Last time, we saw in this space that the words of Genesis 9:6 (“Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed”) are best understood as a concession to human weakness, not as a positive command or ideal, like the Old Testament’s concession to human weakness in the matter of divorce. And so, throughout the Old Testament we find, to be sure, the raw Bronze Age justice of death meted out to keep a semblance of order in the barbarous world of ancient Israel.
But we also find grace notes of mercy. Moses, for instance, is a murderer (Exodus 2:11-15) and yet is not only spared by God, but redeemed and given a massive role in the salvation of his people. Moreover, forgiven his own sins, he offers himself to God in place of his people when God, after the sin of the Golden Calf, threatens to destroy Israel in mass capital punishment (Ex 32:9-14).
So too with David, we have as cold-blooded a killer as you could ask for, whose planned and premeditated homicide of Uriah was committed so that he could cover up his despicable act of adultery (2 Samuel 11). If it were any other person than King David in today’s American courtroom, modern death penalty advocates would put him forward as Exhibit A for “why we need the death penalty.” He’s the villains from The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity rolled into one. Yet God spares his life while still meting out retribution to him. (2 Samuel 12). And Israel (and the Church) makes the prayer of repentance of this penitent murderer (Psalm 51) the archetypal penitential prayer for every sinner in the world.
Indeed, as God himself tells the prophet “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live” (Ezekiel 33:11). In short, the message of the Old Testament is that more fundamental than punishment is redemption. Punishment is ordered toward redemption, not toward restoring some abstract karmic “balance of justice” somewhere in the universe to which God himself is subject. Even the lex talionis of “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” is directed, not toward restoring such an abstract karmic balance, but to limiting human savagery and over-reaction. Its point is to prevent the spiralling vengeance of “tribe for life, life for eye, life for tooth, life for wound, life for burn” etc. The lex talionis exists to limit vengeance, not maximise it. For as the Psalmist summarises things:
If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities,
Lord, who could stand?
But there is forgiveness with you,
that you may be feared. (Ps. 130:3-4)
Accordingly, the Church begins with Jesus himself, in a much-explained-away passage taking us straight back to the lex talionis and saying:
“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 one who is evil. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.”.(Mt 5:38–39).
The common approach to this passage by advocates of the death penalty is to say, “Jesus is only referring to individual behaviour, not to the action of the state. While individuals may be merciful, the state is obligated to execute capital criminals.” But there is no particular reason to accept that analysis. The lex talionis was, after all, a legal guideline from the Law of Moses which guided the courts of Israel, not a mere suggestion for personal conduct. So there is no particular reason to think that a state cannot obey Jesus’ counsels of mercy just as much as a person can.
Moreover, we see Jesus himself live out his own teaching at the climax of his story when the Judge of all the earth responds to the judicial murder of the holy and innocent Lamb of God the most innocent Victim of the gravest conceivable crime in history – with only the words, “Forgive them, Father, for they know what they do” (Luke 23:24). The One who has more right than any other person who ever lived to inflict capital punishment on the entire human race in reprisal for our murder of Him instead seeks only mercy for us and turns our very crime against him into our salvation.
It is important to understand this. Some varieties of Christianity see in the Crucifixion a kind of weird divine child abuse. In that telling, God the Father wanted to slaughter the human race, but then God the Son distracted him by offering himself as the target for the divine sadism and this somehow made God the Father happy and he forgot his desire to destroy us in his orgy of cruelty against his own Son.
But in Catholic orthodoxy, this bizarre picture is rejected. Sinners, said Trent, were the authors of Christ’s Passion. God, in Christ, offered himself to us with complete freedom and love and we, with complete freedom and hate, chose to do to him what we did. As Ezekiel saw, God does not vindictively seek the human blood of Jesus to slake his thirst for vengeance against man. Rather, in the incarnation, God pours out his own blood for us and accepts our appetite for vengeance against him, swallowing it all up in the infinite abyss of his mercy. When Jesus cried, “I thirst” from the cross it was thirst for the love of those who were murdering him, not for vengeance against them. He sought their redemption, not their destruction. And he endured the cruellest and most unjust application of the death penalty in the history of the world to achieve it. That, as we shall see next time, profoundly impacts the mixed and deeply conflicted Christian attitude to the death penalty in the coming centuries.