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Jesus and the Death Penalty: Romans 13 or the Golden Rule?

I’ve been a Christian longer than I have been a libertarian, and it’s my belief in Jesus that has made me more libertarian—specifically, the Golden Rule and my belief that I should always try to apply it in every situation, without exception, and to apply it in spite of any possible drawbacks. Either I believe in Jesus and try to follow him, or I don’t. And if I do, I am committed to trusting him with the outcome even though his way of doing things might not seem like the best practical course of action.

The recent executions in Arkansas have reminded me how easy it has been at times for me to do the opposite—to convince myself to believe and act differently than Jesus would because to do otherwise would be inconvenient or unsettling.

The  issues of war and capital punishment were the last two dominoes to fall in my conversion from Reaganite to Rothbardian. I’m embarrassed and ashamed about that, even though it’s been a few years since I changed my mind and my heart. Hi, my name is Aaron, an I’m a recovering Republican…

Every state, by definition, claims a monopoly on the legal use of force within a certain area. War and capital punishment are perhaps the state’s two most egregious expressions of its claim, in both the abstract and the concrete. Yet I persisted in believing that the state should have and use those powers. Why? Because of my mistaken, and rather lazy, interpretation of—you guessed it, Romans 13.

I still believed that God had explicitly given those powers to the state so that the state could protect “society” against the Hannibal Lecters and Osama bin Ladens of the world. And if God has given the state the authority, then how they use it is between them and God, and it’s not my place to question the methods of the state, but to support it, because it’s keeping me safe.

I’m not sure how it happened, but at some point in my relationship with Jesus, I admitted to myself that I had gotten pretty good at fitting Jesus into my schedule and my worldview—my life, really—when and how it was convenient for me. When I decided to reverse things and start trying to fit my life into his will, then….that’s what Paul means by renewing your mind.

When you’re guided by the Holy Spirit, you can’t help but realize that we Christians are to look at everything, including and especially the Bible, from his perspective. The first and most important hermeneutical tool—the conceptual magnifying glass—to use when seeking to understand Biblical text is Jesus himself. This means that if my interpretation of a Biblical verse or concept is contrary to what I know about Jesus, then my interpretation of that verse must be wrong.

I hope it’s not pride talking when I say this—but now I can’t help but be mortified when I hear Christians twisting themselves into knots to explain why Romans 13 requires us to suspend the Golden Rule in any situation where the state is claiming to enforce order. When it comes to capital punishment in particular, I can’t imagine any circumstance in which Jesus would take part in the cruel, premeditated ritual of execution by the state. As a juror, would he vote to condemn someone to death? If he were a prison doctor, would he obey a lawful order to inject with lethal poison someone strapped to a gurney while a crowd of state employees, reporters, and grieving family members looked on?

Yet, in response to the Arkansas killings, plenty of Christians are rising to defend the state—this from Al Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary is, I think, a good example of the “Christian conservative” viewpoint on judicial killings by the state: “Why Christians should support the death penalty.”

We know from John 8 that Jesus opposed, and averted, the execution of the woman accused by the Pharisees of adultery, which was a capital crime under the Mosaic law that Mohler is so keen to adhere to. Now, I hope Mohler would not advocate that the current American state make adultery a crime, much less a capital one, but there’s nothing in his argument that would allow him to raise an objection if adultery were outlawed. The Mosaic law that mandates death as a punishment for murder also does so for adultery, and for the same reason—because each act disobeys the law code that God established for the purpose of making of the Jewish people a “holy nation.” In other words, both the murderer and the adulterer deserve to be killed, not because of the specific harm their actions caused to another person, but to enforce social cohesion.

Under the New Covenant made possible by the death and resurrection of Jesus, Christians are under no such obligation to protect society, or even to obey its norms, customs, or dictates—rather we are to transcend and transform it. The whole point of grace is that no matter what we do, God loves us, and that he no longer requires—or even desires—that anyone be punished for anything. If we then look at Romans 13 in the context of this knowledge, and not under Mosaic law, it simply means that the state is going to do what it does, and we need to not try to violently overthrow that framework and instead get on to doing what Jesus has told us to do.

An atheist once told me that his main objection to Christianity is that Hitler might be in Heaven if, with his last breath, he took God up on the offer of grace. For someone who rejects or doubts Jesus and his explicit claims to divinity, that is, and rightly so, a scandalous, inexcusable trait for any god whose job is delivering justice. But as a Christian who is every day more ridiculously grateful to have escaped the justice that I once took every opportunity to call down on others, I can’t help but be angry when my brothers and sisters who also owe their allegiance to Jesus take great pains to determine under which circumstances his love—and his blood—should not be applied.