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Rethinking Capital Punishment

The year was 1573, and 19-year-old Frantz Schmidt was beheading stray dogs in his back yard. He was not a troubled teenager in need of psychological attention. Frantz was practicing for his life's calling.

Unlike teens today, Frantz didn't have to decide what he wanted to be when he grew up. Male teens followed in their fathers' footsteps. For Frantz, that meant becoming an executioner. It also meant having to live with enormous social stigma.

Despite the shame, Frantz, a Lutheran, believed his executioner's role was divinely sanctioned. Martin Luther wrote that "the hand that wields the sword and strangles is … no longer man's hand but God's." Executioners, he believed, are "very useful and even merciful," since they stop villains and deter crime. Historian Joel Harrington (The Faithful Executioner, Macmillan, 2013) called Luther's comment "a celebrity endorsement for the profession." If there is a lack of hangmen and you are qualified, Luther urged, apply for the job.

Luther believed that civic order is divinely ordained. The cities of Frantz's native Bavaria had been plagued by bandits, feuds between noble houses, and roving knights who supported themselves by pillaging. Bavaria needed a justice system to curb such violence and discourage vengeance and vendettas.

Nevertheless, Luther's endorsement was sharply at odds with the teachings of the early church Fathers. They didn't oppose the state's use of capital punishment. They didn't even address that question, since Christianity was still a countercultural minority with an ethic for "resident aliens."

But as Ron Sider noted in The Early Church on Killing (Baker Academic, ...

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Past Imperfect
David Neff
David Neff was editor in chief of Christianity Today, where he worked from 1985 until his retirement in 2013. He is also the former editor in chief of Christian History magazine, and continues to explore the intersection of history and current events in his bimonthly column, "Past Imperfect." His earlier column, "Editor's Bookshelf," ran from 2002 to 2004 and paired Neff's reviews of thought-provoking books and interviews with the authors.
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Rethinking Capital Punishment
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March 2014

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