When you look at the history of the church's entanglement with the death penalty, and then its recovery, gradually you realize the story is like a parable, a penetrating view into something much deeper. It reveals how the church departed from following Jesus and instead turned to other sources for its ethics.
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The early Christian church started out opposing the death penalty and citing Jesus in its ethics. According to James Megivern, author of The Death Penalty: An Historical and Theological Survey, Clement of Alexandria, notorious for accommodating the gospel to the culture, was "the first Christian writer to provide theoretical grounds for the justification of capital punishment." Megivern, a professor of religion at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, says that Clement "appealed to a rather questionable medical analogy [a doctor amputates a diseased organ if it threatens the body] rather than to anything of specifically Christian inspiration."
From Clement and Augustine through the 12th century, none of the passages justifying the death penalty even hints of a reference to the teachings of Jesus. The Bavarian Law, from the end of the 7th century, stands out brightly in clearly opposing the death penalty, citing Jesus in the Lord's Prayer: "for the Lord has said: 'The one who forgives will be forgiven.'"
Persecution of heretics was the main source of entanglement with the death penalty. After Constantine became the first pro-Christian emperor in the year 312, "emperors passed at least 66 decrees against Christian heretics, and another 25 laws 'against paganism in all its forms,'" according to Megivern. "The violence of the age was extraordinary, and Christians were becoming more and more deeply involved in it....Once Christianity had become the state religion, the imperial values articulated in Roman law tended to overwhelm gospel values."
The Theodosian Code, a decade after Augustine's death, included 120 laws that included punishment by death. Subsequent laws prescribed death for eating meat during Lent, burning a cadaver in pagan style instead of burying it in a Christian cemetery, and going into hiding rather than presenting oneself for baptism! Megivern gives bloody examples of horrible violence by popes and in the Inquisition, giving the death penalty to thousands and thousands of Christians, including Jan Hus, Joan of Arc, Albigensians, Waldensians, Franciscans, Knights Templars, and Anabaptists. In the witch craze of the 17th century, 200,000 to 500,000 or more were executed across Europe and the New World.
A KEY TO TURNING AWAY from the death penalty was the turning again to Jesus' teachings against revenge and violence. Megivern explains that Christians who opposed capital punishmentsuch as the Waldensians, John Wycliff, numerous Anabaptist leaders, and others of the radical reformationwere "motivated by their understanding of the gospel to criticize the death penalty as an ungodly abomination long before the abolitionist movements began. Their objections designated it a violation of...the 'hard sayings' of Christ, which gave priority to love and forgiveness and rejected all revenge-taking among his followers....There was no way to escape the impact of the Sermon on the Mount...."
Those who support the death penalty often take Genesis 9:6 as their authority: "Who sheds man's blood will have his blood shed." This becomes their hermeneutical key, so that other scripture is interpreted as conforming to it. They contend Jesus gave no direct teaching on the subject, and did not challenge governmental authority. Thus they systematically learn nothing new from Jesus.
Those who oppose the death penalty take Jesus as Lord guiding their interpretation. Jesus' teachings and cross become their hermeneutical key, so other scripture is interpreted through Jesus. In Matthew 26:52, Jesus takes Genesis 9:6 as a prediction, not a command: "Who lives by the sword will die by the sword."
Jesus teaches in Matthew 5:38-48 that revenge and retaliation are wrong, and that instead we should follow Jesus' commands of love, forgiveness, and compassion. Jesus' forgiving the woman caught in adultery is relevant. Jesus' once-for-all death on the cross ended the need for sacrifices of expiation. The cross as death penalty discloses sin, not model behavior to be exemplified.
Megivern's history of how the church became entangled in the death penalty helps us understand the continuing entanglement that we see still around us, and the way out. The way to renewal here, as in so much else, is for our ethics to return to a concrete hermeneutics of the way of Jesus.
Glen Stassen was the Lewis B. Smedes Professor of Christian Ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, when this article appeared.