Grace and Truth: Part II

In light of what was covered in the last post, I realized that I no longer knew what to make of capital punishment. Now, before I go further, no…I have never had a loved one murdered, so I can’t put myself in the shoes of a victim’s family, and I’m not pretending that I can. But I also have never had a family member executed on death row, so I can’t pretend to know what occupying that position would be like, either. I feel like the same goes for most of us. Therefore, this discussion is speculative, and we must remember that while formulating our opinions.

Here’s what bothers me about the story of the woman caught in adultery. If there is anybody who has a right to pick up a rock and throw it at her, it is the one person who is in a position to judge: the blameless, perfect Almighty God incarnate in the body of Jesus Christ. God himself, who cannot be near sin.

And he won’t do it. He won’t do it.

To follow Christ is to exhibit grace and mercy. Yes, Jesus talked about judgment and Hell more than anybody else…because that’s his arena. He is the Alpha and the Omega; we are not. He is the permanent Being; we are not. I believe that when Christ said, “If you’re perfect, throw the first rock,” he is saying, “This is not your place; it’s mine. You are not in a position to make decisions like these.”

But we’ve put ourselves in those positions. Should government be allowed to end a person’s life? Or more importantly, should we be allowed to decide when a person’s soul ends? You may say, “Yeah, but that’s exactly what the murderer did to his victim. He didn’t have any right to do that.” Of course he didn’t, but by killing him in return, don’t we just perpetuate a vengeful cycle? One of my friends wrote an opinion article for my school’s newspaper and noted that the murderer has had his opportunity to come to Christ. In other words, he doesn’t deserve anymore time. I disagree; you can never give somebody too much time to make that choice. I am not one who enjoys the thought of giving up on people, even if they have committed some atrocity. I would like to think people wouldn’t give up on me…

You see, I believe that the mindset of “they had their chance” is no different than saying, “Lord, there’s nothing more You could possibly do with them. They’re not going to change.” But there’s an errancy contained in that statement. Saying it boxes up God with our emotion-based limitations. God has the power to change any person’s life. If we think someone is somehow beyond God’s reach of saving power and doesn’t deserve to live anymore, then our God is small. And another thing: when did we become so self-righteous to the point that we feel like we can say when a person is “beyond saving?” We who don’t know how to judge without condemnation—what makes us fit to slap that label on someone?

Keep in mind that you and I are capable of effecting genocide. You and I are capable of raping a child. You and I are capable of becoming the next serial killer who will be talked about for decades to come. If we are indignant at such a statement, then we fool ourselves on how intense our human nature is. No, we are not immune to it. Yes, we are just that bad. It connects all of us. I am no better than that man or woman on death row.

On the complete other end of the spectrum, though, is another universal: we are all children of God. Some of us posit the theory that “some people are just flat-out less human than others” but that’s wrong. Jeffery Dahmer, every participant in the Rwandan genocide, and the apostle Paul, killer of Christians before his conversion to Christ, are all children of God. By leaving the timetable for when a person dies in God’s hands, I can sleep at night knowing that God gave that person all the time he or she needed to make a decision, whereas if I were to put him or her on death row, I would wonder the rest of my life what could have been. Besides, does the death penalty really provide the relief, the catharsis, the healing someone needs? I’m skeptical it would eradicate the bonds of grief and torment that rage within an individual who has had a family member or dear friend murdered.

Am I saying that people should go unpunished? Of course not. Justice of some sort must be served, but here is how I see it, in light of Micah 6:8. First, acting justly means that there will be consequences for people’s actions and rightfully so. Second, there’s no better way to love (and exhibit) mercy than to learn from Christ’s example that we are not to assume a position of condemnation that puts others’ lives in our own hands (see John 8:1-11). Third, we are to walk humbly, which acknowledges that we are not somehow “better people” than the individuals who occupy death row and that God alone has the final say.

I do not pretend to have all the answers, and I’m still formulating my opinion on all of this. A book I appreciate is Dead Man Walking. You should give it a read. I’m also aware that some of you see this as a political issue, and for that very reason feel that religion shouldn’t help create our view on things like capital punishment. I tend to agree with that sentiment and feel like my line of thinking still follows it because I view the concept of “grace and truth” as a lifestyle, not just a religious maxim. Ergo, everything (for me) falls under its gaze, and capital punishment just happens to be one part of that “everything” that bothers me at this time.

I cherish your input and thoughtful opinions on issues like these.

Much love.

  1. Laura Joseph said:

    Interesting post…. One distinction you did not make in the above, that I think should be part of the discussion, is the difference between the role of government and that of the individual. In the Old Testament, there is both the commandment “Do not murder” and also the laws that delineate when to kill an offender who breaks God’s commands. In the New, we are told to respect the governments in place, because although they will be flawed, they are said to be put in place by God. Consider 1 Peter 2:13-14 “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by Him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right.”
    I’m not saying that this answers all your questions in the matter, but just that it should be in the mix.

    • Nelson Shake said:

      I agree…it should be in the mix, and if not for maintaining brevity, I would’ve added it (so I’m glad you brought this up). Yes, the difference is important, but consider that the Old Testament also commands people to avoid adultery and gave the governing body permission to execute transgressors of that sin, and yet, when given the opportunity—a legitimate one by Jewish law at that—to put someone to death, Christ declined (I firmly believe such a reaction was not a one-time thing). Otherwise we could sit here asking why the government doesn’t terminate adulterers. I’m always curious how Christ’s coming affects the Law itself. In other words, how does John 8 shift the way things are supposed to be done now?

      Since governments don’t always exemplify Christ, the issue then becomes whether or not the death penalty fails to emulate Christ (a.k.a. doling out grace and truth). I don’t pretend or expect there to be a simple answer to this situation; it’s not black and white and never will be. But for me, an attitude of truth and especially grace doesn’t mesh with employing the death penalty.

      • Laura Joseph said:

        You mentioned that although the Jewish law prescribed the death penalty for adulterers, Christ declined to carry it out or recommend it. The question is “why”? I think there are also other pieces to this particular scenario that need also to be mentioned. It’s not simply, “a guilty adulteress was brought to Jesus and He let her off”. There are at least two other major things that come into play here. 1) This looks like a set-up, because there were eyewitnesses, and because there’s no man caught. Jesus knows when He is being trapped, and this is one of those times. Because 2) the Jews were not able to carry out the death penalty (which is why they had to take Jesus Himself to the Romans. It’s another of their political vs. spiritual traps they try to set, just like “Should we pay taxes to Caesar or not?” Both of those surely play into His response here.

        • Nelson Shake said:

          Two excellent points, both of which we discussed in my class last semester. The two do construct part of the backdrop and undoubtedly relate in some way to Christ’s response (which is what I’m mainly interested in), so could it be that Jesus’ actions are only specific to this situation due to the likely set-up and Roman law? Possible…but I’m still skeptical because Christ didn’t always follow established rules and customs and broke enough of them to where the Pharisees couldn’t take him anymore. But it seems to be more than that. Rather, his response to her is simply love—a love we’ve seen plenty of times already throughout his ministry. And so while the answer to “why” may never be positively known, I still believe it comes back to that love: life lived with a measure of grace. It becomes hard to believe his actions are a one-time thing here, for I’m convinced that if Jesus catches this woman in adultery by himself, this extension of mercy would still be seen because it is a key characteristic of his entire ministry, culminating in life-saving grace for all on the cross.

          Your two points are very important to keep in mind and highlight just how non-black-and-white this situation is, and while they no doubt play into how Jesus responds, we must also remember how Christ’s actions here are not unique, but the norm of his approach. And it’s at that point that I keep wondering how we are to respond.

  2. Sarah Kyle said:

    I guess I had never really taken time to fully think about the death penalty and all those implications- but I think you have a point. It’s just such a tricky issue: on the one hand, the though of ending anyone’s life feels out of our arena or “right” of action. On the other, some of the people on Death Row have done things that are so twisted and unthinkable that the death penalty seems to be the safest and best thing for the world- ridding it of a sort of evil.

    But I do think you’re right in that we all have the ability to do twisted things; we all have our sinful nature. So who are we to throw the first stone?

    Definitely a complicated and confusing issue, and I really like your thoughts on the matter. Keep up the good work!

  3. Tiffany said:

    Recently, I also have been mulling over the issue of what it actually means to be merciful and a bestower of Christ’s love on all of God’s children, including the Jeffrey Dahmers of the world. The gravity of the requirement of embodying this lifestyle is apparent in John’s words that ‘anyone who does not love his brother, whom he HAS seen, CANNOT love God, whom he has not seen.’ That’s a strong, yet simple ultimatum. Either you unconditionally love your brother, or you are not a disciple of Christ. So what does it mean to love my brother? Surely it cannot include the taking of his life, no matter what his past wrongs have been. We ourselves are murderers when we hate, adulterers when we lust, and slanderers in our thoughts. Freely we have received Christ’s mercy, and freely we must give it. I understand that this is extremely difficult and I myself struggle with grasping it. Our human nature resists forgiveness and yearns for retribution. But we must recognize this as the path to destruction. Only Christ’s way is perfect and complete and only He brings healing. If we stop relying on ourselves to judge and condemn, roles that God has clearly claimed for His own, I think we will find the peace we are looking for.

    Thanks for the post, Nelson.

  4. Daniel Betten said:

    I’ve been in a discussion about this in class and one part of it that has not been discussed is, what happens when a serial killer breaks out of jail and kills again? Ted Bundy broke out 2 times and the second time he killed 2 people and seriously hurt a couple others. Is there a point when you say that the risk is too great that if they escape, more people will die? Thats an extreme example of someone who killed over 30 people, but do you put the public at risk by not executing them?
    Another point that I think has been neglected is the deterrent factor. This is a big reason why the Mosaic law had harsh punishments, so that people would be deterred from committing those sins. It would be interesting to see a study that showed whether the death penalty was larger deterrent that a life sentence.

    • Nelson Shake said:

      Tough question. I would be more inclined to say that such an issue has to do more with the security with which prisons are handled. To assign people to death row because there’s a risk of them possibly escaping doesn’t make much sense. Such a sentence doesn’t reflect their crime, but rather, a judicial system that doesn’t have confidence in its own prison system. Taking an approach like that would only bring about unrest in the general public.

      Maybe deterrence worked during the Mosaic law-era, but today seems to be a different story: since 1990, death penalty states have had a higher murder rate than non-death penalty states. Granted, the number of murders in death penalty states has decreased over that time period, but so has the number of murders in non-death penalty states, so capital punishment cannot be given credit for the downturn in numbers.

  5. Ron said:

    OK. Here I sit sucking this all in, pondering about a time in my life when I was a different man than I am now. A time when things were black and white, when decisions were easy. Even decisions that involved life and death. Yes that was a time when little love was present and for sure my values were very different. As a soldier in a war zone, there are times when we kill under orders; times we kill for preservation of our lives or those of our brothers/sisters. But there are times we have to make a decision on taking a life based on what we perceive as “necessary” in a given situation. Too often I had to make these decisions and will someday have to answer for those lives because I did not value the lives enough. Sometimes it was just easy to “eliminate’ so there would be no chance of danger. I now struggle with why I thought I had the right to give the death penalty to so many….. What made my life more valuable than theirs?

    I know God has forgiven me but the souls of the exucuted never stop crying.

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