Oct 9, 2013

Evangelical arguments against the death penalty

Marvin Olasky, a significant conservative evangelical gatekeeper, has a long, series-launching piece in World Magazine this month questioning the death penalty.

Olasky, who is editor-in-cheif at World, doesn't question the death penalty in principle, but in practice. The argument of the piece is that "The Bible sets a very high bar for capital punishment, and the American legal system today rarely reaches it."

As an evangelical speaking to evangelicals, Olasky pursues a hermeneutic question first, asking whether the Bible, understood as evangelicals understand it, supports capital punishment. He intersperses those questions with examination of a number of actual cases, based on his own reporting and interviews with convicts.

Scholars debate whether the subsequent verse in Genesis, 'Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image,' is prescriptive or descriptive. The 'shall' suggests a command, but translators (English Standard Version, New International Version, New King James Version) set off that phrase as a descriptive poetic quotation, similar to the way they set off a quoted saying in chapter 17 of Acts. The biblical context is important: Earlier in Genesis, Cain’s descendant Lamech boasts to his wives, 'I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me.' Such boasting, and carrying through on it, became epidemic: When one person sheds blood, others shed his.

Scholars debate another hard question: Are the later 'eye for an eye' prescriptions literal requirements or limiting devices? (No more than an eye for an eye.) They note that Lamech was looking for vengeance out of proportion to the offense -- 'If Cain's revenge is sevenfold, then Lamech's is seventy-sevenfold' -- and was laying out the future of fighting from the Hatfields and McCoys to the start of World War I following the assassination of an archduke. Since man's vengeance and counter-vengeance almost always lead to damage far greater than what started the battle, God allows comparable but not greater retaliation.

Roy Kendrick, 47, shot to death a fellow drug user in 1995, and took from him $40 and a food stamp card. While in prison Kendrick was also found guilty of murdering a cab driver and his wife in 1985: It was a cold case, but Kendrick's father testified against him.
Unlike Catholics, evangelicals haven't often taken a strong stand on the death penalty. Because of the way evangelicals read the Bible, it's difficult for them to condemn the practice of capital punishment outright. There are evangelical reasons to oppose it, though, including that execution precludes conversion and redemption, and, as the World article shows, that the same reading of the Bible that authorizes the death penalty also establishes strict standards. Strict standards that look nothing like America's justice system.

Notably, this argument about principle vs. practice was used, too, to convince (some) evangelicals to oppose race-based slavery in America. Olasky has influenced American evangelicals and conservatives before. Taking up this issue, he could do it again.