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Capital Punishment – Part 1

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Fri, Oct 14. 2011

by The Rt. Rev’d C. Leopold Friday, Bishop of the Windward Islands

The way of Jesus

In Isaiah 52 there is the account of a suffering servant, which is believed to have been a prophetic pronouncement of the passion, suffering, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.

The greatest novelty is that not even God is willing to vindicate the Servant and do him justice; better still, God’s justice toward the Servant does not consist in punishing his persecutors, but rather in saving and justifying them! “My servant shall justify many.”

St. Bernard of Clairvaux – God did not take pleasure in the death of the Son, but in his willingness to die voluntarily for the salvation of the world.

There is a strong message in the gospel to stop violence. “The Servant had done no wrong” Is. 53:9, yet all the violence in the world converged on him: he was beaten up, pierced, abused, crushed, sentenced, removed from their midst, and finally dumped into a common grave. In all this he never uttered a cry; “like a lamb led to the slaughter, he was silent and opened not his mouth” Is 53:7. He offered himself as a sacrifice of reconciliation and “interceded” for his murderers, “father forgive them, they know not what they do” Luke 23: 34.

In the gospel according to Mark, there are two attributes of Jesus which are important to him namely his power and authority, which to all intents and purposes reveal his divinity. As we read the gospel according to Mark, we note that Jesus is quite active, always taking the initiative, but from the point of his betrayal, he is no longer there as the active and initiating subject of what is done; he is there as recipient, the object, of what is done. Before, he was in control; now he is in the hands of others to do with him what they will.

Jesus is handed over into human hands. He suffers betrayal, rejection, pain, crucifixion and death.

The Easter Message which Mark presents to us is that the power and authority of Jesus Christ has overcome violence; he has triumphed without answering violence with even greater violence. Instead, he suffered violence himself, thus revealing all its injustice and emptiness.

In Matthew 5:38-39, Jesus is quoted as saying: 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 an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.

Matthew 5: 43-44 43 ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” 44. But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.

Matthew 11:29. 29. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.

Here Christ asserts his absolute and definitive “No” to violence, opposing to it not merely non-violence, but more: forgiveness, meekness and humility.

The Easter Message is one of non-violence, forgiveness, meekness and humility. Thus the question of Capital Punishment or the Death Penalty emerges. Does violence, capital punishment or the death penalty have any place in the Easter message?

The Resurrection of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ affirms the Christian imperative to love and forgive and the assurance of God’s grace and mercy. If we invoke the death penalty, are we stating that there is a point when someone is beyond God’s mercy and redemption?

Because of Easter we can no longer, under any circumstances, impute violence or the death penalty to God. Our religious and civic consciousness ought to help us to overcome such misconceptions.

Neither can we justify violence or Capital punishment in the name of progress. “Violence – as someone once said – is history’s midwife.” This is true in part, it is right to say that, at times, new and more just social orders have stemmed from revolutions and wars, but the opposite is also true: revolutions and wars have given rise to injustice and greater damage.

Do we have to resort to violence to correct evil, is it true that we can only achieve what is good by doing what is bad?

It is not easy for us to acknowledge this truth that because of Easter we can no longer, under any circumstances, impute violence or the death penalty to God. Our religious and civic consciousness ought to help us to overcome such misconceptions.

As I mentioned before, this is not an easy task. The disciples found it difficult to accept the way of our Lord on one such occasion in Matthew 16:23 Jesus says to Peter:

‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’

The cross was not a tragic intrusion, but is of the very essence of Jesus’ mission and ministry. Jesus declared with regal authority his acceptance of what was coming. By no means was he simply a victim of evil, a helpless straw swept along on the stream of events, manipulated and taken by surprise at any turn. He set his face steadfastly toward Jerusalem and went the way of the cross, willingly, knowingly. He repeated the announcement of his coming suffering and death to the shocked, disoriented disciples (Matthew 17:12,22-23;20:17-19;26:2), naming Jerusalem and the events there as the goal of his journey.

Jesus rebukes Peter- He is to “get away,” since such a misunderstanding of the cross blocks the way of obedience to it. Jesus wants Peter, and the church with him, to follow “behind me!” for that is where followers belong who will take up their cross as his disciples.

Jesus calls us to costly discipleship. Discipleship is inseparable from the cross which Jesus carried; being a disciple means bearing the cross of servant-hood in his name.

In belonging to Jesus in trust and devotion, it will become clear that discipleship is not losing life but finding it in a depth and richness never known before. As Jesus says “whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”

Following from this text, Faith is not simply the acknowledgement that God exists. It is commitment to Jesus the crucified and risen Lord, and the abandonment of any attempt to set aside the central place of the cross. It means positively thinking the thoughts and willing the will of God, being “on the side of God” being God’s partisan in every decision and in every act. This is imperative as we consider Capital Punishment.

Canon D.B Knox argues “The Bible makes clear that if for selfish wilful reasons you murder someone, cut short his life, make his wife a widow and his children fatherless, then you deserve to die yourself. This is taught clearly in the Old Testament in Genesis 9, ‘Whosoever sheds man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed’. Then again in the New Testament in Romans 13, where the apostle speaks of the judge as ‘God’s minister’ in using the sword, that is to say in putting to death those who deserve death, St. Paul’s approval of the magistrate’s possession of the ‘sword’, which is an instrument of death, and his use of it as God’s minister implies the apostle’s approval of the imposition of capital punishment when it is deserved.”

Knox’s argument is based on the understanding “that mercy must always start from justice: forgiveness can only be extended when retribution has been deserved. It is only when the principle is accepted of an eye for an eye as a just principle, that we are able to modify it by extending mercy. So the starting point in determining what punishment should be imposed must be ‘What does the crime deserve?”

Therefore, according to Knox, what the crime deserves must be the yardstick we use to determine whether mercy or forgiveness is to be extended. I beg to differ, for mercy and forgiveness cannot be measured by what is deserved. This surely will make a mockery of the act of redemption wrought for us through Jesus Christ our Lord. God did not mete out to us what we deserve, but rather extended his love and mercy.

We must further refer to the Christian imperative to love and forgive and the assurance of God’s grace and mercy. If we invoke the death penalty, are we stating that there is a point when someone is beyond God’s mercy and redemption?

Further to this, it must stated that employing the death penalty is not the only response to murder in the Old Testament for in Genesis chapter 4 when Cain Killed his brother Abel he is punished, but the death penalty is not employed. Rather the first murderer is exiled not condemned to death. But even more, he is protected from those who sought to avenge Abel’s death. With God, not even a murderer loses his personal dignity, and God places a mark on Cain to guarantee this.

This response to Cain after he killed his brother Abel is in sync with the way of Jesus. It is not a matter of revenge, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Rather it reveals God’s concern even for the dignity of a murderer. He is not only punished but protected.

As St. Ambrose commenting on God’s punishment of Cain states: ‘God drove Cain out of his presence and sent him into exile far away, so that he passed from a life of human kindness to one more akin to the rude existence of a wild beast. God, who preferred the correction rather than the death of a sinner, did not desire that a homicide be punished by the exaction of another act of homicide.

(to be continued next week).

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