Someone else’s generosity made it possible for me to go on a retreat with some men from my church last weekend. After living I hate to think how long in a feminine atmosphere at home and a predominantly feminine atmosphere at work, it was good to be out in the woods with guys, playing table games, chowing down with abandon, taking a hike, and opening the Bible.
And, of course, before long yours truly was in a bull session, literally and figuratively across the table from four guys whose shoelaces he isn’t fit to untie, discussing what to do with miscreants, specifically murderers. It was a landslide victory for Leviathan: eighty percent said, “The state does not bear the sword in vain,” and only twenty percent said, “The hands of the witnesses must be the first in putting him to death, and then the hands of all the people.” Finally, one of the victors asked, “What’s the difference between me joining the community in stoning a man to death and delegating the job to the state? The guy dies either way, and I’m still responsible.”
My first answer is that one needs to have an exegetical, systematic reason for annulling the explicit instructions given in the Torah. As my earlier posts and the comments thereto show, Romans 13:1-7 is so difficult to take at face value that it does not qualify as such.
The second is that we become blasé about murder when we delegate execution to the state. If we have rocks in our hands, we have to consider thoroughly whether the evidence convinces us that we are acting justly, but if the deed takes place out of sight, we have every reason to keep it out of mind as well. How many US Christians today care whom their government kills, for what, and how? Was the evidence against Gary Gilmore or Timothy McVeigh, let alone the Branch Davidians, Randy Weaver’s wife, or the drug runners the Peruvians thought they were shooting when they killed Veronica Bowers and her infant, really enough for those who took their lives to say that God would back them up? Would you have killed them out of obedience to God if you had had to do it yourself?
When our current president was at the peak of his popularity, most conservative Christians (I heard discuss him) considered him the most evil president we have ever had. Yet when he ordered bombs dropped on a country we were told was an ally and babies died as a result, I heard no conservatives say this was proof of his evil.
To play a variation on a tune by Barry Goldwater, a government that’s powerful enough to kill all your enemies is powerful enough to kill all your friends. When it comes to life-and-death situations, I want the ball in my court. If I’m going to be sorry to be responsible for someone’s death, I want to know it as soon as possible, before the guilt can compound, if possible before the convict dies, and best of all, before the murder is committed: “Joe, having to stone your son for murder would be the low point of my day. Teach him God’s ways before he does something we’ll all regret.”
Obviously, if everyone in the US had to deal with every murder case, we’d never get anything else done. This is why power needs to be as local as possible. But that’s a subject for another post.