Sunday, October 10, 2004

Capital Punishment: Playing God?

From First Things an interesting article all in all, but the part that struck me most was the one following. The argument that has troubled me most in the discussions I have had and in my own thoughts about the death penalty is the question of whether capital punishment is playing God. I had arrived at the conclusion that it was not, but it is articulated better below than I have ever been able to do.

I have heard it asked by fellow Christians, “How dare we play God? How dare we wrest into our own hands the divine prerogative of life and death?” It is a good question. My answer is that we dare not. We dare not wrest into our own hands any of the divine prerogatives of justice, whether the deprivation of life, of liberty, or of property. It is a dreadful matter to kill a man, but it is also dreadful to lock him in a hole, away from wife, children, parents, friends, and all that he held dear in life. It is a fearsome matter to imprison a man, but it is also fearsome to use fines and impoundments to confiscate his worldly goods, which he may have accumulated by honest labor and is counting on for the succor of his family and the support of his declining years. No, we dare not wrest into our hands any powers over our fellow men. But if God puts such powers into the hands of those who hold public authority—what then? Does this not alter the picture? How dare we jerk our hands away, hide them behind our backs, refuse the charge. For the teaching of Scripture and Christian tradition are just as clear about public justice as they are about personal forgiveness, and the teaching of Christ is that “Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35). The magistrate is “sent,” whether he knows it or not; he is “the servant of God to execute His wrath on the wrongdoer.” Yes, we have seen that he is a servant of God’s patience, too, but the one charge does not cancel the other. However tempered with mercy, public authority remains an augur or a portent of the wrath which will one day fall upon the unrepentant.