Crime and Punishment in Christian Faith

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March 12, 2017

Our readings this morning have to do with faith and law. For Israel, circumcision had been the law going back to Abraham. Paul insists that it should not be required for Christians. In Romans, he argues from the fact that God’s promises to Abraham took hold prior to his circumcision. “Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” If Abraham’s a priori faith counts as righteousness to God, then the same applies “not only to adherents of the law, but to all who share the faith of Abraham.”

That has never meant that Christian faith is lawless. From Paul, we also hear that “when Gentiles who do not possess the law do instinctively what the law requires . . . they show that what the law requires is written on their hearts.” He calls this “circumcision of the heart.”

For law, I like Richard Hooker’s definition: a law is “any kind of rule. . . by which actions are framed.” Our lives are shaped by such rules of one kind and another. Table manners: fork on the left, knife and spoon on the right; traffic codes: stop for pedestrians in crosswalks; citizenship: keep your dog on a leash and pay your taxes. The commandments: one through ten. Love your neighbor as yourself, etc.

Hooker meant his definition to encompass everything from the laws of physics at the bottom up to God’s rules for his own behavior at the top. Someone asked if God was bound by rules. Hooker answered no and yes. No: there could be no outside code to which God is morally accountable; but yes, because God’s goodness is the rule of his own behavior. God’s “being is the law of his working,” is how Hooker put it. In Paul’s terms, what the law requires is written in God’s own heart.

That highest law is what the Bible calls “the kingdom.” As in: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” In John, Jesus says to Nicodemus that we must be “born from above” to see it. God’s goodness from above wells up within us—as faithfulness, hopefulness and loving kindness—and we see.

I want to talk now about faith and our laws concerning crime and punishment. In civilized society we are constrained by laws that prohibit, for example, murder. In our state the severest punishment for murder is execution--death. Last week it was announced that six executions have been scheduled, including two on Easter Monday.

I hope the governor will stop them.

In debating the morality of capital punishment, a touchstone for me is a crime that occurred in Cheshire, Connecticut ten years ago. Late one night two intruders entered the home of the Petit family, a physician, his wife, and their two teenaged daughters. The intruders stayed for hours. The father survived, his family did not. The killers were captured. How should they be punished?

Until recently, Christian opinion has generally supported capital punishment for heinous crimes and under some conditions the case for it is very strong to say the least. On the American frontier, for example, jails were scarce and unreliable. The execution of a violent criminal might be the only sure defense against him.

In societies with secure prisons, the moral case for executions is more difficult, but it is still powerful. The heart of it is retribution. Retribution isn’t vengeance. Vengeance is an appetite, like thirst; retribution is a moral principle. It means “requital according to merits or deserts, especially for evil.”[i] Retribution is a moral law in Hooker’s meaning of the word: a rule for telling us what ought to happen. A crime should be punished and the punishment should fit the crime.

There are other moral theories of punishment. Some say the purpose of punishment is to deter others from doing crimes or prevent an offender from repeating them. Those are worthy ends. They invite debate as to whether a specific punishment is an effective or necessary means.

For the theory of retribution, such debates are beside the point. It holds that the good or bad we do in life merits a response from the world or God. Cardinal Avery Dulles sums it up: “In principle, guilt calls for punishment. The graver the offense, the more severe the punishment ought to be.” Tooth for tooth—but eye for eye.

Dulles tells us how Thomas Aquinas applied that principle in his case for capital punishment:

“Aquinas held that sin calls for the deprivation of some good, such as, in some cases, the good of temporal or even Eternal life. By consenting to the punishment of death, the wrong-doer is placed in a position to expiate his evil deeds and escape punishment in the next life.”

Dulles adds a cautionary note. According to Aquinas:

“Retribution by the state has its limits because the state, unlike God, enjoys neither omniscience nor omnipotence. According to Christian faith, God will render to every man according to his works at the final judgment (Romans 2:6; cf. Matt. 16:27) Retribution by the state can only be a symbolic anticipation of God’s perfect justice.” [ii]

So Aquinas regarded earthly retribution as humane to the offender. C.S. Lewis agreed. Lewis also agreed that the just punishment for someone’s taking someone else’s life was giving up his own. When opponents of capital punishment objected that by the sixth commandment God commands us not to kill, Lewis replied that what the commandment actually forbids is “murder.” All murder is killing; not all killing is murder. There is a vast moral difference between killing a child and killing to protect one. God knows that and we do too. That difference is recognized by every law except the appetite for vengeance. My dictionary defines murder as “killing outside the law, especially with malice aforethought.”[iii]

Others objected to Lewis that we as Christians are required to love our enemies. In Mere Christianity, Lewis replied:  

“Does loving your enemy mean not punishing him? No, for loving myself does not mean that I ought not to submit myself to punishment even to death. If one had committed a murder, the right Christian thing to do would be to give yourself up to the police and be hanged. It is therefore, in my opinion, perfectly right for a Christian judge to sentence a man to death.” [iv]

I love C.S. Lewis, but he exaggerates. Let’s remember what Aquinas said: for human judges what is perfectly right is impossible to know, so for perfect justice we will have to wait for God. For purposes of symbolic anticipation of that perfect justice, death by old age in prison seems to me, roughly speaking, as just a retribution as death by lethal injection now. The two are close enough to make the same point.

So I don’t think we ought to execute the men we now hold in prison. I assume that they are locked up tight so as to prevent their doing further harm. Should we kill them? That’s the question. I say no.

For crimes like those suffered by the Petit family in Connecticut, human retribution is impossible. We have no punishment to match such crimes. There is no human answer for them. In faith, we wait with hope that wrongs are righted in the end.

In faith, we also bow to mercy. We know that God has purposes beyond making punishments fit crimes. In the Bible we see God being merciful to Cain who had killed his brother; to David who had conspired to have Uriah killed in battle; to Peter who had melted under pressure; and to Paul who had persecuted Christians. Jesus personally stopped the execution of a woman who had committed what the law held to be a capital offense. A contemporary of Richard Hooker, William Shakespeare, also saw this: When “mercy seasons justice,” said Portia to Shylock, “earthly power doth then show likest God’s.”[v]

In the perfect justice that we wait for, wrongs are righted in ways that are merciful to all. As mercy is dispensed we will see justice in it too. Mercy and retribution—moral judgments that look like opposites to us, are mysteriously united in the law that is written in God’s heart.

If you ask me how that happens, I don’t know. Faith lives with some unanswered questions. I simply know that my hope that our governor will stop these executions is embedded in a grander hope in which the Petit family’s pleas are heard and satisfied. As mercy seasons justice, justice seasons mercy too.

As the psalmist promises: when kingdom comes, “righteousness and peace will kiss.”[vi]

[i] Random House Unabridged, 2nd edition, 1993.

[ii] Avery Cardinal Dulles, “Catholicism and Capital Punishment,”First Things, April, 2001.

[iii] Webster 10th New Collegiate. The Random House unabridged definition is virtually the same: “The killing of another human being under conditions specifically covered in law.”

[iv] Lewis adds: “or a Christian soldier to kill an enemy.”

[v]Merchant of Venice, Act. 4, Scene 1.

[vi] Psalm 85, verse 10, NRSV