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In the 1995 film, Just Cause, Sean Connery plays a law professor who strongly opposes capital punishment. In the opening scene of the film, Connery’s character, Paul Armstrong, is shown debating the issue in front of a packed house. When his debate opponent describes a theoretical situation involving Armstrong’s own family in an attempt to personalize the death penalty rather than keeping it theoretical, Armstrong remains true to his stated convictions, dramatically closing his answer by saying that he "refuses to believe in any government which is willing to trade torture for torture, death for death." Although this mainly serves as a plot device for the rest of the movie, Armstrong’s seemingly compassionate answer is a very good summary of the modern opposition to the death penalty. Unfortunately for Armstrong and the rest of the capital punishment detractors, this sorely misses the point of the entire debate.
Although we seem to be preoccupied with the economy and stimulus bills lately, the controversy over the death penalty in America is still very far from over. And because the arguments for and against capital punishment are often closely tied to the abortion debate, Christians of every denomination should be ready and willing to offer the biblical answer. While the Bible is abundantly clear on what God’s view of the death penalty is, we need to be constantly reminding ourselves of the primary reasons WHY the death penalty is to be used, to avoid being sidetracked by the opposition’s endless appeals to emotion and pity.
In his new book, The Death Penalty on Trial: Taking a Life for a Life Taken, Dr. Ron Gleason provides objective clarity to this subjective issue. Getting straight to the point, Dr. Gleason writes:
Christians are obligated to conform their thinking and actions to the Word of God. It is important that they do not neglect to study and meditate upon God’s Word. They must not let emotions form their principles but must allow the Word of God to determine their principles. (21-22)
Throughout the remainder of his short and readable book, Dr. Gleason does this very thing. He discusses key biblical texts (and their context) from the Old and New Testaments alike, providing helpful insight to clear up any foggy thinking on the part of Christians who fall for the humanistic reasoning of men like Paul Armstrong. Gleason reinforces the WHY of the death penalty over and over, reminding his readers of both their response and responsibility to the capital punishment of murderers. Near the end of the book he states: "[W]e must remember that God is the source of mercy and the church is to reflect God’s mercy, but the state’s task is the executejustice" (93-94). Gleason never allows his readers to wander very far from the path of his main argument, calling to mind again and again that the issue isn’t about revenge or deterring future criminal acts. The biblical mandate for the execution of those who commit capital crimes is about carrying out justice and "purging the evil from among you" (Deut. 13:5-13; 17:7-12; 19:16-19; 21:18-21; 22:21-24; 24:7; Judges 20:13).
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Gleason not only gives the faithful biblical response, he also deals with secular arguments made for and against capital punishment. Although individuals can be radically changed in their views on the death penalty once they have a close personal experience with the issue, as Paul Armstrong does in the film, we must recognize that even this is an emotional response. If a society only changes its views on the death penalty because more than 50% of the population either have had a personal experience with it, than we cannot consider this a victory of justice.
In our modern setting, the use of natural law is substantially more problematic. Contemporary culture is geared toward preference, which is a far cry even from natural law. That being the case, Christians have a much more difficult time building an apologetic case for a particular ethical issue. Why wouldn’t or shouldn’t Christians use the authoritative Word to present God’s case to the culture? (9)
In other words, Gleason doesn’t want us to be fooled by secular arguments that sound good on the surface, yet undermine the very fabric of the biblical foundation. To this end, he interacts with secular writers and thinkers who oppose the death penalty on their own shaky ground, showing the contradictions within their own stated worldview. On such critic, Dr. Hugo Bedau, speaks for many within the opposition camp in his appeal to the eighth amendment of the Constitution (i.e. cruel and unusual punishment) as justification for not enforcing capital punishment. Gleason quickly dispenses with this argument, but later brings Dr. Bedau’s words to bear against him. Bedau writes: "If, however, a severe punishment can deter crime, then long-term imprisonment is severe enough to cause any rational person not to commit violent crimes." Gleason cleverly takes Bedau’s argument behind the woodshed when he responds: "So, Bedau is arguing for extended cruel punishment as a better deterrent? He contradicts himself roundly" (85). Such is the irrational basis of secular and humanistic reasoning. It will always contradict itself when the argument is followed to its logical conclusion.
Much more could be said about Dr. Gleason’s book, but I will leave that to readers to discover for themselves. This short book serves as an excellent introduction to the death penalty debate, but also serves as a primer for biblical ethics in general. Christians are often confused and contradictory on their application of the Old Testament ethical and moral laws, and the concepts of restitution and punishment. We would all do well to take an evening to read Dr. Gleason’s book, and to begin to conform our own minds to God’s moral and ethical requirements, before we can even hope to change anyone else’s mind. The Death Penalty on Trial is a good place to start.