When it comes to Christians in America who passionately affirm and support our nation’s use of the death penalty, it always comes back to quoting the Old Testament to justify their position.
Modern arguments don’t tend to sway them. Somehow, it doesn’t seem relevant that the death penalty fails to act as any sort of true deterrent most of the time. Pointing out that the death penalty is actually more expensive than incarceration for life doesn’t go very far; nor does pointing out that a life-sentence– in many ways taking away their life– satisfies both justice and a need to keep a community safe. Raising issue with the way the death penalty in America is disproportionately used to execute the poor and people of color– usually in former slave states no less– doesn’t seem to be that compelling of an objection, either.
And sadly, even quoting the teachings of Jesus is something that is consistently outright dismissed– usually resulting in an attempt to thump Jesus with the Bible itself by quoting the Old Testament almost as a way of giving a rebuttal to Jesus himself.
If one is going to insist on using the Old Testament law as the MOAA (Mother Of All Arguments), and if one is going to plug their ears in order to ignore all other passages or arguments simply to respond with, “But God’s law never changes” or “Jesus came to fulfill the law, not abolish it,” fine: Let’s at least insist you stop ignoring that one tricky verse and start applying the Old Testament law as it was established:
“But never put a person to death on the testimony of only one witness. There must always be two or three witnesses.”Deuteronomy 17:6
If one wants to use affirmation and faithfulness to the Old Testament law on capital punishment as the basis of their argument, one cannot just take the “idea of it” and ignore what the law actually was. Instead, if you claim your position is to uphold a “timeless law” that God established, you must also accept that the Old Testament’s entire premise of capital punishment was one which prohibited using it in circumstantial cases– or even cases where there was only one eyewitness who saw the crime happen.
While many people, including myself, view much of these laws as better reflecting the mindset of Bronze Age goat herders than the heart of God, even their law placed a very high threshold on the use of capital punishment. It was a law that completely ruled out circumstantial cases, and a law that recognized what scientists now know as far as the unreliability of eyewitness testimony– even when such witnesses are acting in good faith.
So, yes, certainly Old Testament law established and sanctioned capital punishment, but it placed a very high bar on the use of it– allowing it only in cases where there were at least 2-3 eyewitnesses who saw the crime happen.
As a follower of Jesus, I fight to disrupt death and overthrow the death penalty in America in order to be faithful to the example of Jesus, and be a witness to redemption and resurrection. However, even ancient Old Testament laws would be a net-improvement on America’s death penalty system and would drastically reduce the number of people killed by the state. People like Larry Swearingen who was executed last night in Texas.
Not a single eyewitness saw Swearingen commit the murder he was executed for– and there’s a compelling reason for that: He was most likely locked up in jail for unpaid parking tickets when the murder occurred. In fact, a total of nine medical examiners have testified that the time of death was at a time when he had already been in jail for an entire week.
None of that mattered last night in a state that often uses the motto of “God’s Country”, and today Larry Swearingen is dead even though there is tremendous doubt over his guilt.
I want to stop that from ever happening again. As a Christian, no matter your flavor, I would hope you would too.
My challenge to you, my fellow Christian– you support it because of the Old Testament?
At least be faithful and consistent to the law as it was established, and demand that no person ever be put to death unless there are a minimum of 2-3 eyewitnesses who saw the crime happen with their own two eyes.
That threshold alone would be a massive improvement to the version of capital punishment in America that would both reduce executions tremendously as well as help prevent innocent people from dying in a state death chamber.
Plus, if you’re going to go with the argument of “the Bible says in the Old Testament”, then at least uphold what it actually *does* say on the issue– and stop ignoring that inconvenient verse that goes along with it.