Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The Bible and the Law

Recently. my hometown newspaper carried a story concerning a death penalty case in Texas. The defendant, Khristain Oliver, had been sentenced to death in a murder case in 1999. Not long ago, Mr. Oliver appealed his sentence (death) to a New Orleans based appeals court. At issue was the influence of the Bible on the sentencing phase in the case. (He subsequently lost the appeal.)

It appears that, during jury deliberations, the jurors had access to a Bible and looked to "the Good Book" for guidance in how to proceed. Later questioning of jurors dismissed the accusation that the Bible was consulted for guidance on the sentencing of murders-- although it was admitted that a Bible was present in the jury room and there was a period of Bible reading to assuage the consciences of the jurors regarding their decisions. Any way you want to cut it, this seems to be a very "Biblical" decision that was reached.

This begs the question of how far courts should go in following the Bible in the administration of justice. Take the case of criminals pleading an insanity defense (thought be many to be frequent, but actually happening in less than 1% of murder trials with the defendant prevailing quite infrequently). Is there any room for mercy towards the insane in Biblical jurisprudence? I can't find any. At least it is not mentioned.

What about juvenile courts? The Pentateuch is clear. If a child is incorrigible or "curses father or mother" they must be put to death. Are we to start killing juvenile delinquents? Would that be a prudent method of deterrence?

What about war crimes and genocide? Well... in a "righteous cause" they might be permitted. Surely the conquest of Canaan as described in the book of Joshua is a case of genocide. Maybe that is why so many Christian Right and Rush Linghbaugh conservatives are so gung-ho on killing Muslims. The book of Joshua describes a situation where Joshua (supposedly under the guidance of the Almighty) told the Israelites to go to war against a certain nation-state and kill everybody and everything-- including babies. "But," says Josh, "if you meet some young virgins in town while you are doing the Lord's work, save them for yourself." Rape and pillage? And all at the command of God?

Isn't it apparent that using the Bible as a sentencing code is a rather silly endeavor? Who would really want to go back to "eye for eye and tooth for tooth?" Wouldn't we all soon be blind and toothless?

5 comments:

  1. James: You write"

    "Who would would really want to go back to "eye for eye and tooth for tooth?" Wouldn't we all soon be blind and toothless?"

    Many misinterpret the passage, as you may have.

    It isn't a going back, but a going forward.

    The "eye fo an eye" passage was a turning away from the very severe and disproprotionate punishments of the past.

    The whole idea was based upon making the sanction more proportionate to the crimes, to get some balance which (attempts to equally) balance the severity of the crime with the severity of the punishment.

    Admittedly, it is difficult to do -balancing the wrongdoing of a criminal harming the innocent victim, who was undeserving of their harm, with the just punishment of the criminal, who earned their sanctions.

    Consulting a bible during jury deliberations seems problematic to me. Although I think most would understand that religious people will take much of their moral direction from their religious teachings, the laws and guidlines of the criminal justice system should rule in the courtroom and in jury deliberations. Religious folks cannot but help to bring their faith and its teachings into deliberations - it is part of them - but, I say, leave the bible out of the jury room.

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  2. Yes, that is true. Eye for eye is a vast improvement over indiscriminate retribution. However, Jesus seems to call for more-- going even farther. I do not think the justice system will operate apart for the basic "eye for eye" idea. I don't agree with that principle, and I think research on the death penalty supports the futility of that approach. Yet, society must deal with criminals. But to use the Bible as a law book??? Not in my view. A very foolish choice indeed.

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  3. James, I am not sure what you mean, here:

    1.However, Jesus seems to call for more-- going even farther.

    What more? The obligatiosnfor individuals and governments are different.

    2. I do not think the justice system will operate apart for the basic "eye for eye" idea. I don't agree with that principle, and I think research on the death penalty supports the futility of that approach.

    What are you looking for the justice system to do? And what particular futility are you speaking of?

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  4. Actually, you miss my point. I personally think the gospel discourages killing and takes a consistent prolife view-- not just an "anti abortion view." That is my view of the gospel. My point here, however, is that civil/criminal law is not the parlance of religion. To consult the Bible about what to do about sentencing criminal defendants smacks of all the craziness of Sharia Law-- supported by Islamic fundamentalists. As for the question of whether capital punishment is a good idea, the question, as far as law goes, should not be settled by the Bible but by answering such questions as does institutional violence contribute to the general violence in our society? Are various punishments actually deterrents to crime? If so, which are most appropriate? Which criminals can be rehabilitated? How can that best be accomplished? What diminishes us as humans and what encourages a more just and courageous humanity? What constitutes human treatment of criminals? My RELIGIOUS views should not dictate sentencing in a criminal case any more than the Bible should be consulted in the case at hand. I am certain that our civil court system will never live up to the moral principles of the gospels (as I understand them-- note:that is an important point). Maybe that's good, as it may be the price we must pay in a diverse nation. No. Criminal justice must maintain a secular bent and refuse to adopt religion as its guiding principle. To hold to a position different from that is to capitulate to the temptation of private morality and (latent) fundamentalism.

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  5. I didn't miss your point, I was just looking for specifics.

    I agree with you, re keeping the bibli seperate from our laws. As I stated,

    "Consulting a bible during jury deliberations seems problematic to me. Although I think most would understand that religious people will take much of their moral direction from their religious teachings, the laws and guidlines of the criminal justice system should rule in the courtroom and in jury deliberations. Religious folks cannot but help to bring their faith and its teachings into deliberations - it is part of them - but, I say, leave the bible out of the jury room."

    I am not sure you can say that Jesus took a consistent pro life view, in the way you mean it:

    This recent, clear review by
    Andrew Tallman

    "If Jesus elsewhere opposes capital punishment, then He is not only contradicting the Father but even His own words. "

    "Typically, (the anti death penalty) view is that the harsh and mean God the Father of the Old Testament established execution, but the loving and kind God the Son of the New Testament abolished it."

    "I’m pretty sure such people don’t realize they’re denying the Trinity when they say this."

    "The doctrine of the Trinity affirms the eternal unity of all three persons of the Godhead, but such a fundamental disagreement between the Son and the Father would rupture this unity. In fact, if Jesus had contradicted any of the Father’s principles, let alone such a well-established one, that very disagreement would have immediately disproved His claims to be the divine Son."

    "This was exactly the heresy the Pharisees were hoping to trap Him into when they brought the woman caught in adultery to Jesus. Even His enemies knew that He absolutely had to affirm capital punishment in order to prove Himself not a false prophet. "

    "How truly strange, then, that those who claim to love Him assert that He did exactly what His enemies failed to trick Him into doing! Far from opposing capital punishment, Jesus actually advocated it, as His unity with the Father required."

    "Matthew 5:17-18“Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish, but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass away from the Law, until all is accomplished.”

    "Just a few verses later, He extends the prohibition against murder to hatred and condemns haters to “the hell of fire” in verse 22, which is very strange talk for someone who opposes capital punishment. It’s very hard to dismiss these verses because they occur smack in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount, which is so often mistakenly offered as the repudiation of Old Testament justice."

    "Later, Jesus scolds the Pharisees and scribes for teaching leniency toward rebellious children by quoting the Old Testament, “For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and ‘He who speaks evil of father or mother, let him be put to death.’” (Matthew 15:4)"

    "Subsequently, when the Romans come to arrest Jesus, Peter rather ineptly tries to defend Him by killing Malchus, but only succeeds in slicing off his ear. Jesus rebukes him with the warning, “Put your sword back into its place; for all those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword.” Far from advocating pacifism, as this passage is often misused to do, Jesus here teaches Peter that using the sword (for murder) will only get the sword used against him (for execution)."

    "Shortly thereafter, Jesus tells Pilate in John 19:11, “You would have no authority over Me, unless it had been given you from above…” This authority to put Jesus to death would be odd if it didn’t entail the general power to execute criminals."

    "Finally, when He is dying of crucifixion, Jesus accepts the repentance of the thief on the cross, who says to his reviling companion, “Do you not even fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds….” (Luke 23:40-41)"

    "Had Jesus disagreed with this statement, responding to it with the promise of eternal salvation was a rather obtuse way to express the correction."

    "Beyond all this evidence that Jesus affirms the consistent Biblical principle of capital punishment, there is yet one more vital concept to grasp. Christians believe that Christ died on the cross to pay for the sins of us all."

    "Although His sinlessness merited eternal life, He endured the death we deserved to extend that gift to us. As Prof. Michael Pakaluk so perfectly expressed the point, “If no crime deserves the death penalty, then it is hard to see why it was fitting that Christ be put to death for our sins….” If we didn’t deserve the death penalty ourselves, then why would Christ need to suffer it on our behalf in order to satisfy the justice of God? Denying the death penalty directly assaults the justice of the Father, Who required His own Son to pay precisely that price in our stead."

    "What about the rest of the New Testament?"

    "Since both Jesus’s teaching and His death affirm the capital punishment, it should come as no surprise that the rest of the New Testament reinforces this view."

    "When confronting Governor Festus, Paul says in Acts 25:11, “If I am a wrongdoer, and have committed anything worthy of death, I do not refuse to die; but if none of these things is true of which these men accuse me, no one can hand me over to them. He both affirms capital statutes and accepts them as binding on him if he has broken one."

    "Later, in the New Testament’s most famous passage on the nature of government, Paul explains, “But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for [the government] does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath upon the one who practices evil.” (Romans 13:4)"

    "Finally, the same Bible which begins in Genesis 9:6 with the establishment of capital punishment, then carries the theme consistently throughout the text, and ends by reiterating it in Revelation 13:10, “If any one is destined for captivity, to captivity he goes; if any one kills with the sword, with the sword he must be killed. Here is the perseverance and the faith of the saints.”

    "Literally from beginning to end, the Bible teaches that capital punishment is authorized and required by God."

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