A Blog by Paul Swearengin
Prologue: I believe, in our political discussions, Christians should always be able to make room for disagreement among people who love God. I write from my perspective and understanding of scripture and of God’s heart but leave room for those who believe differently to do so without accusation of being evil or ignorant as the cause of their disagreement. I believe God has left more things mysterious and open to discussion in his word than we are willing to admit these days. God has left some topics incomplete in scripture so as to require us to them out as kings and so that we are required to search out His heart to help fill in those mysterious areas. With that in mind, I wade in with my thoughts…
I recently received an inquiry from a friend asking my thoughts on the eight death penalties in short order the state of Arkansas has been planning to carry out (it looks like the courts may not allow that occur as of this writing.) I will start with my simple answer: as I’ve aged and pressed into my relationship with God as the Good Father, I have found it increasingly difficult to celebrate death in any form - whether death penalty, war or other forms of death used in punitive ways for wrongdoing. As such, I have to say I am not in favor of the death penalty and am certainly disturbed at the idea of a state in the United States of America hastening the deaths of death row prisoners in an effort to use drugs before they hit their expiration date (as is the case in the Arkansas matter - you can read more about that here..)
I struggle with the idea of death as punishment and, even more so, I struggle with the celebration of punitive death that I see in our culture today and, particularly in the Christian communities. I often feel we are far too celebratory over deaths from executions or acts of war (bombings or the deaths of enemy leaders). While I am convinced the Lord loves justice, I also know He passionately loves people while they are “yet sinners” because he created and crafted each one. And I believe He grieves over the loss of every single one. Since I want to be like him, I want to grieve, even as I love justice, as well.
Now, hear me clearly, I believe there is room for robust discussion on the topic. I am mindful that to the thief on the cross Jesus said “today you will be with me in paradise” but he did not commute the sentence of the thief and get him off the cross. The human penalty was still paid, even though the man’s sins had been forgiven. Ananias and Sapphira also met a lethal end to their lives in their disobedience to God (someday I will write more on this and how I see this was God’s mercy for them, but that’s for another time.) The Bible speaks often on the value of authority and that some of the role of authority on earth is for the punishment of wrongdoing. 1 Peter 2:13-14 calls us to be submitted to human authority as people of authority are put in place by God and are “... sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good.” So the case can be made that lethal execution is part of that duty for ‘punishment.’
However, I am still more swayed by the knowledge that Jesus was sent to destroy the power of death and to show us who Father God is - “If you’ve seen me you’ve seen the Father.” I see in Jesus someone who fought for those whom the system said was deserving of punishment. In fact, Jesus stood in the way of the stones for a woman who was about to receive the death penalty and chased away her condemners. I never see Jesus demonstrating for us the glamorizing of war that we see today and the trust of our military might for our security and success. Were this the Father’s heart, it would have been easy for God to encourage one scripture to be added in the Bible that says something like “Simon the Zealot, I am so for your battle against the evil Romans,” or some such statement. Yet, Jesus says not a word in support of those who believed military or political means were God’s way to deal with a tyrannical enemy. Jesus knew bringing a heart to transform people and a culture would be the downfall of the Romans, rather than a military uprising.
As a sidebar, I don’t think we can miss that the Roman Empire’s takeover of the Middle East actually opened the door for the Gospel of Jesus Christ to spread throughout the world. Often, God’s ways truly are higher than ours.
Back to my original thesis - In Matthew 5:39-44 Jesus shares the passage that starts “But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” It is the idea of overcoming evil with good. I believe this principle is much harder and slower than the feeling we get from seeing a few bombs dropped to try and change the world - but I think the long-lasting return on investment is infinitely more rewarding, positive and permanent. For an example of how this works, reference the difference between the aftermaths of World War I versus World War II. After WWI, the world wanted to met out punishment for the horrors of “the War to End all Wars” therefore the Ottoman Empire was broken up and Germany was forced to take on heavy war reparations and shame for what had occurred. In the end, this punishment had the unintended consequence of setting up the world perfectly for the occurrence of World War II. There was ongoing, severe infighting in the former Ottoman states for many years and the shame and economic hardship placed upon Germany actually ushered in an atmosphere that allowed Adolph Hitler’s reign. Now compare that to post-WWII. After the second world war, Instead of punishment, the United States set about rebuilding our enemies with our own resources. The result? To this day Germany and Japan remain American allies.
There is a time for war, there is a time for punishment, I believe, as Solomon wrote in the biblical book of Ecclesiastes; but I see an unhealthy trust and honor put in these things in our culture that I don’t see as Father God’s heart for people or the world.
His heart was never more on display than after the Amish school shootings in Pennsylvania in 2006. The Amish people didn’t demand revenge for the terror thrust upon them (five girls killed and five wounded in a shooting at their small, Amish schoolhouse.) Instead, they proclaimed forgiveness for the man who had killed their children and then killed himself. They showed amazing kindness to the murderer’s family and even attended and helped to pay for his funeral. They loaned money to help the man's family move forward and made sure they were taken care of after losing their father and husband. The supernatural forgiveness of these Amish people, as victims, told an infinitely more powerful story to the world of who God is than our pursuit of justice ever could (read more about that story here.)
Don’t get me wrong, for victims of crime to feel anger, pain and a desire for justice is not wrong, and because feeling that way is so inherently human, it’s something to which we have to give deep thought before faced with such a decision.
I know there may be ‘time to kill’ but I believe the drastic distance we must first go to get to that point should be a deep, long struggle. I, personally, don’t celebrate bomb droppings, even as they might be exactly the right decision for our president and military leaders to make. I also don’t get excited about legal executions - because I know Jesus came to “seek and save that which was lost” and that death is never Father God’s goal for us, and, if his heart is broken, I want mine to be broken, too.
Thanks for reading and hope this offered a perspective worth considering. You may comment on this page or on my Facebook page. Christianity used to be a place of robust engagement on topics - it is a recent development that we now believe we fully know the heart of God and anyone who disagrees with the “christian” stance must be apostate. Let’s keep our conversation civil because i do believe there is room for Christians to disagree on almost very subject of State.
Please add your comments below!