The Pope did this week what only the Pope can do, he changed the official position of the Roman Catholic Church through a Papal pronouncement. With the Pope's call in 2016 for the global abolition of capital punishment, the wheels were set in motion to change the official catechism which now declares capital punishment to be "an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person."
Now, before you allow yourself to be lured into a debate about whether or not the Pope is infallible and whether or not the Pope can make pronouncements over nations and people groups who in no way acknowledge God, the Scriptures nor the Church, let us celebrate on three fronts:
The world is asking today, "What does the Bible say about capital punishment?" The 10 commandments are going to be read aloud and those who agree with the Pope are going to make public reference to Matthew 5:17, John 5:39, Luke 24:27 and Romans 12:19. They are going to talk about Jesus. In conversation with those texts, those Christians who believe capital punishment is expressly authorized by God through the Scriptures are going to reference Genesis 9:6 and Romans 13:1-7. Think about that for a moment in terms of the content of our cultural conversations. This is an opportunity for Christians to talk about God – and those made in His image, human beings – as moral beings who are morally accountable. It is an opportunity to talk about justice – eternal and temporal. It is an opportunity to talk about the principles at work in the Kingdom of Heaven and advocate for their implementation here and how in the midst of the kingdoms of the earth. That's what Ambassadors do and that is who we are.
Second, the language of the updated Catechism of the Church says capital punishment is "an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person." What does that mean? It means that every human life – from conception to natural death and throughout eternity – has intrinsic value, dignity and worth. And that no one person or group of people is in a position to take the life of another, no matter how much better, more significant, or valuable we think we are. This leads us to conversations about how criminals are be treated and it also opens up conversations about the uniqueness of human life and the culture of death.
Third, conversations about punishment are ultimately conversations about justice. What is justice? Who is in a position to condemn? Christians will recognize here the opportunity to talk about God as the giver of life, the giver of the law, and the One who sits in ultimate judgement. This conversation necessarily includes recognition and confession about the systemic injustice in the American system. Christians have real work to do in the real world to see to it that liberty and justice are really for all.
Getting to the crux of the matter
The Pope's position is built on the Commandment "thou shalt not kill." If taken as an absolute, what do we do with other commandments in the Mosaic law which outline the circumstances in which people are cut off not only from the community but whose lives are required as a consequence of sin? The crucifixion of Jesus, an exercise of capital punishment by the Roman government, is understood as the working out of God's eternal redemptive plan. Was it unjust and unjustified? Yes. Was it also God's will in order that the power of sin in life and the penalty of sin in death might be eternally satisfied? Yes. Justification through that which was the most unjust – even death on a cross – is the very crux of the matter.
We live in a fallen world where people do horrible things to one another. When Paul writes to the Christians in Rome that God has empowered the government to wield the sword he does so knowing that Christians are dying in Rome every day by that sword. So, it turns out, will he. But that unjust use of power does not change the reality that the state wields the sword to carry out justice, restrain evil, and if necessary, carry out capital punishment. The penalty of sin is death and while Jesus has paid that penalty once and for all, not all yet bow the knee to His authority, rule as Lord, nor reign over life here and now. In the meantime – and the mean time is mean – there are governments, rulers, principalities and powers. They do not all wield the sword justly, but they do wield the sword nonetheless.
Conversations about capital punishment Christians need to have with fellow believers, with our non-believing neighbors and with the powers that be in this generation:
- We need to talk about morality, law, justice and from where and whom these ideas and ideals are derived. Guilt, innocence, confession, repentance, restitution, the debt to society, deterrent, and justice must each be discussed – brining the eternal to bear on the everyday.
- We need to talk about the legitimate role of the state in carrying out justice and restraining evil. Here we must also talk about the reality of injustice – individual and systemic. We cannot have a conversation about capital punishment in the context of America without very honest conversations about its misuse in our own history.
- We need to get to the conversation about sin and its consequences – and the concern for those who are sinned against. What is the just penalty for the sin of murder, mass murder, or the slaughter of innocents? If capital punishment is never justified, under any circumstances, how then shall we live – and who shall have to live with, care for and financially supply for – the Hitlers of the world? Certainly God says "vengeance is mine," but not everyone is operating as if God even exists, let alone that God will bring about justice for all.
- Bringing Scripture to bear, we must talk about wages of sin – which is death. Christians understand that every person, in every time and place, stands condemned of a capital offense against God's glory and will. We also understand this penalty is paid by Christ, propitiation is accomplished, the debt is paid, the curse broken, the wrath satisfied. But again, we are not living in a global theocracy. While we acknowledge that the Kingdom of God is instituted by the risen Christ, we also recognize that we do not live in the day promised in Philippians when every knee will bow, in Heaven and on Earth and under the earth, and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. We yet await that day when the kingdoms of this world will all bow to the Kingdom of our Christ. Until that day, God allows thieves to die on crosses – and even to them He offers the grace of salvation and the promise of paradise.
- Which brings us to a conversation about the Cross, which is the crux of the matter. The reality of false accusation, false imprisonment, wrongful convictions and the grossly unjust execution of innocent people takes us right to the experience of Jesus. Why did He intentionally set His face toward Jerusalem where He knew and forecast that He would suffer and die – and where He fantastically promised to rise again? Who is this Jesus? Where is He now? What is He doing? How does the fact that Jesus is Lord of my life influence my view of life itself? How do I see the world and the kingdoms of this world differently because I am Ambassador of the Kingdom of Heaven? How am I bringing the principles of that Kingdom to bear right here, right now, in this conversation? Might this be one way God is answering the oft prayed prayer, "Thy Kingdom come, Thy Will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven?"
There are many conversations about the Pope, papal pronouncements and the moral authority of the Roman Catholic Church you will want to avoid today. But the fact that the world is having conversations about the dignity of human life, the penalty for sin, and the finality of death, gives Christians the opportunity to get God back into the conversation.