A Reply to Pastor Rod Parsley on the Bible and the Death Penalty

A recent essay on the death penalty I wrote for RD was picked up recently by Rod Parsley on his website, and recommended to his confessedly Christian readership, in part I take it, as an example of how not to argue from the Bible.

I was, and remain, grateful for his careful reading of the piece, and for his judicious reflection on specifically Christian reasons to oppose the death penalty—primarily the fundamental, and really quite moving, idea that no human soul is irredeemable, and that even in prison, redemption happens.

The one important clarification I wish to make concerns several assertions made toward the end of his review. Parsley notes that I am a professor of Religious Studies, but seems to assume that this involves me in the teaching of theology rather than comparative religions. And he seems to assume that Religion Dispatches is a Christian website as well. Hence his concern that a Christian professor writing for a Christian website has misrepresented biblical teaching and several Christian mandates. Neither of these assumptions is correct, and thus his concern is largely unwarranted.

Even a cursory review of my essay makes clear that it was intended as an engagement with the Bible not with Christian theology, at least not directly. Mine was not a Christian argument so much as it was intended as a gesture toward the possibility of interfaith dialogue about matters of common concern.

In point of fact, most of the arguments I reviewed were “secular” arguments, for lack of a better term. I reviewed several of the main arguments marshaled from philosophical ethics and statistics in support of the death penalty. At far greater length, I reviewed US constitutional law concerning the death penalty, primarily by summarizing the most important Supreme Court cases since 1968.

My initial comments about Jesus and Socrates were intended merely to highlight one of the fascinating features of the so-called “western tradition”—namely, its deeply ambivalent relationship to the death penalty, commemorating, as it does, two dramatic examples of what are recalled now as unjust executions.

Parsley wishes to qualify that point, I think, by insisting that these were just, or at least justifiable examples of state-sponsored execution. I said the same in my essay. But I did so in order to highlight one of the great challenges to the just institution of a death penalty: history itself, understood in this case, as changing historical judgments about what counts as a crime worthy of execution. Both Socrates and Jesus were executed justly by the standards of their own times. Not long thereafter, both executions were recalled as exercises of supreme injustice by their followers. This should give any death penalty advocate pause.

I welcome Parsley’s reply in part because it provides me with an opportunity to perform what was the intentional subtext of the essay: namely, inviting this conversation with a more explicitly Christian interlocutor about matters of common concern. As I see it, this is the only reasonable way forward beyond the current religio-cultural impasse in which we find ourselves, politically speaking, in the US. Christians and secularists—neither group a monolith, of course—tend to talk past one another and rarely know enough about each other to talk well together. Rod Parsley represents one of those Christian leaders with whom I welcome further conversation.

Let me initiate that by replying briefly to one of his central contentions. He worries that I have suggested that the Bible condemns the death penalty. I certainly said no such thing, and am well aware of those passages in the Hebrew Bible that mandate the ultimate penalty. I am also acutely aware of the brutal requirements of herem, or holy war, as laid out in Deuteronomy chapter 20, and I also agree that the commandment “thou shall not kill” likely does not refer to juridical forms of killing.

There is simply one biblical claim with which I would disagree. Parsley suggests that Jesus’s view of the death penalty was similar to Paul’s, involving the view that the state power was put in place by God’s will and should be respected. Submission to the Roman authorities is a famous recommendation made by Paul in his letter addressed, tellingly enough, to persons he did not know in the imperial capital: Rome.

I don’t agree that Jesus’s views are similar to Paul’s on most cultural and political matters, primarily because the two men’s audiences were so very different. Nor do I find the argument that Jesus accepted the institution of capital punishment because he knew that he had to die and that this was the (only?) way it was to be accomplished. This seems to me to involve a rather superficial reading of the biblical account of the Passion.

Or to put the matter more precisely, this reading accords well with John’s representation of events, and Jesus’s apparent understanding of them. It does not sit easily with the three Synoptic accounts of Jesus’s anguished prayer in Gethsemane, when he expresses the explicit wish not to die. There are various ways of dealing with the complex differences between John and the Synoptics (my own somewhat polemical version may be found in This Tragic Gospel), but they are always complex and tend to be densely theological. In no way do they serve as a very helpful indication of what current Christian attitudes toward the death penalty in the United States should be.

I would welcome further reflection on this point by a person of Parsley’s evident sensibility and admirable moral seriousness.