Albert Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Seminary, has written an unflinching "Christian" defense of the death penalty. He was writing in response to the botched execution in Oklahoma, the one where Clayton Lockett's convulsing and writhing were so grotesque, officials quickly closed the curtains to block the view of the audience. After 45 minutes of horrific suffering, Lockett died of a heart attack. But, dear Christian, don't turn your head away. God wants us to kill killers (Genesis 9:6). Seizing upon the logic of deterrence, Mohler writes, "In a world of violence, the death penalty is understood as a necessary firewall against the spread of further deadly violence." Killing is good; we just need to do it right (that is, Christianly).
Mohler concedes that the death penalty is not a deterrent to murder. Yet he blames the lack of deterrent effect on lengthy appeals ("often irrational and irrelevant"). But data comparing countries without lengthy appeals processes with countries that lack the death penalty provide no evidence whatsoever for the death penalty's alleged deterrent effect. The deterrent argument must finally be put to rest.
Back to the main point -- Is the gospel logic, as Mohler suggests, one of violence overcoming violence?
Or, to put it another way, who would Jesus kill?
Mohler's primary case comes from the Old Testament, which requires the death penalty in the case of murder, of course, but also for kidnapping (Exodus 21:16; Deuteronomy 24:7), cursing one's parents (Exodus 21:15,17; Leviticus 20:9), being a rebellious son (Deuteronomy 21:18-21), premarital sex (Leviticus 21:9; Deuteronomy 22:20-21), and adultery (Leviticus 20:10-21; Deuteronomy 22:22). This list is not exhaustive.
Cursing your parents? I'm just spitballin' now, but if this were strictly enforced most of us formerly obnoxious teens, teens who told their parents to go to hell a time or two, would not be around today. Maybe the young Mohler committed a similar capital crime or two.
We all exercise a little exegetical leeway when it comes to interpreting the Bible. (I suspect we exercise leeway when it comes to our own sins, not so much when it comes to others. But that's another story.)
What about adultery, then? Jesus, you might recall, stopped those from stoning an adulterer with these words, "Let he that is without sin cast the first stone." (John 8:7)
So, no killing of parent cursers, rebellious sons, and adulterers (apparently premarital sex is no longer on the table).
What about murder, then? Would Jesus cast that stone?
Here's my problem: Jesus says to love and pray for those who hate you, to turn the other cheek, and to love your enemy as yourself.
I read about him hanging out with prostitutes, adulterers, lepers, and Samaritans. I can see him kneeling down to wash the dirty, stinky feet of those who call him King. At the point of death, he serves his disciples and calms his close but cowardly friends. I imagine him visiting the prisoner and treating him like a fully human being. I see him forgiving sinners while hanging in torment on the cross. And I imagine him giving up his own life so that no one has to give up their own.
But I can't, for the life of me, imagine him tightening the noose around a man's neck and kicking the stool from beneath his feet and watching him dangle and gasp for that last breath.
I don't downplay capital offenses and I don't think we should coddle murderers. Life in prison without hope of parole for such as they. And then they should be prayed for, hoped for, loved unconditionally, and treated, within those confines, as a child of God.
I can almost see Jesus forgiving even the worst of sinners (there but for the grace of God goes I) but I cannot imagine any understanding of Jesus's Sermon on the Mount:
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
in which Mohler's claim would make any sense whatsoever:
"I believe that Christians should hope, pray and strive for a society in which the death penalty, rightly and rarely applied, would make moral sense."