Saturday, December 30, 2006

Death Warmed Up

So Hussein has been executed; hanged, no less. I dare not check YouTube lest something ghastly show up. My granddad told me that he saw as a boy (just before World War I?) (one of) the last hanging(s) in Columbia, Missouri. I don't wish to outmaneuver him technologically.

Hussein, of course, earns zero sympathy or regret. In his case, moreover, if one is going to have capital punishment at all, he is a fine candidate, and there is no concern about having "gotten the wrong guy."

In my view, Christian scripture isn't concerned to legislate government legislation directly. But if one looks at Scripture, it never forbids capital punishment. On the other hand, it doesn't legitimate, let alone mandate, it, either. Romans 13, which is the stuff about government wielding the sword for good, might be a passage which gives not capital, but only corporal, punishment, explicitly to government. (Even there, it is given only to "God-instituted" governments, and not to "beastly" governments: as the pastor and theologian Bonhoeffer said, Christians are never free from making the judgment as to whether a given government under which they live as free believers is a Romans 13 government, to be obeyed wherever possible, or a Revelation 13 government, to be opposed at all costs. He cooperated in a plot to assassinate Hitler.)

If one shifts from bible study to dogmatics, Christian theology says that this world is not our home, and that these are not our final bodies. A corollary of this is that continued physical existence in this world is not the highest value. Yes, we have a decided bias in favor of life, but not mere physical life, not at any price. I seem to remember Jesus saying something about the pointlessness of gaining the whole material world and losing one's soul, and Paul of not grieving like the heathen do when a believer dies.

The force of this point is that Christianity need not oppose all capital punishment on certain theological grounds, namely, on some notion of the absolute value or "sanctity" of (physical, this-worldly) life. (One can, I think, consistently do so, but one would, I would say, be hard pressed to prove that it was a necessary stance for Christians to take.) Jesus says to fear God, who can kill soul as well as body, rather than men, who can only kill the body. So killing the body doesn't damn the soul, or save it, and so killing or preserving it has to be a secondary issue for Christians, at least compared to the issue of saving or damning.

There are tantalizing scriptural conundra that impinge on this discussion. What in the world could Paul have possibly meant about 'turning someone over to Satan' and destroying his body in order to save his soul? Surely this is hyperbole, along the lines of Jesus's cutting off your right hand if it leads you into temptation, but the Mormons used it, apparently, to justify an attack by the main body on a breakaway faction, back in the bad ole Brigham Young days. Lest Mormons or their sympathizers get unduly sensitive at this point, it has also been so used by others in a number of the church's more miserable historical chapters, if memory serves.

At the opposite end of the interpretive range, while there is, I think, no Christian doctrine of ahimsa, or utter nonviolence to any living (animal, not plant) entity, there is, surely uncontroversially, an awful lot of turn-the-other-cheek stuff in the New Testament. Are we to say that this, too, is hyperbole, indicating a direction to go in but not actually constituting a commandment? Ironically, the vast majority of biblical literalists would say so, would say that the Bible is not literal when it tells us not to strike back at those who strike us--and yet, there are the Amish (even if one dismisses the Quakers as too out there) among us still, and practicing literally what they preach, just this fall in Pennsylvania.

Again, 'vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord' might seem to exclude any attempt at this-worldly punishment or retributive justice--although it challenges us contemporary people more regarding God's own moral character. (I am leaving the Old Testament smiting passages out of this discussion entirely.) God certainly seems to claim a life-and-death right over human beings, by virtue of creation as well as of his holiness and our sinfulness, but this runs into all sorts of problems. The first, creational or parental right, sounds to us creepily like Roman paterfamiliatas, iron-faced, despotic men exposing unwanted female babies, etc. It is a right that does not seem right to us. The other right, for a holy being to destroy unholy ones, which we moderns interpret in juridical, rather than its original spiritual-metaphysical terms, seems okay as a (legal) right to us, but to many people seems the wrong right, as it were, for our God to have. How can a loving guy render capital judgments? If forgiveness and judgment are equally at his (gracious?) discretion, doesn't that make him capricious?
Regardless of how we sort out the morality of God's actions, though, this still is another situation where it seems that the literal interpretation is the "liberal" one: don't engage in retributive justice. Of course, one can always claim that one is merely the instrument through which God exercises his own claimed retribution. But that's a self-designation that can be all too easily criticized as self-serving.

It relates more generally to the problems generated by anyone claiming to be God's prosecutor, let alone His hired executioner of Bad Guys. The church has a terrible record, when engaged in corporal and capital punishment of heretics and pagans and so on, of finding, upon careful examination, that God's enemies, the Bad Guys, turn out to be, surprise, surprise, People We Don't Like. Now I know that the CounterReformation, the Thirty Years' War, and the Iberian conquest of Latin America were all a long time ago, but we are still throwing around "axis of evil" language today, and leaving some axially evil people off the list, for various reasons, in the world of politics, and in the church world we are directly violating scripture when we treat brothers and sisters in Christ as if they are not.

After all, Lewis claims that Satan was God's prosecutor, and fell because he was mad that God was merciful to humans, and thus sought to arrogate to himself the (already filled) position of judge. (Cf. the harsh messages of Jesus about the day laborers, where he concludes by saying, 'Or are you envious because I am generous?', or the prodigal son, which is really not about the father's grace to the prodigal but about the older brother's grim and petulant anger that someone (the "wrong" person) had been saved.)

In no way am I suggesting that Christians should back off from a prolife stance, or cease to speak clearly about bioethical issues and other death-related topics. Rather, I do support, in general, the sort of "completely prolife" views of people like Ron Sider, and I do think we are wise to follow the sort of distanced perspective on our current politics and government of someone like Jim Wallis.

As for the former, anything we do to reduce genetic modification, abortion, suicide, euthanasia, poverty, malnutrition, infectious diseases, lack of education, capital punishment, prison populations, environmental degradation, and wars is good.

As for the latter, maybe we need to look at it this way. Any situation where killing people in war or for capital crimes is considered conservative, and suicide and euthanasia considered liberal, is at least questionable (if not absurd). It is certainly at least driving around in absurdity's neighborhood for Christians to take sides in a schema wherein conservatives, who are antitax but prowar and capital punishment, don't trust the government with their money but do trust it with people's lives, whereas welfare liberals trust the government to regulate the economy but not to regulate killing.

Anyone who thinks that to be prolife is exhausted by being antikilling thinks biblical peace is merely the cessation of hostilities, and not the creation of healthy, whole community. And anyone who too casually thinks that a few bad apples can be executed for the good of the community has never cast himself in the role of someone's bad apple. But those who too cavalierly talk about community-building and rehabilitation need to spend time volunteering in victims' recovery programs.

As far as my own experience in these matters, I'm a mass of contradictions. I've never engaged in violence as an adult, but am not a conscientious objector and am proud of my father's Marine service in World War II. I might well physically fight to defend my family or someone else, though I've not done so, or nor did I have to the one time we were broken into while we were home and sleeping. I am an educated white male in the richest and most powerful society in world history: I don't know from victimization or suffering, despite my well-honed ability to gripe and moan. Many kinds of crime make my blood boil, and I feel earn certain kinds of poetic justice or just retribution. But I have been taking my "there but for the grace of God go I" sense to the gym for some time now, and it has gotten robust. I'm pretty sure that I will disappoint, and might disillusion, some of those who know me, at some point, and so I emphatically do not pretend to be a sinless stone-thrower...

...and yet...Jesus did tell the woman that she was sinning and that she had to stop...

...and yet...we, in the ugly petty functionalism which we call realism, want to say, well yeah, but what would he have done to her if she didn't stop adulterating?

What's the upshot? Ugly as it is, I think justice was done in the case of Hussein (even though I think we had no business getting into this this particular decade's entertainment, the Iraq war, in the first place). But I also think that justice is not something we are infallibly capable of, and so we should be cautious in its deployment--Gandalf telling Frodo, do not be too quick to deal out death and judgment, since some live who should have died, but some die who should have lived. Since we cannot give life at all, perhaps we should not give death too liberally. In any case, justice is just not, on the Christian view, all we are looking for, either in this life or beyond. The merciful world of God's love we hope for will be just, and that too is something to have faith in and to hope for.


Blogger some chick said...



I'm stealing it.

With credits, of course...

12:20 AM  

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