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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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: " 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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Kerry says Syria’s Assad has to go, but that would be undemocratic

This is completely unacceptable.

09191501Secretary of State John F. Kerry said Saturday that the United States is willing to negotiate the conditions and timing for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down from power, and urged Russia to convince him to negotiate his exit.

Source: Kerry says Syria’s Assad has to go, but U.S. is flexible as to when

Look, a few days ago, I tweeted that the US could require term limits for Assad and limit him to one more duly elected term. Not one person said a word. It's amazing. Why? It's amazing because Assad took that step himself back in 2012.

During the 2011–2012 Syrian uprising, a new constitution was put to a referendum. Amongst other changes,

  • it abolished the old article 8 which entrenched the power of the Ba'ath party. The new article 8 reads: "The political system is based on the principle of political pluralism, and rule is only obtained and exercised democratically through voting.";
  • in a new article 88, it introduced presidential elections and limited the term of office for the president to seven years with a maximum of one re-election.

The referendum resulted in the adoption of the new constitution, which came into force on 27 February 2012.

(Source: Constitution of Syria, 2012 revision)

US foreign policy against Syria and Assad has been, and remains, asinine.

Assad stood for election. He received enough votes that regardless of the war and the refugees at the time, he would have won anyway, hands down. The election was completely free and fair. He is the duly elected President of Syria serving under term limits. If he is allowed to serve out his term, he will step down. Multi-party elections will be held. The winner will be declared based upon a free-and-fair election.

There is zero good reason why the US Obama administration is still insisting that Assad step down before his term of office is over.

Frankly, Vladimir Putin's policy concerning the region is vastly superior to Barack Obama's. If both men and nations are hellbent for violence as a means of conflict resolution, then at least Mr. Obama should join Mr. Putin in stopping IS (the Islamic State) and all the Islamic subjugators. Then Syria would be free (relatively speaking), democratic, multi-party, etc., which is exactly what the US claims it supports in the world.

The mark of a wise man is one who can change, even if it means admitting he was wrong about those he deemed his enemies. So, Barack Obama can simply change his policy toward Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad.

To Hell with the Sunni-Shiite Divide. To Hell with absolute monarchs not chosen by their people but who rather lord it over them by threats of punishment (even death) for simply speaking up for democracy. What kind of allies are they for the US? Let such monarchs wake up and change too.

Let the people in Eastern Ukraine be autonomous. Stop funding their slaughter. Let Kiev turn its attention to fixing it's own nightmarish economy. Time will see Russia, Eastern Ukraine (Novorussia), and Ukraine getting along famously and greatly benefiting the US if the US will stop with the neocon's Trotskyist-modeled global-revolution crap for neoliberal capitalism (anti-democracy).

The only thing Russia has really been doing is threatening to defend itself. Vladimir Putin isn't trying to cause the unconstitutional or violent overthrow of Barack Obama. What's Barack Obama doing vis-a-vis Putin in that regard?

Taking this policy move I'm suggesting would also help ease tensions with Iran and China and generally settle down the entire planet, which is what we need if we're going to stop violent Islamic imperialists and global warming and all the rest of the problems we face, not the least of which is poverty.

UPDATE: Here's a link you should read: Obama Re-Defines Democracy – A Country that Supports U.S. Policy, by Michael Hudson, research professor of Economics, University of Missouri, Kansas City, research associate, Levy Economics Institute, Bard College.

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