In episode 7 on The Abstract Podcast, we wrestled with the idea and implications of the death penalty and looked at what Paul has to say in Romans 13. Below are some of my own thoughts (compiled for a class assignment) and posted here to accompany our discussion on the podcast. There are certainly varying opinions on this matter, but I think it’s an one important to think about.
You can listen to Ep. 7 “Dr. Suess, Firing Squads, and Big Checks for Everyone” using this link – or by finding us on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, ect.
The death penalty is a hard issue for me to grapple with. My position comes is that the government does indeed have the right to exercise capital punishment. The pros for this argument seem pretty straightforward. The state is responsible for the protection and well-being of its people. It is tasked with opposing forces which endanger the well being of its people. Often, these enemies are outside the territory, or country as the case may be. The state may deem violence necessary as an act of protecting its people, and it may kill those whom it deems an imminent threat. Similarly, the state may declare a person/force inside the territory to be an immanent threat and decide violence against them is the best move forward.
Paul writes in Romans 13:4, “For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.” From this scripture, as well as rather simple logic, it seems the state must possess the authority to do violence against threats to the common good for the purpose of protecting its people. Paul assumes in this chapter that the state is set up and operating for the purpose of punishing evil, not good. “For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong” (Romans 13:3).
However, the situation is muddied for a few reasons. Paul writes, “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established…For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good.” (Romans 13:1, 4). Paul assumes the “one in authority” has the good of the public in mind. This is obviously not always the case. In most instances of abuse, the abuser is able to perpetrate violence against the victim because of the power situation – the authority was theirs, but they wielded it for harm. Surely, victims in every scenario cannot be expected to submit themselves to violence and abuse simply because they are not in charge. Paul here assumes the general interest of the state/one in authority is the good of the people. Throughout the New Testament, we also witness Paul himself getting thrown into prison time and time again for defying governing authority.
I am not in favor of the death penalty being sentenced in the United States for a few reasons. Firstly, we have the resources to mitigate the threat of persons who are too violent to live freely. They can be put in prison. Their death is not necessary to keep the public safe. Some have argued the death penalty functions as a deterrent to crimes, but this doesn’t seem to be the case when the statistic are examined. Executing terrorists who are an active threat to order and peace is not the same thing as strapping incarcerated people to a chair and electrocuting them (or shooting them at the hands of a firing squad as Utah, and perhaps South Carolina, propose). Executing prisoners with electric, poison, or assault rifles is not only practically unnecessary and barbaric, it negates any possibility of redemption and restoration. This is the Christian’s first and last hope.
In Romans 13:10 Paul writes, “Love does no harm to a neighbor.” The death penalty is the declaration stating a person is not and can never again be a neighbor in any capacity. Perhaps the most striking element of Romans 13, for the contemporary American, is Paul’s tacit assumption that the state will not act in a Christian manner. The state is not capable of the enemy love commanded by Jesus in Matthew 5. The state, which is God’s ordained institution, is not capable of the mercy characteristic of the kingdom of heaven.
Christ tells his followers to expect to be taken advantage of. However, he commands them not to retaliate and to pray for their enemies. This is a higher calling than that of the state – thus the notion of a “Christian state” is untenable. Fundamentally, the state cannot serve its purpose if it institutes the kingdom ethics required of believers. The purposes of the state and followers of Jesus are not one. As a follower of Jesus, I recognize the state’s right to exercise capital punishment, but I am not in favor of it. I recognize the protection afforded citizens comes at the expense of the blood of those who threaten, but I do not want that blood on my hands. I belong to a kingdom of loving enemies and walking the extra mile, of turning the other cheek, and doing good to those who curse. My allegiance is to that kingdom even while I walk the soil of another.