Al Mohler, Jesus and the death penalty debate

beheading of Paul

Would Jesus support the death penalty? Mother Theresa posed the question to the Governor of California in 1990. She was pretty sure he knew the answer.

According to a recent Barna poll:

Only 5 percent of Americans believe that Jesus would support government’s ability to execute the worst criminals. Two percent of Catholics, 8 percent of Protestants, and 10 percent of practicing Christians said their faith’s founder would offer his support.
The Barna poll revealed that 42% of Christian Baby Boomers believe the government should have the right to execute the worst criminals (whatever Jesus might think).

But pose the same question to Christian millennials (roughly those between 18 and 30) and only 32% give an affirmative answer.

Things get really interesting when the death penalty question is posed to Christians who are particularly serious about their faith. The Barna study

“showed an even sharper difference in support for the death penalty among “practicing Christians,” which Barna defined as those who say faith is very important to their lives and have attended church at least once in the last month. Nearly half of practicing Christian boomers support the government’s right to execute the worst criminals, while only 23 percent of practicing Christian millennials do.”

Did you catch that?

When you ask boomers about the death penalty, religious devotion increases support for the death penalty by ten points (give or take); but devout millennials are ten point less likely to support the death penalty than the nominally religious members of their cohort.

How do we explain the discrepancy?

Some have suggested that Millennials are better informed about the many ways in which race and social class impact the capital equation. The whiter and wealthier the defendant, the less likely it becomes that the death penalty will be imposed.

But conservative Christians like Al Mohler are fully aware that the ultimate penalty, as actually practiced in the United States, is tainted by race and social class bias. Does that realization cool their enthusiasm for capital punishment? Not a bit.

Dr. Mohler has taken a lot of flack in recent weeks for arguing in favor of the death penalty days after of a horribly botched execution in Oklahoma. Mohler supports the death penalty for two reasons: the eye-for-an-eye principle figures explicitly in the Old Testament and implicitly in the teaching of Paul.

In the book of Romans, the Apostle Paul states that “the authority does not bear the sword in vain.” Therefore, if those in authority (say, the state of Oklahoma) want to take a human life, Christians must acquiesce. The state is free to use its God-given sword any way it wishes.

Christians like Shane Claiborne and Rachel Held Evans have wondered aloud how a celebrated Christian theologian like Dr. Mohler could speak at length about the death penalty without mentioning Jesus.

I can think of at least two good reasons.

First, the public teaching of Jesus, from Alpha to Omega, explodes the myth of redemptive violence: the idea that the only answer to a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a bigger gun. The most obvious reference comes straight from the Sermon on the Mount:

“You have heard that it was said. ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also . . . You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven . . .”

If your debate assignment is to argue for the death penalty, you don’t start with Jesus. You don’t end with Jesus. You don’t make a passing allusion to Jesus. There is a very good reason why only 5% of Americans (and 10% of Christians) believe Jesus would be down with the death penalty.

Jesus didn’t merely disagree with the death penalty as a matter of public policy; his opposition to violence, whether initiated by individuals or sponsored by the state, flows from his vision of a God whose only weapon is love. Satan, and the entire panoply of “wickedness in high places,” cannot be overcome with superior force. Walter Wink said it well:

“Jesus conquers the powers by remaining true to his way—the living out of God’s rule and God’s love—refusing to compromise with violence or to act from fear of death.”

But there is a deeper reason why Al Mohler didn’t mention Jesus in his discussion of the death penalty. If we are debating public policy, Jesus is irrelevant. According to this line of reasoning, Jesus speaks only to individual Christians and has no message for Caesar because, like Paul says, Caesar is free to do whatever Caesar wants to do.

I have often wondered how Paul reacted when the Roman executioner entered his cell, sword in hand, and asked the Apostle to assume the position. Did Paul figure his execution must be legit because “the authority does not bear the sword in vain”?

I doubt it. Paul believed that law and order was superior to chaos. When anarchy reigns, children suffer. But this doesn’t mean that the authority behind the sword has been freed from moral constraint. Human leaders possess God-given authority if they are servants of the common good. Abuse this authority and you lose it.

Paul needed to assure the Christians in Rome that he wasn’t a wild revolutionary because the bulk of teaching could easily lead to that conclusion. Consider this from Caesar’s perspective:

God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend
in heaven and on earth.

Whatever Al Mohler might say, Caesar never trumps Jesus.

Never.

And that’s why the Barna poll fires me with hope. Millennial Christians (77% of them, at any rate) are thinking about the death penalty as if Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not. That is very good news.

Alan Bean

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About the Author
Alan is executive director of Friends of Justice, an organization that creates a powerful synergy between grassroots organizing, civil rights advocacy, the legal community, the mass media and ultimately the political establishment. Friends of Justice is committed to building a new moral consensus for ending mass incarceration and mass deportation. Dr. Bean lectures frequently at universities, legal conferences, churches and community organizations on the issues of mass incarceration, drug policy and criminal justice reform. He has been quoted extensively in leading publications such as Newsweek, The Washington Post, USA Today, La Monde and The Chicago Tribune and CNN and his work with Friends of Justice been featured in the religious media outlets such as EthicsDaily.com and the Associated Baptist Press. Dr. Bean is the author of "Taking out the Trash in Tulia, Texas," an insider account of the events surrounding the Tulia drug sting. He lives in Arlington, Texas with his wife Nancy, a special education counselor and is a member of Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth.

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