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Author: Dr. Mark H. Creech
Date:  January 20, 2007

Topic category:  Other/General

A Christian Response to Death Penalty Issues

Within the next three weeks, North Carolina is scheduled to execute three death-row inmates on three successive Fridays. According to Associated Press: "Scheduling three deaths so close together irks execution opponents who plan to keep pushing during the coming legislative session for a death penalty moratorium. Perhaps three executions so close together will at least help them teach more people about the flaws in the state's judicial system, they said." [1]

Despite the fact that death-row inmates receive super due process of law that accounts for an average of 12 years of appeals, and that there exists no solid evidence of even one innocent nationwide being executed in over a hundred years, moratorium proponents, who are largely anti-death penalty advocates, have gained enough momentum in the Tar Heel State to cause Speaker Jim Black to establish a House Select Committee on Capital Punishment. That Committee held a public hearing two weeks ago; and out of 15 speakers who testified, only two -- one of which was me -- spoke against the proposed moratorium.

Certainly the most striking moment of the public hearing was when Shirley Burns spoke. Burns currently has a son on death-row scheduled for execution in North Carolina on January 26. She informed lawmakers she had lived on both sides of the issue of capital punishment. Not only did she have a son scheduled for execution within a matter of days, but eight months earlier another one of her sons had been murdered. Her situation was definitely and most unfortunately unique and garnered the sympathy of what was almost exclusively an anti-death penalty audience, except maybe for some of the lawmakers present.

Burns was also obviously very displeased with my remarks, which had preceded hers, characterizing them in this fashion: "I listen to the minister as he talked, but it seems to be an idea of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth -- How can I as a Christian ask for another person's life? I believe the Word of God when it says, 'Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.' I also believe when it says, 'Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord.'" The end of her speech was met with considerable applause.

Although Burns' circumstances warrant understanding and sympathy, her position on the death penalty is neither Christian nor compassionate.

The primary purpose of the death-penalty is not revenge. It is retribution. In On Capital Punishment, William H. Baker notes: "Retribution is properly a satisfaction or, according to the ancient figure of justice and her scales, a restoration of a disturbed equilibrium. As such it is a proper, legitimate and moral concept. Scripture makes a clear line of distinction between this doctrine and feelings of personal hatred by forbidding such feelings and the actions to which they would lead. Capital punishment as a form of retribution is a dictate of the moral nature, which demands that there should be a just portion between the offense and the penalty." [2]

In fact, Jesus' quote in Matthew 5:38 of the Hebrew lex talinois, which is found in Exodus 21:23-25, was a statement of proper retribution by civil authorities. Its intention was to protect offenders from excessive penalties that didn't fit the crime. Unfortunately, however, some in Christ's day were using it as a justification for personal retaliation. In other words, when Christ spoke of "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth," He wasn't repudiating government's responsibility to maintain order, but correcting an illegitimate use of the text and advocating the way His followers should personally respond to offenses.

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia properly makes this distinction when in God's Justice and Ours, he writes: "The death penalty is undoubtedly wrong unless one accords to the state a scope of moral action that goes beyond what is permitted to the individual. In my view, the major impetus behind the modern aversion to the death penalty is the equation of private morality with governmental morality." [3]

In a day when crime is largely blamed on Freudian and secularist concepts of evil, the biblical doctrine of retribution has fallen on hard times. Yet God has ordained it that when humanity chooses, for whatever reason, to violate His law, a just penalty must be exacted. A holy and just God requires that a broken order in the Universe be restored. Thus, Christ's death for the sinner was based on the need for retributive justice to satisfy the legal demands of God's law, which says: "[T]he wages of sin is death" (Romans 6:23). In fact, without the substitutionary death of Christ on the Cross there could be no forgiveness or compassion from God.

According to Christian thought, no one has the right for any reason to harbor malice, anger or bitterness toward someone on a personal level -- personal vengeance is denied. This is what Christ was preaching in Matthew 5:38-45 and what Paul advocated when he wrote: "Recompense to no man evil for evil -- avenge not yourselves, but rather give place to wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord" (Romans 12:17, 19). Still Christ affirmed retributive justice by His own death on the Cross and Paul said the government bears the sword as "the minister of God" for good and is an "avenger who brings wrath upon the one who practices evil" (Romans 13:4).

For compassion and its proper application on both a personal and social level to be genuinely experienced, an understanding of the biblical doctrine of retributive justice is an absolute necessity. For instance, no person can ever experience soul salvation until he or she realizes their offense to God in the violations of His law and that such actions are deserving of eternal retribution. God has demonstrated His compassion in that the requirements of retribution are met in Christ's sacrifice on the Cross. He died and suffered in one's place. Personal peace comes only through this understanding. Moreover, social peace comes only when compassion is directed toward the victims of crime and not its perpetrators. Retribution is the primary purpose of law and not the rehabilitation of the criminal or deterrence to criminal acts. Only when this is realized can the public be properly protected by the government and society's tranquility maintained.

While anti-death penalty proponents from the faith community like Shirley Burns push for abolition and a moratorium on capital punishment in North Carolina, calling for citizens to forgive, they seem to forget that the persons with the greatest reason to forgive cannot because they've been murdered. Moreover, family members like Janice Hunter, whose 27-year-old daughter, Adrien, was brutally stabbed to death by serial killer Nathaniel White, can easily identify with her statement: "I have to go to the cemetery to see my daughter. Nathaniel White’s mother goes to jail to see him and I don't think it's fair." [4] Indeed it isn't right in either the first or the latter circumstances and that's why God's Word in Genesis 9:6 declares to governments of all eras: "Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man."

One final quote by William H. Baker best addresses the main concerns of abolitionists and moratorium advocates: "Some claim it would be better for a guilty man to go free than for an innocent man to die. Such an ethic must assume that the failure to apply justice is better than the misapplication of justice. Must we be faced with a choice of equal evil over against equal injustice? The issue is that anything less than death is not the full measure of justice; thus, anything less than death is an injustice. The question must be settled, therefore, as to whether the death penalty is just, not as to whether lack of punishment is better than punishing the wrong person. The latter question really is irrelevant." [5]

If the death penalty is just retribution, which it is, then it should be administered. If the death penalty can never be administered by a flawless judicial system, which it cannot, then suspending executions to improve its administration will never make it more just.

Dr. Mark H. Creech
Christian Action League of North Carolina (Director)

Notes:  Footnotes:
[1] Elizabeth Dubar, "Three Executions Set for Successive Weeks," Associated Press
[2] William H. Baker, On Capital Punishment (Moody Press 1985). pgs. 81,82
[3] Antonin Scalia, God's Justice and Ours, www.prodeathpenalty.com/scalia.htm
[4] Geroge E. Pataki, "Death Penalty is a Deterrent," USA Today, March 1997
[5] Baker, p. 121

Biography - Dr. Mark H. Creech

Dr. Creech is a regular columnist for Agape Press, the national news wire of the American Family Association. His columns have also appeared on numerous other sites across the web, including: The Christian Post, MichNews.com, The Intellectual Conservative, Capitol Hill Coffee House, The North Carolina Conservative, The Conservative Voice, Worldview Weekend Network, Renew America, as well as a number of others.

Copyright © 2007 by Dr. Mark H. Creech
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