Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Friday, February 17, 2012

His Blood Shall Be Shed: Capital Punishment and Scripture

“WHOSOEVER SHALL SHED MAN'S BLOOD, his blood shall be shed; for man was made to the image of God." (Gen.9:6) This is a general principle that underlies the Mosaic law when it comes to capital punishment. Intentional homicide calls for the punishment of death. It cannot be doubted that the God of Israel sanctioned capital punishment as part of the law of Israel. Nor was capital punishment limited to murder. (Ex. 21:12; Le. 24:17) It was also to be applied in the case of blasphemy (Lev. 24:16), idolatry (Ex. 22:19, Numb. 25:5), working on the Sabbath (Ex. 31:15, 35:2), false prophecy (Deut. 13:5, 18:20), kidnapping (Ex. 21:16), homosexuality (Le. 20:13), bestiality (Ex. 22:19, Le. 20:15-16), sorcery (Ex. 22:18, Le. 20:27), striking or cursing one's parents (Ex. 21:15, 17; Lev. 20:9), and adultery (Lev. 20:10). Capital punishment was typically by stoning. (Deut. 17:5-7) There is no time where the death penalty was not part of the law that governed Israel, God's chosen people. It is, in fact, why St. Stephen, the Christian protomartyr--was put to death by stoning under the Old Law. (Acts:7:57-58)

To be sure, there are instances in the Old Testament where God exercises mercy. We have, for example, the decision of God to exercise mercy in allowing Cain to remain alive though guilty of fratricide, indeed, even in protecting his life putting a sign on him that would indicate that anyone who should harm him would receive vengeance seven-fold. (Gen. 4:15) We have the instance where David--guilty of adultery, a capital offense--has his life spared. (2 Sam. 12:13) God seems to have overlooked the adultery and harlotry of Gomer when he asked the prophet Hosea to marry her, as an example of his fidelity to unfaithful Israel. (Hosea 1:1-3) But these seem to be extraordinary interventions.

It is indisputable that capital punishment is well-established in the Mosaic law.

Indeed, capital punishment is confirmed as the proper punishment for murder in everyone one of the books of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible, called by the Jews as the Tanach). (Gen. 9:6; Ex. 21:12; Lev. 24:17; Num. 35:31, 33; Deut. 19:11-13) The provision of capital punishment as the proper response to murder is monolithic.

With this background, where are we to put Jesus, who came to fulfill the Law and the Prophets? (Matt. 5:17) The Law clearly provided for the putting of a man to death. The Prophets had no qualms with those provisions in the Mosaic law which required that a man be put to death. Indeed, Joshua killed Achan's family for breaking the ban on items taken from Jericho (Joshua 7). Elijah,in conformity with the Mosaic law (Deut. 13:5, 18:20), ordered the execution of 450 prophets of Baal. (1 Kings 18:40)

"Terra Terram Accusat" from the Codex Egberti

Indeed, Jesus mentions one of the Mosaic law's death penalties (Ex. 21:15, 17; Lev. 20:9) without a hint of criticism. Quite the contrary, Christ uses this law as the foundation of his own counter-criticism of the traditions of the Pharisees who complain that Christ's disciples do not wash their hands, thereby breaking the tradition of the elders. (Matt:15:3-4; Mark 7:8-11)
He said to them [the Pharisees and scribes] in reply, "And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, 'Honor your father and your mother,' and 'Whoever curses father or mother shall die.' But you say, 'Whoever says to father or mother, "Any support you might have had from me is dedicated to God," need not honor his father.' You have nullified the word of God for the sake of your tradition.
Is this just obiter dicta?

Not only does Jesus recognize the death penalty provided in the Mosaic law, he seems to recognize the natural law principle that a State may put a citizen to death for murder. For example, he tells Peter--who seeks to protect him from arrest by attacking the high priest's servant Malchus with a sword and severing his ear--that he who uses the sword to put a person to death shall perish by the sword of the State. (Matt. 26:52) He also recognizes Pontius Pilate's authority to put him to death. "You would have no power over me [to judge me and put me to death by crucifixion] if it had not been given to you from above." (John 19:11) Even on the cross, Jesus recognizes the penitent thief's acknowledgment of the propriety and justice of their capital punishment as expiatory. (Luke 23:40-41)

And yet there is something new in Christ's attitude. The harshness of the Mosaic law--which compels the penalty of death--is somehow softened, tempered, infused with mercy. We have, for example, Jesus' teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, where he suggests that strict proportionality between an offense and one's reaction to it (as mentioned in Lev. 24:20, Ex. 21:24, Deut. 19:21) need not be recognized on the part of the one offended. "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on (your) right cheek, turn the other one to him as well." (Matt. 5:38-39) We must then, at least on a personal or subjective level, temper justice with mercy, fight against feelings of vengeance and anger, and yield in a way to the wrongdoer. But is this an injunction to the inner life of the believer only? May it also be an attitude that may be adopted by the State?

This proposition is problematic. Clearly, if it was a central principle of the State, it would spell anarchy, injustice, and might would win over right. If you would physically turn your cheek to a Mao, to a Hitler, to a Muhammad, you would soon find yourself without freedom.

One of the basic duties of the State is to protect and defend the common good from those who would do evil to it. Were the State to turn the other cheek and forgive not seven times, but seventy times seventy times, it would be a sure recipe for disaster.

And then we have what may be the locus classicus of Jesus' great mercy, the so-called Pericope Adulterae, the story of the woman taken in adultery (John 8:3-11):
Then the scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery and made her stand in the middle. They said to him, "Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?" They said this to test him, so that they could have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and began to write on the ground with his finger. But when they continued asking him, he straightened up and said to them, "Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her." Again he bent down and wrote on the ground. And in response, they went away one by one, beginning with the elders. So he was left alone with the woman before him. Then Jesus straightened up and said to her, "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?" She replied, "No one, sir." Then Jesus said, "Neither do I condemn you. Go, (and) from now on do not sin any more."
Terra terram accusat, Sts. Ambrose and Augustine speculated Christ wrote on the dirt. Dirt accuses dirt. Is the Lord telling us that man--who is but dust, and to dust he must return--is not allowed to accuse and put to death another of his own--who is but dust, and to dust likewise must return?*

Though Jesus abjured violence, and certainly put no man to death while on earth, there seems to be nothing in the New Testament that would contradict the Old Testament heritage associated with the death penalty. There is, for example, nothing even remotely akin Jesus' radical reform of marriage and the Mosaic tolerance of divorce. (Matt. 19:18) Had Jesus wanted to abrogate the State's authority to put a man to death, one would have expected some express revelation. But as Avery Cardinal Dulles concludes in his short treatment of Catholicism and Capital Punishment, "No passage in the New Testament disapproves of the death penalty."
*It might be noted that Jesus here may not have been suggesting that the Mosaic penalty for adultery should be abrogated. It may be that the Pharisees were trying to entrap Jesus. If Jesus upheld the Mosaic law, then he would have violated Roman law (which reserved to itself capital punishment) and could have been accused of sedition. On the other hand, if he did not uphold the Mosaic law, he would have been accused of being a false prophet. Jesus deftly avoided the question, while also suggesting the mercy, forgiveness, and introspection may often take us out of a moral quandary. A similar example of this effort to entrap Jesus would have been the questioning of Jesus on the payment of tax to Caesar.

1 comment:

  1. Consider that Christ wrote in the dirt two times. I believe the first time is mysterious but the second is not. Christ was writing each man's name and next to it a coded and private word that would remind each man of a sin in his past.
    How do we know this? By the manner in which they left the area as He wrote.
    The text says: " And in response, they went away one by one, beginning with the elders". Jn.8:9
    A fragment of a Jeremiah passage may have been a prediction of the moment:
    "Those who turn away from thee shall be written in the earth, for they have forsaken the LORD, the fountain of living water” Jer.17:13 (Vulgate based...NAB obscures this).
    To find the meaning of His first writing in the dirt, ask yourself how often the finger of God writes. One of those times is the writing on the wall in Daniel of three words....those three words were a riddle aboutbthat kingdom in Daniel but perhaps also about the Jewish leaders losing their rule in the rejection of Christ...check Daniel.