Robert A. J. Gagnon, Christianity, & Capital Punishment: My Response

The following post is in response to my Facebook friend, Robert A. J. Gagnon, Associate Professor of New Testament, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary:

You know, Rob, I nearly walk in lockstep with you concerning the issue of homosexuality; but concerning the issue of capital punishment and your view that arguments against the death penalty meted out by the worldly state are (theologically) scripturally weak, I profoundly disagree.

I believe your view on capital punishment by the state is an innovation of misguided convenience (a rationalization to self-delude and falsely ease the conscience) conjured up by those who came before you in the "church" but certainly after those early Christians who were rightly guided.

Those early Christians went to the lions as pacifists. In that way, they accepted capital punishment by the worldly state. In no way did they approve of capital punishment for anyone. Later, people fell away from the true message and, paying lip service to only selected teachings of Jesus, took up swords and spears and fought and maimed and killed for worldly empire, not authentic Christianity.

Your view is that the earlier Christians who refused to take up the sword did not understand the context of John the Baptist (or Jesus). My view is that the spirit of darkness has been at work all along to undermine the truth.

You wrote as follows:

When the John the Baptizer was baptizing in the Jordan, Luke states that John was approached by soldiers who asked him: "What should we do?" John's response: "Shake down (i.e. extort) no one and don't falsely accuse and be satisfied with your wages" (Luke 3:14).

"And the soldiers likewise demanded of him [John the Baptist], saying, And what shall we do? And he said unto them, Do violence to no man, neither accuse any falsely; and be content with your wages." (Luke 3:14 KJV)

Concerning Luke 3:14, διασείω {rendered "violence" in the KJV and which you interpret as "Shake down (i.e. extort)"} is a term of several connotations, one of which came to refer to extortion. Regardless, isn't the threat of capital punishment defended as deterrence based on fear, which comes right back to the root of the term? Wasn't one of Rome's concepts to preclude rebellion against the Empire by reason of fear of violent reprisal? Isn't that how Rome received its monetary tribute under the guise of Pax Romana? Jesus paid that tribute while simultaneously making clear that he ought not to have to.

And when they were come to Capernaum, they that received tribute money came to Peter, and said, Doth not your master pay tribute? He saith, Yes. And when he was come into the house, Jesus prevented him, saying, What thinkest thou, Simon? of whom do the kings of the earth take custom or tribute? of their own children, or of strangers? Peter saith unto him, Of strangers. Jesus saith unto him, Then are the children free. (Matthew 17:24-26 KJV)

"Then are the children free" is not a question. It's a statement concerning the wrongly guided enslavement by the Roman's and any other state that demands such tribute or taxes (which do not exist in Heaven, which Heaven we are instructed to pray to come here).

He accepted paying the tribute but qualified that action.

Logically, the issue of capital punishment may also be summed up as follows. One can't turn the other cheek while employing capital punishment. How may a Christian rightly advocate that the state (in the case of the US, what is supposed to be the people's government) do collectively what the Christian says the individual ought not? The early Christians knew the right answer and acted accordingly.

The Apostolic Bible Polyglot has Luke 3:14 partly as [without Strong numbers] "...No one should you shake up nor extort...." With the numbers, it reads, "...No one G3367 should you shake up G1286 nor G3366 extort, G4811...."

That appears to me to be the least incorrect rendering ("nor"). So, violence, per se, is disallowed by John. Then the PBP adds the narrow connotation of extortion (putting the fear into someone isn't always taken by everyone as being overtly violent).

Strongs G1286: "...to shake thoroughly, that is, (figuratively) to intimidate: - do violence to."

I don't think John was using it figuratively to the exclusion of literal violence (broadly speaking), per se.

Thayer’s Greek Definitions:

1) to shake thoroughly
2) to make to tremble
3) to terrify
4) to agitate
5) to extort from one by intimidation money or other property.

If it were only to extort (5), 1-4 would be pointless to list.

As for all the soldiers to whom you referred, where do we have it what each did thereafter? The text is silent as to whether any of them went on to use violence at all in the name of the state and whether they were still regarded as true followers of Jesus (leaving aside the concept of stumbling and repenting anew).

You wrote, "He [John the Baptist] did not tell them that repentance in the face of the coming kingdom required them to resign lest they be employed in the death of others." However, there's the following:

And, behold, one came and said unto him, Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life? And he said unto him, Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God: but if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments. He saith unto him, Which? Jesus said, Thou shalt do no murder, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Honour thy father and thy mother: and, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. The young man saith unto him, All these things have I kept from my youth up: what lack I yet? Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me. But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful: for he had great possessions. Then said Jesus unto his disciples, Verily I say unto you, That a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven. And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God. (Matthew 19:16-24 KJV)

It is critically important to note that Jesus revealed more when asked and that once the young man was further informed, the standard rose right along with that information (built in). So, why are we to preclude things based upon a short saying of John the Baptist narrowly and selectively interpreted by the pro-violent?

Also, the "vigilante execution," as you put it was people believing they would be following the Mosaic Law. How so do you determine that it would have been the act of vigilantes? Was Jesus there to follow and preach the laws of God or Caesar?

As for your war examples, why then didn't Jesus lead the Zealots in a war against the Roman Empire? Surely, as God on Earth, Jesus could have prevailed? He said as much.

And, behold, one of them which were with Jesus stretched out his hand, and drew his sword, and struck a servant of the high priest's, and smote off his ear. Then said Jesus unto him, Put up again thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword. Thinkest thou that I cannot now pray to my Father, and he shall presently give me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then shall the scriptures be fulfilled, that thus it must be? (Matthew 26:51-54 KJV)

What greater lessons than worldly war making and capital punishment are we to take away from Jesus's words and examples? Do we accept, adhere to, and preach (advocate) the highest standards or lower ones?

Part 2: Robert A. J. Gagnon, Christianity, & Capital Punishment: My Response

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  • Tom Usher

    About Tom Usher

    Employment: 2008 - present, website developer and writer. 2015 - present, insurance broker. Education: Arizona State University, Bachelor of Science in Political Science. City University of Seattle, graduate studies in Public Administration. Volunteerism: 2007 - present, president of the Real Liberal Christian Church and Christian Commons Project.
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