How Can The Death Penalty Be Love?
The Bible says to “love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44). So how can the death penalty be love?
People are commanded to love God, one another and their enemies. This is the case today, and it was true in the Old Testament also. Yet it is clear that the death penalty was commanded by God many times in the Old Testament. The first and greatest commandment is to love God, and the Bible is very clear about how we do that: we keep His commandments.
John 14:15, 21, 23 and 24
If you love me, keep my commandments...He that hath my commandments, and keepeth them; he it is that loveth me. And he that loveth me, shall be loved of my Father: and I will love him, and will manifest myself to him...If any one love me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him, and will make our abode with him..He that loveth me not, keepeth not my words. And the word which you have heard, is not mine; but the Father's who sent me.
These verses are clear, and reveal the action model of the love of God, which is the biblical model of genuine love. Christ spoke very plainly and said that if we do what God commands, then we love God, and if we do not do what God commands, we do not love God. One of God’s commandments was that murderers be put to death, and it is not loving God to ignore what He said.
It is true that Christ taught us to love our enemies, but we must understand what he was saying when he said that. First and foremost, he was not contradicting his Father and the commands of the Old Testament. He was stating them in plain language. It was part of the Old Testament Law that people were to be loving, even to their enemies. Although many examples could be given, Exodus contains some very clear verses:
If thou meet thy enemy's ox or ass going astray, bring it back to him. If thou see the ass of him that hateth thee lie underneath his burden, thou shalt not pass by, but shalt lift him up with him.
Since the teaching about being loving, even to someone that hates you, was a part of the Old Testament Law, we need to carefully examine the words Christ spoke.
You have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thy enemy. But I say to you, Love your enemies: do good to them that hate you: and pray for them that persecute and calumniate you: That you may be the children of your Father who is in heaven, who maketh his sun to rise upon the good, and bad, and raineth upon the just and the unjust.
Christ said, “You have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thy enemy.’” It is fair to say that most Catholics think that it was God and the Old Testament Scriptures that said, “Hate your enemy,” and that Christ was changing the Old Testament Law. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Old Testament Law taught people to love, as we saw in Exodus (and there are many more examples beside those two verses). It was the religious leaders who perverted the Law of God and taught people to “hate your enemy.”
It is imperative to notice that you can love your enemy and still obey the Old Testament Law, including executing justice and even going to war. Biblical love is not an emotion or a feeling, but is acting on what God commands. The words of Christ in Matthew make it plain that Christ knew that God loves His enemies, and even blesses them by sending them rain and sun even though they do not “deserve” His love and blessings. Exodus teaches us to be loving to our enemies and those who hate us by helping them out.
The same God who teaches us to love our enemies in both the Old and New Testaments also commands the death penalty in both the Old and New Testaments.
In Paul’s letter to the Romans, we read: “Revenge not yourselves, my dearly beloved; but give place unto wrath, for it is written: Revenge is mine, I will repay, saith the Lord.’” (12:19). And yet, in the next chapter, Paul writes concerning the civil magistrate: For he “For he is God's minister to thee, for good. But if thou do that which is evil, fear: for he beareth not the sword in vain. For he is God's minister: an avenger to execute wrath upon him that doth evil.” (13:4). This is why Paul could say, “For if I have injured them, or have committed any thing worthy of death, I refuse not to die. But if there be none of these things whereof they accuse me, no man may deliver me to them: I appeal to Caesar” (Acts 25:11; cf. Rom. 1:32). Paul didn’t claim the death penalty was no longer in effect.
It is love to obey God, and by having a swift death penalty we love the people in our society [many of whom are our enemies also] and offer them the best chance for a life free from fear and crime. By having a swift death penalty that is justly meted out, we are giving everyone the best chance to see the high value of life—theirs, and the lives of others. Without a swift and just death penalty, the value of life is cheapened. Most people in the United States, for example, live every day knowing that they may be killed by a drunk driver or by a robber in a convenience store. If they are killed, and if the criminal is actually caught, they know that their life was “worth” a few years in prison, if even that, because that is all that the criminal will have to pay in many cases. How can we call that “justice”? How can that teach the value of life? We assert that it cannot and does not, and that is a major reason the United States is overrun with crime today.
We are not loving God or people if we refuse to justly deal with criminals who will harm others. It is not loving people to allow an unsafe society to continue simply because we find it difficult to obey God’s laws. We are not really being loving if we allow murderers to go unpunished. The Bible says if there is no godly punishment of the wicked, then people who would not otherwise sin may be led into temptation, and that is clearly true. Just and quick punishments are a deterrent to evil behavior.
Now in saying all that, I believe that our judicial system is pretty messed up. To many are being found guilty of crimes they never did. As of 2002, “The Innocence Project - a legal clinic at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York that has helped build a national movement to free the wrongfully convicted - announced that the number of innocent prisoners in the United States who have been exonerated based upon post-conviction DNA testing had reached 100. These 100 cases, say the Project's co-directors, Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, mark a "revolution" in this country's criminal justice system over the last decade and have sparked a "new civil rights movement" to reform the system's ills. This has been made possible by the availability of DNA testing that can conclusively establish a prisoner's innocence, allowing advocates in The Innocence Network to prove what they and others have long contended - that a system replete with eyewitness error, official misconduct, and race- and economic-based inequities has resulted in an unconscionable number of wrongful convictions.”
So because of this I personally lean toward suspending most executions in states around the nation while these fundamental problems within the judicial system is addressed.