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Pope Francis has changed church teaching on the death penalty by saying it can never be approved because it attacks the inherent dignity of all people. In welcoming the news, Symon Hill says Protestants also have a duty to reject capital punishment
The Pope has just altered the Vatican's teaching on the death penalty. The Roman Catholic Church will now declare that, “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person”.
I suggest that Protestants also have a responsibility to reject capital punishment. We can share Francis' view about the inviolability of the person. There are also other reasons, rooted in scripture and in Protestant theology, for us to oppose the death penalty.
The first is the example of Jesus.
I sometimes hear people say that it is impossible to know what view Christians should take on political issues that Jesus didn't talk about. This is a cop-out. We can hardly expect Jesus to have commented on issues that are central to our own society but were not relevant to his. By speaking in parables and asking questions, he encouraged us to think, and to reflect on the relevance to his teachings to situations beyond his own context.
There are some issues, however, that Jesus engaged with and which remain at the centre of political debate today. One of these is the death penalty.
The men caught in hypocrisy
The most relevant passage is the story usually described as “the woman caught in adultery”. A better title might be, “the men caught in hypocrisy” (John 8:2-11).
The Scribes and Pharisees presented Jesus with a woman who had been found committing adultery. They said that the law of Moses commanded that such a woman be stoned to death. In one of his most famous sayings, Jesus replied, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her”. The men drifted away, leaving Jesus to tell the woman that he did not condemn her, adding “do not sin again”.
However abhorrent we might consider adultery to be, few people in Britain today would argue that adultery should be a criminal offence, let alone subject to capital punishment.
Despite this, the case is very relevant. Adultery was one of the most serious crimes in Jesus' society. Faced with someone accused of this crime, Jesus saved her life.
Jesus did not say explicitly that it would be wrong to kill her. The Scribes and Pharisees had brought the woman to Jesus “to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him” (John 8:6). This suggests that Jesus was thought likely to oppose the stoning. By responding as he did, Jesus cleverly saved the woman's life without criticising the law. He also led her accusers to reflect on their own behaviour.
The law of Moses commanded that in a case of adultery both the man and the woman should be executed (Leviticus 20:10). But these men bring only the woman! It's a familiar case of women receiving most of the blame for sexual immorality.
The woman's accusers seem more like a lynch mob than a court of law. I see no reason to think that Jesus' attitude would have been different if this had been some formally constituted court, for they too have built-in biases.
Christ's nonviolent example
Throughout the world, people with little power are disproportionately likely to be punished. As of 2014, 42% of people on the USA's death row were black, despite black people comprising only 13.6% of the US population. To support the death penalty is to place ultimate confidence in the judicial system to reach all the right conclusions. Human institutions, however legitimate, are just not that perfect.
I am not suggesting that all criminals should simply be told to go away and sin no more. However, the example of Jesus saving someone from the death penalty should be a major consideration for us.
By executing somebody we literally reduce their chance of repentance and salvation. This is a truly terrible thing for any Christian to contemplate doing.
More broadly, Jesus exemplified active nonviolence. Jesus told his hearers that if they were hit on one cheek, they should turn the other (Matthew 5:39). This is not an invitation to passivity: a frightened victim cowers backwards whereas to turn the other cheek is neither violent nor subservient but an act of nonviolent defiance. In Jesus' protest in the Temple he damaged property but was not violent.
Secondly, and just as importantly, even the most vicious murderer can repent of their sins and turn to God. To shorten somebody's life is to reduce the time they have in which to repent. By executing somebody we literally reduce their chance of repentance and salvation. This is a truly terrible thing for any Christian to contemplate doing.
As Christians, we follow a Messiah who was executed with one of the most painful versions of the death penalty that human cruelty has ever devised. Jesus' resurrection is a reminder that God's power, and God's love, are stronger than any death penalty.
Symon Hill is a Christian author and activist. He works for the Peace Pledge Union and the Workers' Educational Association. His latest book is The Upside-Down Bible: What Jesus really said about money, sex and violence (Darton, Longman and Todd).
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