This past week, Matthew Arbo argued very intelligently in an essay for the Gospel Coalition that Christians should not support capital punishment. I’m writing this essay to disagree with Matthew. Though we know each other personally and interact regularly over Twitter, I find that I need more than 140 characters to engage meaningfully with his very well-crafted argument. Ah, but wait! I have a blog. And so it begins.
I should start by noting that Matthew Arbo is more educated, more intelligent, and more philosophically inclined than me. If those facts alone end the argument for you, so be it. But as my high school football coach said, “At least you try hard.” Though I do not claim to be Arbo’s intellectual peer, I do hope to make some thoughtful contribution to the debate through my analysis and critique of his argument.
I write as a cautious supporter of capital punishment. Cautious, because as Arbo deftly points out, the application of this penalty within American jurisprudence leaves much to be desired. I basically agree with the entire second section of Arbo’s essay, in which he surveys the practical problems of racial bias and misapplication of evidence in death-row cases. He concludes that these are “reasons enough to place a temporary national stay on capital punishment” – with which I can heartily agree. However, that’s different than saying that the death penalty itself is objectively wrong. My own position, as I’ve discussed here, is that the death penalty is just in principle though it may be unjust in application. That’s the position I’ll seek to advance in this counter-essay.
Arbo’s contention is that “Christians… should not support [the death penalty],” and he divides his reasoning into three categories: philosophical objections, practical objections, and theological objections. Leaving aside the practical category – since I agree entirely with his points in that area – I’ll focus my counterpoints on his philosophical and theological arguments.
Philosophically, Arbo makes three main points:
- Execution doesn’t settle the debt of justice: killing the wrongdoer can not reestablish the state of affairs that existed before the murder took place.
- Capital punishment doesn’t have a pedagogical/restorative purpose: “The dead do not learn from their mistakes.”
- Capital punishment doesn’t serve as an effective deterrent.
As it stands, I agree with all three of these points. A thoughtful Christian affirmation of capital punishment must affirm that capital punishment cannot undo the injustice of the crime committed, nor teach the offender, nor deter all like crimes. A Christian affirmation of capital punishment rests upon a philosophical foundation that Arbo seems to snub in his argumentation: the doctrine of the imago Dei. If human beings bear the divine image, the taking of a human life is a grave offense, unlike any other. In cases of murder, the death penalty is not required, but it is justified because of the imago Dei. And thus we turn our attention to theological considerations.
At the outset of his theological argument, Arbo seeks to put the burden of proof on those who disagree with him:
If one wishes to base one’s justification for capital punishment on the Old Testament’s lex talionis (eye for an eye) principle, then one must demonstrate how death as a punitive measure is morally right, since the civil and ceremonial elements of the law have been fulfilled in Christ.
In this statement, Arbo has made a category mistake, for the earliest instance of lex talionis – especially as it pertains to the death penalty – is Genesis 9:6: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.” Genesis 9 is neither civil nor ceremonial law, but is prior to both. Genesis 9 is a covenantal text. The very next verse is a restatement of the cultural mandate: “Be fruitful and multiply, increase greatly on the earth and multiply in it” (Genesis 9:7). Some biblical scholars categorize Genesis 9 as a “covenant of creation,” in which God pledges his faithfulness never again to destroy the earth: “Never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of the flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth” (Genesis 9:11). This covenant is made with ALL of humankind, not just with one people: “God said to Noah, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth’”(Genesis 9:17). Therefore, Genesis 9:6 cannot be summarily dismissed as “civil or ceremonial law” which is fulfilled in Christ. And, perhaps even more importantly, the justification for lex talionis in Genesis 9:6 is exactly the doctrine of imago Dei: “…for God made man in his own image.”
The burden of proof, then, is on Arbo, not on those who disagree with him. Instead of blithely dismissing appeals to Genesis 9:6 as “far too paradoxical to accept,” he must show with cogent theological reasoning why the covenantal ordinance established in this text has been set aside. Broad, sweeping generalizations of “civil and ceremonial law” won’t do.
Arbo makes a similar category mistake when he asserts that “Christian advocates of capital punishment will also have to reckon with Jesus’ instruction in Matthew 5:38–41, where he makes clear this retaliatory interpretation of the law was incorrect.” But most interpreters understand Jesus to be talking about a personal ethic, not a state ethic. Turning the other cheek to Vladimir Putin makes for bad geopolitics. If retribution is wrong in any and every case – including in national defense – then let’s just turn over the keys to the nearest dictator. (Or maybe we already have? But that’s another post). I surmise Arbo knows his Augustine well enough to respect the Christian just-war tradition, which is rooted in exactly this distinction. While persons are not justified in waging war, nations are. Likewise, capital punishment by the state heads off the temptation toward personal vigilante justice and retribution.
What’s odd about Arbo’s argument is that he seems to conflate arguments against capital punishment with arguments for wisdom in its application. To say it another way: a defender of capital punishment can agree with 70% of Arbo’s assertions in his essay. Without reading into his intentions, it seems he’s adopted a rhetorical strategy of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” – marshall any and all objections to the death penalty, in principle or application, and imply that they add up to “Christians should oppose the death penalty.” But this just isn’t so. For instance, when he argues, “Governing authorities are sometimes required to use force to uphold the law and secure peace, of course, but nothing constrains them to kill offenders in order to do so… Neither is the Christian insubordinate or disrespectful in pleading for measured clemency,” I find myself saying, “Yes and Amen!” But this is not an argument against the death penalty. It is an argument for wise jurisprudence and faithful Christian witness. And it’s an argument that works equally well for my position as for his.
One final point before I conclude. Arbo ends his essay sounding a note that’s being sounded far and wide in Christian circles these days – the note that “the Christian faith is fully and entirely pro-life—beginning to end.” This idea is being trumpeted as a de facto case against the death penalty, as if a Christian cannot be “consistently pro-life” without being anti-death-penalty. However, I have not yet seen cogent argumentation to back up this assertion. I was hoping that Arbo’s essay might fill the gap, but it didn’t (or it hasn’t yet; perhaps this response will spur fuller treatment). I consider myself someone who is “fully and entirely pro-life,” as well a supporter of the death penalty in principle. I don’t think I’m the only one. Therefore, I plead with all who are repeating this “consistently pro-life” trope:
- Please distinguish clearly between Christian opposition to the death penalty in principle and Christian opposition to the death penalty in application (or, just admit that the main objections are practical/applicatory, and let’s focus our Christian activism there);
- Deal meaningfully, exegetically and theologically, with Genesis 9:6;
- Show why the basic assumptions of just war theory (state ethic vs. personal ethic) don’t apply to the death penalty as well.
Perhaps this work has been (or is being) done somewhere, and I’m just not aware of it. If so, feel free to point me there in the comments section. And then I’ll take Arbo to task for not quoting such work in his essay.
In the end, Arbo has made necessary arguments against the death penalty, but his arguments are not sufficient to establish his conclusion. I say this with humble gratitude for Matthew Arbo as a friend, a brother in Christ, and one of the church’s bright intellectual and philosophical minds. My critiques of his work are offered in charity, with the expectation that he may in fact answer every single objection in this post by breakfast tomorrow. And if he does, I trust I will have served the Lord’s people well by giving him the opportunity.