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

Part 1 is here.


Tom Usher

I said I'd try to respond more fully to your post ( Here it is.

Rob, you referred to the Pope as among the "moral authorities." As far as I can see, he has no more moral authority than does anyone else. The reason I raise that is because I'm still unclear on whether you are appealing to "authorities" other than Jesus concerning this question of state-conducted executions. The reason I limited it to Jesus, is because it is a matter of opinion as to the degree to which anyone else's view reflects exactly what Jesus had in mind in all matters. So-called reasonable people also disagree with what Jesus's words mean. There is also the issue of the wide versus narrow canon. You know all of this. To be clear, the Apostles didn't always agree. If one was right and the other wrong concerning a given issue, then what are we to conclude concerning their decisions concerning every issue and also concerning those issues not dealt with in any conclusive manner in the New Testament? Naturally, it's why we are debating here: What ought we conclude?

You wrote, "Old Testament law obviously did not view death occurring in the context of battle or state executions for evil conduct as violation of the Decalogue commandment against murder." That's only relevant if Jesus didn't bring light telling us that, that Old Testament standard is too low.

"Paul knew full well that the civil authorities, especially Rome, had the power to inflict capital sentences on wrongdoers. It is for this reason that Paul says: “If you do what is wrong, fear” (13:4). An outright refusal to pay taxes by a given movement could be regarded as an act of revolt or sedition, the penalty for which extended to death. Paul’s statement about the “sword” is an admission of the right of state to punish wrongdoers even with a capital sentence."

Jesus was sentenced to death and executed by that same state. Did Rome have the Christian right to do that? You must defend that it did and prevail in your argument or admit you've run into a fatal flaw in your position. If it is indefensible, which I say it is, then the rest of your argument becomes moot. Nevertheless, I'll continue here addressing your points.

"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). He 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."

I addressed that here (, to which you replied here ( I'm attempting to address both your initial post and that reply. I'm writing without benefit of an answer to my comment here ( Also, you didn't address many of the points in my previous reply, especially not the aspect that Rome was inherently extorting taxes at the point of the sword. Rome invaded lands as worldly conquerors and then demanded tribute or else. How can John tell individual soldiers not to do that while collectively they could so long as it was for the state doing the exact same thing for the very same reason?

Regardless of whether one ought to read Luke 3:14 using only the narrowest of connotations as you've suggested, John the Baptist was not Jesus (though Jesus made clear just how highly John is to be regarded). If Jesus did and said things to preclude your view, then obviously Luke 3:14 would not be evidence for the case that Christianity authorizes capital punishment.

"We have no indication of Jesus challenging the right (per se) of the state to use force, up to and including capital sentencing, to maintain law and order."

The Kingdom of Heaven is a state. We are to have it dwelling within us. We are to have its law written on our hearts. Jesus brought the law from Heaven to us. The question, therefore, is whether or not Jesus authorized human beings to kill each other. "Another parable put he forth unto them, saying, The kingdom of heaven is likened unto a man which sowed good seed in his field: But while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and went his way. But when the blade was sprung up, and brought forth fruit, then appeared the tares also. So the servants of the householder came and said unto him, Sir, didst not thou sow good seed in thy field? from whence then hath it tares? He said unto them, An enemy hath done this. The servants said unto him, Wilt thou then that we go and gather them up? But he said, Nay; lest while ye gather up the tares, ye root up also the wheat with them." (Matthew 13:24-29 KJV) I've used the KJV out of habit for the reason I stated elsewhere: It's not copyright protected in the US. I looked at 24 other versions and found nothing to suggest that the KJV here is out of bounds. "Nay; lest while ye gather up the tares, ye root up also the wheat with them." Those are the operative words. The question for you is whether they pertain only to individuals or also to the "state," per se. Of course, you'll no doubt readily admit that unjust or mistaken capital punishment is not sanctioned by Jesus whether it's the individual or the state that carries out that unjust punishment. The question then narrows in the mundane, not divine or spiritual, sense to whether the state has the right only when the punishment is for a crime actually committed. If the state ever errs, how can it retain the right? We know the state errs, as we know how many people have been released by reason of DNA testing where previously, they were executed even though innocent. We know it by virtue of the impossibility of the odds that the state never made a mistake with any of the thousands upon thousands of executions it has carried out even while it (the state) thought it had the right persons executed.

"The non-canonical tradition of Jesus' encounter with the woman caught in adultery shows, at most, only that Jesus regarded vigilante execution of an adulteress as improper, perhaps because adultery does not involve the taking of human life and because an immediate stoning of the woman would foreclose any reasonable opportunity for repentance. Arguing from this that the state has no right to execute offenders for heinous acts of murder is a bridge too far, in my view."

I already dealt with the supposed "vigilante" aspect of the case. Let me add that Jesus didn't say to take her to the "state" with the charges against her and let that state do what it will, as only it, and not them as individuals, have the right. If your position is correct, then why didn't he say that? More to the point, Jesus's point is absolutely clear. All have sinned. None is in a position to stone another. It is hypocrisy regardless of the relative nature of sin (concerning which relativity I readily agree). You are suggesting that the relativity of the sin is operative here. However, Jesus didn't ask which sin each had committed. He didn't say let the one who has committed only lesser sins than adultery cast the first stone. Jesus revealed the inherent hypocrisy in the Mosaic Law given to hardened hearts not able to receive the clearer, more-just law.

"Morally and practically it doesn't make sense to me either. Let's suppose that Hitler, Goebbels, and Himmler had been caught alive (rather than having committed suicide) and tried at Nuremberg. Would it have been just to give them "life" sentences when they had already lived the bulk of their lives? No, it would have been a gross miscarriage of justice. Each of these men were responsible for the deaths of millions of innocent people. Goering was caught and given a capital sentence, though he was able to commit suicide by cyanide poisoning before being hung. He too deserved that capital sentence, as did the commandants of the extermination camps that collectively led to the death of six million Jews and many others."

Jesus knew full well that states, including Rome, were committing heinous crimes. How was the Roman Empire expanded but by the sword. Jesus could have used the exact same rationale in forming a worldly military to defeat the Romans, which is exactly one of the arguments against him leveled by the Zealots and others waiting for just such a worldly, military messiah. The Jews today who don't accept Jesus still use that same argument. You said "it would have been a gross miscarriage of justice" not to use the death penalty against Nazi leaders. So, Jesus is guilty of gross miscarriages of justice by not having militarily crushed the very Roman Empire carrying out the death penalty, taking both the tares and the wheat? It was the same Roman Empire to which Paul was referring when he said it wasn't bearing the sword for nothing. It appears to me that the secular United States and each of the various secular states that comprise it are completely incapable of meting out flawless, non-hypocritical justice. By Christian definition, justice is always flawless and non-hypocritical. Wait for the one who will make no mistakes sorting the wheat from the chaff. Don't take what should be left to God into your own hands, whether those hands are of the individual or the state. If we all advocate and live up to this highest standard, there won't be any crimes worthy of death. Isn't that Jesus's overall point to be gleaned from a full reading of his Gospel?

"How can someone be opposed to the death penalty and yet at the same time defend America's right to have declared war on the Japanese for the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that resulted in the death of 2403 American military personnel and civilians? That declaration of war meant that hundreds of thousands would die on both sides. We could have chosen not to declare war on the Japanese or not to have responded to Hitler's immediate declaration of war on the US. The country was in no real danger of a Japanese or German invasion. But I submit that it would have been moral madness not to have prosecuted a war against these two countries, a war that unfortunately led to far more deaths than the 35 people sentenced to death in this country every year for multiple and heinous murders. Indeed, war meant that we would be responsible for the death of hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths, through ground battle and through bombing attacks (so-called collateral damage)."

Guarantee that the "35 people sentenced to death in this country every year for multiple and heinous murders" are all guilty of those murders. Agree that the blood of the innocent ones sentenced and executed for murder they did not commit is on your hands for supporting the state in the state's errors. How long have you agreed with capital punishment, and where is capital punishment inflicted in the world? Further agree that the "collateral damage" of the wars you mentioned is also on your hands for the same reason.

I wash my hands of both capital punishment and war. I want to do as Jesus said and whether or not there are those who condemn Jesus for not stopping the pain and suffering of the innocent, not violently coming to all their rescue but rather instructing us in no uncertain terms to wait on the justice meted out by God the Father, who makes zero errors in the eternal configuration of things. They simply do not understand even though the word is there for them to hear.

Again, how could Jesus not have declared war on Rome or all the states committing capital crimes? War has to stop with those willing to go to the lions, to take up their crosses to be unjustly punished for the sake of righteousness. Either we go out and slaughter all who offend (rather Mosaic), or we stop all the violence. If we slaughter those who offend, then we face God for our hypocrisy, per Jesus per the tares and the wheat and concerning stoning others for adultery, etc. What were the root causes of WWII? Did the US, UK, and France, etc., have clean hands? Hardly. That doesn't excuse the Germans or the Japanese. However, how would Germany have been had WWI reparations not been so insanely applied?

"And what of the Civil War? Should we have allowed the South to secede from the Union with a new constitution that enshrined slavery of African Americans for perpetuity? Was Lincoln wrong to prosecute a war against the South for rebellion against the Union? What is 35 capital sentences per annum of heinous murderers compared to the 650,000 American military deaths (and many other civilian deaths) in four years of brutal war? Instead of revering Lincoln, should we now regard him as the greatest mass murderer that our country has ever known?"

It is an error to assume that slavery would have been perpetual. Regardless, does Jesus teach us to go and violently free slaves? Did he do it? He did not, and he didn't teach anyone to do it. If freeing slave through violence is justified under Christianity, where is the line drawn as to who may do that? What defines a "state" that authorizes itself and somehow then has rights individuals don't? The Islamic State has declared itself. Has it come out from God and Heaven or Hell? Wherein did even Paul teach the slaves to revolt violently against the same kinds of minds that ruled the Southern states of the US? Why was Lincoln authorized but John Brown not? Was it because of democracy? Didn't the South vote to leave the US? If the North was the higher power by virtue of demanding rightly that the Constitution demands no secession, then we can't stop at the US Constitution in terms of applying the higher-law principle. Are you really suggesting that were Jesus born now in America that he would come to vote under the Constitution for leaders who take the US into wars rightly and wrongly? I can't imagine Jesus would do that while remaining consistent with the law he already brought.

It is extremely difficult not to fall to the temptation to go out and violently wipe out sin, but one must come to understand that the very hardening that would turn to that violence is exactly what Jesus preached against and why we go to the cross in our hearts and minds. Jesus had the power to use violence to stop all the crimes going on. He chose other means for a reason, the right reason, the only reason.

There are many more points I could make and things I could cite directly from Jesus in a completely consistent manner and without leaving out any contexts in any of his sayings and deeds, but I prefer now to wait for your response(s).

I sincerely thank you, Dr. Gagnon, for your consideration.

I don't think it is the argument that Jesus is against us carrying out capital punishment (individually or collectively and regardless of the rationale given by the state) that's weak but rather the opposite.

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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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