Bringing Scripture back into the death penalty debate

Catholics debating the death penalty generally do a bad job with Scripture.  One side of the debate cites isolated texts, leaving themselves open to the accusation that they cannot see the texts in relation to the whole thrust of Scripture.  The other side of the debate refers vaguely to “the Gospel” as a way to avoid dealing with any particular text of Scripture at all.  Neither side appears to have a living relationship with God’s word.

I can’t work through all the relevant texts on this blog, but I would like to offer an example of what’s possible by dealing with the big text everyone mentions:  Genesis 9:6, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.”  I have already dealt with the context of this verse at greater length elsewhere, but I was not talking about the death penalty then.  Here I’ll condense the discussion to highlight what is most relevant to the death penalty issue.

The context of Genesis 9:6 is the covenant with Noah after the flood—that much is obvious.  But really, the context is everything that happened in Genesis up this point.  Here are the most necessary bits (again, see my previous post for more details):

  1. Creation. God creates man and woman in his own image, and he gives them the plants to eat. He does not give them animals for eating.  All life is God’s, and the only reason they can eat the plants is that plants are not categorized among living things.
  2. Cain murders Abel, and Cain assumes that someone will kill him for what he has done. God says that Cain will not be killed, but sends him into exile in a distant land. In other words, men are not allowed to kill anyone, not even someone who has killed.
  3. Cain’s descendants, and possibly those of Seth as well, become more and more like Cain, killing and being killed, until the earth is drenched with blood. As a consequence, the earth is cursed (even more than it was before!) and stops producing enough food for everyone.
  4. Meanwhile, Noah is born, and his father predicts that Noah will “bring us relief from our work and from the toil of our hands.” That is, Noah will bring a relief from the curse on the ground that is starving everyone.
  5. God decides to send a flood, and the reason he gives is the corruption of the earth through violence.
  6. Once the flood is over, God makes a covenant with Noah to avoid the necessity of another flood, which means avoiding the problems that led to the flood. To do this, he makes two concessions regarding life. With regard to starvation, God reverses his original policy concerning food and gives permission for men to eat animals; but to keep everyone aware of the fact that the animal’s life belongs to God, he requires that men refrain from eating blood, reserving it for sacrifice to God.  With regard to bloodshed polluting the earth, God reverses the policy he declared concerning Cain, and he gives men permission to kill those who kill men; he cites as his reason that “God made man in his image.”  That last phrase both distinguishes between animals and men as regards the permission to kill them and gives the reason why the murderer should die.

So what is the upshot of all this?  We see that, in context, Genesis 9:6 takes into account the fact that a man does not lose his dignity by committing sin.  In fact, the text is more radical than most anti-death-penalty folks today because it insists that even animal life is sacred.  On the other hand, we see that Genesis 9:6 declares the death penalty legitimate despite the sacredness of man’s life, primarily because it is the only way to stop the general spread of bloodshed and secondarily because the one who violates God’s image has made himself worthy of such a fate.

Of course, this does support those who say that the death penalty is inherently legitimate.  People who say this OT text is out of date because now we realize a man retains his being-in-the-image-of-God even after sin—these people have not considered the text in context.

On the other hand, it also supports those who say that the death penalty is no longer legitimate when other workable ways to protect society are available.  And this could be used in turn to argue that we have a duty to find those other workable ways if at all possible.

So the upshot is not a blood-thirsty, mean-old-God-of-the-Old-Testament, hyper-conservative enthusiasm for the death penalty.  But neither is it a melting-with-pity, what-would-Jesus-do, hyper-liberal hatred for the death penalty as always and inherently immoral.

What do you know? God’s word is more balanced than most people on the Internet.

Of course, there are a lot more texts to look at, and not just from the Old Testament.  But I hope this posts offers a glimpse of what a real reading of Scripture could do for the debate—not proof-texting, not 20,000-foot generalizations, but a close reading that honestly expects to learn something from what God has revealed.

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Author: Dr. Holmes

Dr. Jeremy Holmes teaches Theology at Wyoming Catholic College. He lives in Wyoming with his wife, Jacinta, and their eight children.

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