Saturday, October 24, 2009

A Reader Responds and I Respond Back

From my private e-mail account:

Couple comments on the post: Let's stick with normal everyday murderers and capital punishment, not cases where government abuse is obvious or suspect.

Secondly, have you read Bahnsen's Theonomy in Christian Ethics ? If not I suggest you get this. Take a look at chapter 19, The Civil Magistrate in the NT and see where he treats Rom 13. Also, there is a section on the civil magistrate in the WCF.

In a nutshell, he will say that Rom 13 does not give carte blanche to the civil authorities. He will take a Lex Rex position. And you know that us Reformed Americans like the doctrine of the lesser magistrate when the Lord and King gets too big for his britches.

As far as capital punishment, the description as "hired executioner" is colorful but a bit flamboyant and inaccurate. Since you and I can't wield the sword unless we are appointed we can't execute. A representative of the people is appointed for this. We are all saying to him, "throw a rock for me" whenever a jury (who also represents us) says someone has committed murder (with witnesses beyond a reasonable doubt).

For the sake of discussion, I want to turn Jesus' words around 180 degrees from the Sermon on the Hill when he says, about loving our enemies, that we need to be perfect as our father is in heaven. Let's suppose he is talking about God's wrath that included the death sentence for Noah's world minus 8, Sodom and G, the cleansing of Canaan, future destruction of the world of the living and an eternal state of death in hell. Suffice it to say that God is in favor of capital punishment, and I know you agree.

How can we in the 21st century "be perfect like our father in heaven" in this regard ? Don't we want a way to consistently administer death for murderers ? I assume we are agreed on that. Capital punishment is required for justice. It also serves as a deterrent. Are we agreed on this ? If so, what we need is a way to implement it. Stoning is one way. A bit crude.

Tell me why you insist on that method. Is it simply a way to make it a community event ? Although it was the most usual way of execution, there were other methods like a sword and either an arrow or spear. I mention this as it shows that someone can be appointed as an individual to execute.

My response:

Thanks for reading my rant and responding. We are agreed that justice must be administered consistently (that is, I think you mean that what is administered must consistently be just) and that capital punishment is a deterrent (though I agree with Lewis that its primary function is to administer justice to killers and keep them from killing again; executing innocent people “for murder” would be a deterrent, but it wouldn’t be just).

I read Theonomy in Christian Ethics in 1980 and donated it to a Christian college library when we left PNG. It’s been a while. If it’s on North’s site, I’ll download it and read the section on the civil magistrate if you think I’m really off the wall.

It’s the “lex rex” hermeneutic that makes Romans 13 so hard to take at face value. It’s like Jesus’ statement that we are to hate our parents and 1 John’s blanket black-and-white statements about who is saved and who isn’t. By the time you make explicit what Paul was implying, the result looks like those verses in the Koran that are half parentheses. Paul and Peter were writing to people who had no hope of ever influencing society. They was trying to keep their readers from being killed needlessly. They knew the people in power were murderers and were reminding their readers that God would work through the situation whether through life or death. A statement that state execution is morally preferable to community execution those passages aren’t.

I don’t know what a hired person is if not someone who takes money from A to do things for A. You’ve delegated the actual hiring process (i.e., the name on the time card and pay check) to a faceless system populated by people you don’t know and can’t install or remove, but your approval of that system tells me it’s essentially as voluntary as if you were saying “throw a rock for me” to the executioner’s face. Your use of “is appointed” is important here, as it leaves unspecified who is responsible for the appointment. Why on earth you would prefer to delegate your responsibility to an entity you can’t control is beyond me: usually freedom (i.e., control) and responsibility go together, but you seem to prefer responsibility without freedom. The only explanation I can come up with is that you don’t think your responsibility for evil done by the system you support will cost you anything: There’s no purgatory, and your pardon was purchased in full at Calvary, so what if innocent people die? Let God sort ’em out.

Stoning is “a bit crude”? Whose idea was it? If it was moral then, would it be immoral now? On what basis? It seems to me that Bahnsen’s whole point was that the giving of the law between Egypt and Canaan was God building a society from the bottom up: “If you want to know what God’s idea of an ideal society is, read the Torah.” (OK, I’m putting words in Bahnsen’s mouth, but it’s not that far off, given how many times he quotes Ps 19:7 and Mt 5:18 in that book.)

I’m not in favor of stoning because it would be a community event, but I find the community nature of stoning an attractive side effect of obedience, sort of like having a happy, cuddly wife if I don’t chase other women.

God doesn’t call (most of) us to be lone rangers (though there are the occasional Eljahs); he calls us into a body, where we are to be members one of another. Yet I’m sure you’ve heard Christians quote Acts 4:34-35 to support socialism: they don’t know the difference between Christian voluntary community and state coercion. I suggest that “throw a rock for me” is to godly justice what the welfare state is to Christian community.

The bitter fruit of the Industrial Revolution is that we live in neighborhoods, work at jobs, and go to church with strangers. Not only do we not know their names, we really don’t care what happens to them. I’m as guilty as anyone. But the godly ideal is community. Why is that so repulsive?

I have a hypothesis that the Industrial Revolution as we know it would have been impossible without the state. I know the state subsidized the railroads; there’s every reason to believe it also subsidized the steel mills and other entities that made the owners rich and put so many people in mind-numbing jobs. My evidence apart from the railroad subsidies is from John Taylor Gatto’s Underground History of American Education, where he quotes documents from the Robber Barons, where they use their influence on the state to bring about an education system that was designed to produce students who knew enough to work for the Man but weren’t creative enough to start competitive enterprises and who were comfortable standing in line, being regimented (literally, in 1917), and doing what they were told. The revolving door between taxpayer dollars, researchers who affirm the need for more state power to fight global warming, and the politicians who are thereby empowered and fund more of the same research is that same melody with different lyrics.

Whatever the state does in the name of X eventually ends up destroying X, whether it be building community, making us safe from foreign enemies, making health care affordable, or educating children. It’s usually no problem to get Christians to agree that this or that X has been destroyed by those “whose job it is [= who are appointed]” to make it right. But for almost 30 years, I’ve heard those who decry any or every possible X balk at what seems to me to be a logical conclusion: the problem is the state, by which I mean a system in which some people Y are allowed to do things that people Z aren’t at the expense of Z, a condition forbidden by Deuteronomy 17. You’ve delegated domestic public safety to the state: how willing are you to let a preteen granddaughter walk a mile to a friend’s house alone on a regular basis? So why are you so hostile to the alternative?

If you need a biblical example, I can only offer Israel from Samuel to Nebuchadnezzar. Every argument I’ve ever heard in favor of the state is there in 1 Samuel 8 and 12, and everything they set up the monarchy to achieve came tumbling down because of the evil of the kings.

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