesus had to die on the cross; the sin of God’s people had to be atoned for.

God’s command that those who murder other humans be put to death is part and parcel of His holiness and His requirement that sin be punished. To deny the justness of the death penalty is to deny the character of God and to slander His very Words.