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, 2012), those Fathers who discussed capital punishment found it unthinkable that a follower of Christ could take a life, even as part of a judicial sentence. Lactantius said that a Christian should not even accuse someone of a capital crime, "because it makes no difference whether you put someone to death by word or by sword since it is the act of putting to death itself which is prohibited." Origen, recognizing that capital punishment had a place under the Old Covenant, drew a stark contrast between the law of Moses and the law of Christ. Christians, he said, cannot "condemn [someone] to be burned or stoned." Tertullian asked whether a Christian could be a civil magistrate and concluded that believers must avoid "sitting in judgment on someone's life."
Like Origen, Christians today can view the Christian ethic as distinct from Jewish law, radically altered by Jesus. Or, like Luther and Calvin, they can formulate a Christian ethic in conscious continuity with the Torah. Either way, because of the frequency of false convictions and unequal access to legal resources, and a key biblical argument, Christians should be very wary of how capital punishment is practiced in the U.S. today.
One writer who has followed the path of continuity is World magazine editor Marvin Olasky. In an October cover story and ten blog posts, Olasky argues that following the Bible's teaching would greatly reduce the number of executions. He points out that the standards of evidence required in the Law of Moses demanded two eyewitnesses who were so sure of what they saw that they would stake their own lives on it. Most capital convictions today fall short of that standard.
Olasky also argues that the death penalty for murder in the Hebrew Scriptures is a maximum—not a mandatory—sentence. That leaves room to adjust the punishment to fit the crime, the criminal, and mitigating factors.
Because death-penalty cases are prosecuted and then appealed over many years at great expense, and because those sentenced to life in prison without parole overwhelmingly told him their fate was worse than death, Olasky commends life imprisonment without parole for capital crimes—a practical solution that is not far from contemporary Catholic teaching. The 1997 revision of the Catechism of the Catholic Church states that where "non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people's safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity with the dignity of the human person." Necessary executions, it says, "are very rare, if not practically non-existent."
Olasky rightly expresses concern about Jews and Christians who reject capital punishment simply because they find it barbaric, but he does not ask whether this institution, like slavery, fails when tested by Jesus' own teaching. Though it took many centuries for the Christian church to come around on slavery, the patristic writers were already pointing a new direction on the death penalty. It is time for us to take another look at what Jesus and those earliest Christian writers had to say about the value of human life, no matter how sinful that life may have been.
David Neff is the former editor in chief of Christianity Today.
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