The Demand of Justice

When Illinois Governor George H. Ryan commuted the death sentences of all 156 inmates on his state’s death row, he reopened the debate about capital punishment in America. The apparently thoughtless way he opened the discussion was a grandstand play. It worked; Mr. Ryan got some headlines and resurrected hundreds of opinions among writers and professional spokesmen. George Ryan did not add anything new to the discussion or actually make any compelling argument by his action. He just applied a blunt instrument to a complex issue.

Christians need to take matters of life and death more seriously. Matters related to God’s character are pertinent to this discussion. We also have a stewardship over the making and practice of law in our nation. We must start by affirming the things we know to be true.

First, capital punishment is not unbiblical or extra-biblical. In fact, we can reasonably say that it is a biblical mandate from Genesis 9:6. Old Testament commandments consistently exalt the sovereignty of God over the lives of men. The New Testament does not vacate those commandments and priorities. As Genesis 9 establishes the role of human government in the administration of justice, Romans 13 continues that theme in the New Testament.

Second, capital punishment in America is not fairly administered. Some victims are more emotionally compelling than others. Some of the accused also have greater luck tugging at the hearts of jurors. Additionally, the poor often lack the resources to obtain competent legal defense. Those who oppose the death penalty for these reasons have a valid point.

How do we address this valid point, though? Inequity is more likely to acquit the guilty than condemn the innocent. Poor legal defense could result in a false verdict. Some say we should ban laws and penalties being badly administered. Alright, but the tax code is not applied fairly either. Some get away with paying too little, some ignorantly pay too much. Too tough to fix? Let’s ban it, too. And so it goes with traffic laws, welfare and a lot of other things that we will not do away with.

Better that we do the hard thing. Put the blindfold back on justice and provide adequate defense for all the accused. The burden must remain on our legal system to provide equal treatment under the law. Doing away with problematic penalties (and they all are, to some degree) takes the burden to reform off those we have assigned to do just that thing.

It also seems that a sentimental concern for the possibly innocent does not properly include the certainly innocent?the victims. One problem with sentiment is an unreasonable focus. Sentimentality causes us to make judgments based on matters irrelevant to truth. It is sentiment that causes us to grant leniency to those like us or pitiable to us and harsh justice to those fearsome or different. It is sentiment that causes some to suspect that capital punishment is about revenge. To some it is about revenge and it shouldn’t be.

This brings us back to the biblical mandate. God told Noah that a reckoning for bloodguilt was demanded by the image of God in the victim. It is thus the person of God who is offended by murder as man wrongly takes the prerogative of God on himself. God specifically assigns this mandate to governments in Romans 13:1-7. We should not, in anger or sorrow, despise the image of God to spare our own feelings. A nation that determines a penalty for a crime and does not regularly assign that penalty breaks faith with its people and the God that established it.

Think of the substitutionary atonement. God is holy and thus, by nature, offended by my sin. He must be. God also tells us that only the shedding of blood can bring the remission of sins and my sin requires my own death. Every man must die for his own sin, then. It sounds good to us that God would just grant us all pardons. Who would God be then? Not holy, not just, only the merciful grandfather that most people hope he is. Instead he made a way for the only perfect, innocent man to pay for my sin so that I might be justly forgiven. He doesn’t wipe out the penalty, he provides for its payment in the only way that lets me live.

Christian nation or not, a government owes its authority to the only God who lives. Even natural revelation demands that the ruling authority of a land be just and yes, holy. Don’t the people of every nation want their laws to be better and more righteous than even the people who administer them?

Capital punishment makes me squeamish. I know my own faults and the idea that I would approve the death of another sinner seems hypocritical. It’s not about me or about my feelings, though. It’s about law, God’s law written on our hearts and on the books of most nations. The death penalty will always be administered imperfectly. This does not justify our surrender to imperfection. Neither does it mean that the only moral high ground belongs to the abolitionists. Conservatives must never stop demanding equitable justice for all men. Liberals need to be less dismissive of the sound biblical foundation for our law’s ultimate penalty.

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