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Who Would Jesus Kill?

May 6, 2014

That title was just too easy but it was not meant as a joke.

This past week Albert Mohler, the President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary managed to set off something of an internet firestorm with his post at the CNN Belief Blog entitled “Why Christians should support the death penalty.”  Actually, Mohler is quite good at setting off internet firestorms, nearly everything he has to say manages to do it, but this one was a really good effort.

You can read the article for yourself but, in essence, Mohler supports what is called redemptive violence, the idea that, in the case of the death penalty, you have to kill some people to keep them from killing other people.  In his words “the death penalty is understood as a necessary firewall against the spread of further deadly violence.”  This line, more than anything else in the article, set his critics howling.

In his defense, Mohler is clearly not a raging fan of the death penalty, he does express concern about how it is applied and urges Christians to be voices against unjust applications.  But beyond that he uses Scripture to support the idea that God not only approves of the use of the death penalty but commands it.  Indeed, the verses he cites are really there in the Bible.

Most of his detractors ask the question I started this blog with, what would Jesus do?  The basis of their criticism is that Jesus would never support something like the botched Oklahoma effort to put a despicable criminal to death.  It comes from the folks I call “Jesus Christians”, those who look to the life of Jesus as a guide not only to our lives but also to how to understand the rest of Scripture.    I lean toward that view myself but admit that the effort to read things from the life of Jesus, particularly from the silence of Jesus is no easy task.

But in this case Jesus is not silent.  Indeed, Jesus once served as a one-man jury on a death penalty case.  While some dispute this passage of Scripture, John 8:1-11 tells of how a woman caught in the act of adultery was thrown at Jesus’ feet and, since the death penalty was the Old Testament penalty for this sin, asked what He would do.  Jesus clearly had no trouble ignoring the biblical penalty and making his own judgment.  So does this prove that Jesus is against the death penalty?

Clearly we can’t say for sure, although I am comfortable using this as a model for my personal opinion.  My problem with Mohler is that, in giving his personal opinion on the death penalty he portrays it as one all Christians need to share and, in effect, saying if you differ with him you differ with God.  He cites selected verses to support his view while ignoring many others where death is the biblical judgment, like the command to kill disobedient children for example.

What is at play here, both for Mohler and his critics, is the incessant tendency of Christians to declare our personal interpretations and understandings of the Bible; our personal pick-and-choose selections of Bible verses, as carrying the full weight of Biblical authority.  Let’s all state our positions and accept with grace that others differ.

I am not a big believer in redemptive violence.  One look at the Arab-Israeli history shows that violence seldom ends violence.  I am also aware, as Mohler is, that our human justice system has strong weaknesses.   That is enough for me to be very, very cautious on exacting this penalty.  While some crimes are so horrible, including the one in Oklahoma, that they make me cringe I am not comfortable being the executioner.

Here is one odd fact that came out of this discussion.  A recent poll showed that only 10% of Christians believe that Jesus would support the death penalty.  Yet 42% of Christians in that same poll say that they support the death penalty.  I’d really like to talk to those 32% and ask them if they thought Jesus was wrong.

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