A Liberal Interpretation of Scripture
Using the Bible to advocate ethical vegetarianism and compassion towards
animals is comparable to using the Bible to advocate the emancipation of
women or the abolition of human slavery: the secular arguments are much
A vegetarian interpretation of the Bible IS possible, as St. Jerome, Thomas Tryon, William Metcalfe, John Wesley, Ellen White, and other distinguished figures in the Christian tradition have demonstrated, but -- like the abortion issue! -- arguments can be made on both sides of the coin. Christian activists often cite the Bible with regards to other contemporary moral issues.
In his book Death as a Penalty, Howard Zehr makes a Christian case for the abolition of capital punishment. He notes that retaliation in the Old Testament was not as much of a requirement as it was a limitation on vengeance. In early Hebrew history, vengeance had to be controlled. "An eye for an eye" was a rule to make retaliation proportionate to the offense.
Hebrew society thus moved from unlimited to limited retaliation. "An eye for an eye" was not a command to seek vengeance, but a limitation on retribution. According to Zehr, "Retribution, like divorce, reflected a concession, not God's highest intent." (Deuteronomy 24; Matthew 19:8)
Zehr points out that the Old Testament death penalty included many offenses that our society does not consider capital. "To be consistent with the Old Testament," Zehr argues, "we would need to apply the death penalty much more broadly than we do today, including for accidental manslaughter and rebellious teenagers without regard to intent or mitigating circumstances. (Exodus 21)"
Moreover, the Old Testament and later rabbinic tradition placed many restrictions on the application of capital punishment. An "eye for an eye" was one such limitation. Mosaic law and the later rabbinic tradition established a strict set of judicial procedures for cases involving capital punishment. The standard of proof required to convict someone went beyond our own standard of "beyond reasonable doubt" and required almost absolute certainty.
A conviction required at least two eyewitnesses, and witnesses who lied were subject to the same penalty as the accused. (Deuteronomy 17, 19) Hebrew law regarding capital punishment was much more restrictive than our own. Further restrictions were added, and by the 2nd century, the sanction was rarely carried out.
According to Zehr, a frequent theme in the Old Testament is that of mercy for the offender: "The first murder recorded was followed by an act of God protecting the murderer (Genesis 4). Cities of refuge were to be provided where the guilty could avoid revenge by the victim’s family (Numbers 35; Deuteronomy 4, 19; Joshua 20). These sanctuaries allowed time for tempers to cool and a solution to be worked out.
"The themes of Deuteronomy 32:35--‘To Me belong vengeance and recompense’--and of Leviticus 19:18--‘You shall not take vengeance... but shall love your neighbor as yourself’--recur frequently in the Old Testament."
Zehr states that taking a life for a life in the Old Testament was more of a sacrificial and ceremonial action, rather than a legal one: "A killing was a religious evil that demanded compensation through a religious ceremony. (Genesis 9, Exodus 21, Deuteronomy 19)" Executions, Zehr insists, were not as much a device for maintaining social order as they were a way of righting a moral imbalance. "The death penalty had a sacrificial and ceremonial more than a legal function," observes Zehr, "and to draw parallels to modern use of capital punishment is fallacious."
Zehr thus draws the conclusion that "The Old Testament allowed capital punishment, but as a concession. Retribution was possible, but as a limitation, not as a command. Mercy was preferred. The death penalty served a primarily ceremonial function and was hedged with serious restrictions and reservations."
In the New Testament, Jesus refers to capital punishment in one of his parables. (Luke 19:27) However, Jesus’ response to capital punishment undermined the penalty by his demand that both judges and executioners be sinless.
"On one occasion," Zehr writes, "Christ was asked to rule on a death penalty case (John 8). His response: ‘Let one without sin cast the first stone.’ And this was consistent with Christ’s other teachings. He reminds his listeners to beware of condemning others because God’s judgements do not necessarily coincide with our own (e.g. Matthew 25, Luke 6). If our judgements are so fallible, how can we make the decision to take a life?"
According to Zehr, the sacrificial aspect of taking a life was fulfilled by the sacrifice of Christ:
"Christ's death on the cross, itself an application of capital punishment, wiped away the Old Testament ceremonial and moral basis for the death penalty (e.g. Hebrews 10). No more blood needs to be shed to testify to the sacredness of life. Christ died that others may live. By trading places with the guilty and the enemy, by dying in place of the murderer Barabbas, Christ closed off the Old Testament reason for the death penalty.
"Christ did not simply eliminate the rationale for the death penalty. He constantly reiterated our responsibility to see Christ in our needy neighbor, even in our enemies."
A theme repeated throughout the New Testament is that of love and forgiveness towards one's enemies and persecutors:
"When Christ himself was executed," observes Zehr, "he gave a model response to his enemies in his dying words: ‘Father, forgive them.’ Jesus teaches that we are to love those who harm us and he sees no way to love a person without caring for life.
"If we love God, Jesus says we are obligated to show that love in our actions toward others. Christ moves us from the Old Testament perspective of limited retaliation to nonretaliation and active love (e.g. Romans 12, I John 4, Luke 6:27-36).
"In Jesus’ teaching," Zehr concludes, "life belongs to God. It is not ours to take. We also have to repudiate capital punishment because it is incompatible with the basic focus of the Gospel--reconciliation and redemption."
Attacking capital punishment, the early church father Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, wrote: "Christians are not allowed to kill, it is not permitted for the guiltless to put even the guilty to death.
Zehr asks, "When the state takes a life, is it performing a function that belongs to God?"
In a pamphlet entitled The Death Penalty: Cruel & Inhuman Punishment, Amnesty International USA reports that "the United States is the only western industrial nation which still practices capital punishment."
Moreover, the death penalty does not deter violent crime:
"Most people who murder do not see beyond their action; they kill quickly in moments of great fear or emotional stress and under the influence of drugs or alcohol. When the crime is premeditated, the individual rarely believes he or she will be apprehended or executed…in 1976, the United States Supreme Court found no conclusive evidence that the death penalty deters violent crime. The United Nations came to similar conclusions."
According to Amnesty International USA, capital punishment tends to discriminate against minorities and the poor. In the United States since 1972, over 65 percent of the people on death row have been unskilled, service, or domestic workers, while 60 percent were unemployed at the time of their crimes.
"In the United States," reports Amnesty International USA, "blacks and other minorities face a much greater likelihood of execution than whites similarly charged...The victim’s race still factors heavily in determining the offender’s punishment. In Texas, blacks who kill whites are six times more likely to receive the death sentence than those with black victims. In Florida, black offenders who murder whites are forty times more likely than whites who kill blacks to end up on death row."
Responding to the concept of "an eye for an eye," Amnesty International USA asks, "If capital punishment is appropriate because it takes a life for a life, why doesn’t the government also burn the arsonist’s home and rape the rapist? Because justice does not mean punishment that imitates the crime." Amnesty International USA states further that the death penalty costs more than life imprisonment.
United States Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall once observed: "The death penalty is no more effective a deterrent than life imprisonment… While police and law enforcement officials are the strongest advocates of capital punishment, the evidence is overwhelming that police are no safer in communities that retain the sanction than in those that have abolished it. It also is evident that the burden of capital punishment falls upon the poor, the ignorant, and the underprivileged members of society."
United States Supreme Court Justice William Brennan once argued against capital punishment, saying, "The calculated killing of a human being involves, by its very nature, an absolute denial of the executed person's humanity."
Justice Brennan claimed the 8th Amendment bans "cruel and unusual punishment." Yet the 5th Amendment refers to "capital or otherwise infamous crime" and says no person "shall be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law."
This clearly implies that persons can be deprived of their right to life, but only under due process of law. Capital punishment, therefore, is constitutional, and, ultimately, the only way death penalty opponents can correct this apparent injustice is through a Constitutional Amendment.
Attacking capital punishment, the early church father Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, wrote: "Christians are not allowed to kill, it is not permitted for the guiltless to put even the guilty to death."
Religious leaders throughout the world have taken a stand against capital punishment. Leading Jewish organizations, Protestant denominations, and the United States Catholic Bishops Conference all oppose the death penalty.