Jesus and the death penalty

I’ll take a break from procrastinating with video games to procrastinate with a quick blog post. On The Atlantic, Jonathan Merritt writes,

We must be careful not to put words in Jesus’ mouth or lazily ascribe modern positions to the ancient rabbi. But the more I reflect on this issue, the more I agree with the majority of Americans. Though I can’t say for certain, I have a feeling that the executed first-century teacher would not support the death penalty or want his followers to.

Here’s a similarly formulated argument:

We must be careful not to words in Lincoln’s mouth or lazily ascribe modern positions to the great President. Though I can’t say for certain, I have a feeling that, given the circumstances of his death, he’d be in favor of gun control. 

 

This lead to the following Twitter-log:

We must not lazily ascribe positions to Jesus, @JonathanMerritt writes before lazily ascribing a position to Jesus. http://t.co/6hTZV2Skya

My point is simple: there’s been a lot of stuff written about Jesus and a lot of words attributed to him. No need to guess his position on this issue based on the circumstances of his death.

Merritt’s response to me is also odd. It’s basically, “Hey, I got published on The Atlantic, and they don’t publish bad arguments.” I wish I had known that was a reasonable defense when I was discussing my Atlantic pieces. The problem is that while The Atlantic has really solid politics, culture and business editors (the only ones I have worked with and can attest to) that can generally call out your bullshit, as far as I know, they don’t have a dedicated religious editor. That means noted sentimentalist Brandon Ambrisino can write things like this:

If Raushenbush is right [that being against gay marriage makes you anti-gay], then that means my parents are anti-gay, many of my religious friends (of all faiths) are anti-gay, the Pope is anti-gay, and—yes, we’ll go here—first-century, Jewish theologian Jesus is anti-gay.

Leaving aside my normative problems with this statement, I thought most people knew that Jesus didn’t saying anything about homosexuality. But I digress.

Back to the Merritt piece. Merritt doesn’t make any attempt to distinguish between the historical Jesus or the Jesus of the gospels and Christianity. Assuming he means the latter, the answer is pretty unequivocal. But after citing a pretty definitive quote (“turn the other cheek”), we get a discussion of the famous adulterous woman passage. Given that most conservative scholars will tell you this is apocryphal, I have no idea why this is even mentioned, if we’re trying to get at what “Jesus” believed.

There’s some meandering including an odd digression about the Old Testament, we get to this sentence:

Many Christians strangely believe that Jesus wouldn’t support the death penalty even though they do.

But this is the key question, and one that Merritt dances around in his piece but never really digs into. Christians have to be part of a larger society. Earlier, Merritt notes that,

He was teaching that only a perfect being—only God—should have power over death and life.

With Jesus’s stark words and example, no wonder early Christians opposed military service and the government-sanctioned killing of anyone for at least 300 years.

Obviously, this is a nice idea, but as it happens, if a nation-state wants to continue to exist and make actually enforceable laws, it has to exert violence, often lethal violence. Whatever Christians believe about their private actions, we must also make decisions about the role of the state. That’s why a lot of Christians would never have an abortion, but believe it should be legal. So in the end, we’re left nowhere. We know Jesus’s teaching – that Christians should not be violent. We also know that the death penalty is an awful, horrible thing. But murder is too. We know that the state must use violence to protect its citizens. How much, to what extent and under what circumstances are questions that Jesus doesn’t really have much to say about. This is where the actual debate is happening. Merritt ignores this and says something about Mother Theresa.   I’ve limned some thoughts elsewhere that I think stand up.

I want to make three final points about the death penalty debate:

1) There’s an awful moralist sentimentalist strain in this argument that needs to go away. Stop talking about the value of human life, and its sanctity. We know. Human life is important, and should be valued. But most of us live in a world where are values come into conflict. There isn’t evidence for the proposition, but let’s imagine it’s true the death penalty deters crime. Well then you have to weigh the lives of potential victims with the life of the murder. Is one life more sacred? The problem with sentimentality is how easily it’s countered by more sentimentality.

2) Conor Friedersdorf argues that the state can never kill anyone ever. He drops a sentimentalist bomb:

I can imagine one objection: that the guillotine is barbaric. But to me, that’s a point in its favor. Let’s have no illusions about what we’re doing when the state carries out the killing of captive prisoners.

Were there people who thought the death penalty involved giving little boys and girls ponies? Remember what I said about sentimentality? I could do the same thing here.

Let’s have no illusions about what those criminals did when they raped, killed, etc. They are barbaric and deserve no mercy, etc.

Most people know what the death penalty is about, and treat it seriously. If there were a stronger deterrence argument and less of a racial bias, I’d have to rethink my argument. Modern society exists because of the threat of, or the use of violence. All society does. The goal is to make that violence selective, rational and toward a just end.

3) I don’t think most murders are rational, and I’m convinced that developments in neuroscience are going to continue to shatter our silly moralization. I’d prefer a system based on rehabilitation for those who can helped, deterrence for rational rule-breakers and incapacitatation for those who cannot be released into civilized society (retribution is a vulgarity). But as Conor notes,

locking a man away for decades with no hope of ever being released is arguably a more severe punishment than death.

I see no need for senseless human suffering, so the best solution is to offer death row inmates the right to choose suicide. There should be a waiting period of two years and those who choose suicide should be offered the best legal defense society can give them, but then they should be allowed to end their life. This seems to be the more humane justice system. It’s slightly ironic that under this system we would treat death row inmates more humanely than the elderly, but so be it.

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