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Reflections on the Death Penalty


Udo W. Middelmann

The Francis A. Schaeffer Foundation

Chalet Les Montaux, CH 1882 Gryon, Switzerland #41 24 498 1656

In the beginning it seems logical, fair and just. The murderer should not be able to continue to live when by his choice to take someone's life he has shown a total disregard for the life of another.

The Bible speaks of this link immediately after the flood, when God destroyed the lives of those whose wickedness on earth had become so great that he decided to wipe them off the face of the earth. To the believing survivors in Noah's family he says in Genesis 9:6

"Whoever sheds the blood of man, By man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man."

Man in the image of God is of such value, and life such a treasure, that murder shall be punished with death.

This is not a statement or judgment about the murderer's soul or eternal life. God and man deal with the realities of life, not hypothetical possibilities. Capital punishment deals with biology, not wishful thinking or future contingencies. It declares an order in a world made temporarily chaotic by the decision to eliminate the victim.

The death penalty for murder has a more original foundation than that it is just "the law" of the land or the courts. It is founded in the nature of reality: the human being is made in the image of the living God. Both in Man's uniqueness and in the origin of life itself only the God of the Bible and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is a sufficient explanation. "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth."

The 6th commandment repeats this high view of life in writing at a time when the moral life of Israel had become weak due to increasing sin (Galatians 3:19). The past experiences as slaves in Egypt and in the need to establish a nation state in the Promised Land ahead made it imperative that the laws were clearly formulated. Therefore Exodus 20:13 states that "You shall not murder."

This does not contrast lawful executions. A different Hebrew word is used in the command against murder than in the execution for reasons of criminal justice. The warning in Exodus 23:7 is against putting an innocent or honest person to death. It brings back the reason for Abraham's reasoning with God over the threatened destruction of Sodom in Genesis 18:23. But it does not deny the need for criminal justice, a need also reiterated in the New Testament. In Romans 13 Paul speaks of submission to governments that are a terror to those who do wrong (vs. 3). Government has a call to be God's servant, an agent of wrath, to bring punishment to the wrongdoer.

We are to be subject to such, and only such, governments in civil and criminal order. At times it may also include larger defensive preparedness against an evil larger than a personal experience. In personal matters I should have an attitude of turning the other cheek with grace, generosity and freedom. In public matters I do not have that choice to withhold protection of the weak when they are attacked.

A principle of capital punishment is here established. It is anchored in the nature of reality. It is not a matter merely of positive law or law decided on without further reasoning by a society for its purposes for a season. God created us to live. Taking someone's life is an act of fury, denial, and revolt against God and His design. There is a choice so great given to man that he can forfeit his own right to life, since he has not valued it in his neighbor.


The death penalty should, already in the Old Testament, never be administered without careful clarification of guilt. At least two credible witnesses need to establish the evidence. Even then further considerations were to be sustained. Guilt and judgment for murder was not established only after a corpse was found. There is a murder in the heart, the mind, in thought, which Christ speaks of in the Sermon on the Mount. It requires no physical victim. Sin starts in the thought world.

For that reason pacifism was never a way to escape the possibility of becoming guilty of your thoughts. There is the subjective, intentional side of murder and guilt even without an actual death.

On the other hand not every corps led to the conclusion that a murder had been committed. Manslaughter provisions, cities of refuge or repentance all broke the bridge between outward action and moral responsibility. For this reason probably King David was not executed for adultery, of which he was guilty. Ps 51 speaks of his deep sorrow and repentance.

In addition, no accusation was ever to lead to an automatic judgment. The man caught gathering wood on the Sabbath in Numbers 15 was not simply judged on the basis of external evidences. Instead a progression through various appeals from people to council to Moses is given because of the complexity of the case, until finally guilt is indicated from God directly.

Recently the question of the death penalty has received new urgency. Even before the election of President Bush, the former governor of a state known also for the high number of executions in the last few years, DNA testing has shown a troubling number of accused criminals were erroneously sentenced and put on death row. The election of Mr. Bush has only brought the whole matter more to the fore and to international attention.

There are few issues discussed with more passion in Europe with the ascendancy of the new president. It is perhaps limited to America and Europe because of the historic influence of Christianity on our culture, our set of values and our freedom to publicly discuss. Other countries, other mores. In China public executions take on the form of an open spectacle that merely shows that everything is under control. According to Islamic law there is no mercy or rehabilitation. The tradition of justice relating not only to the crime but also the accused is a fragile one, which needs to be supported, treasured and affirmed continuously. That is why petitions in favor of the abolition of the death penalty circulate. That is why Governor Ryan of Illinois has declared a moratorium on executions. There is a profound unease in our cultures about the way justice is established and administered.

In Germany the death penalty was abolished when enough people had been executed in a farcical application of laws of capital punishment under Hitler. We now lack confidence in our own ability to do justice with sufficient objectivity in any case in which the final outcome is the death of the accused. In France it was abolished in 1981 when the government decided, as has every country in the European Union, that death as a punishment is not part of a civilized society.

The problem is not with principle itself. It is rather that our societies, with crime, corruption, guns, rage and money among citizens, insistent on their rights, are probably no longer in a position to provide the kind of legal framework and criminal justice system that the Bible demands. When the majority of law schools teach litigation rather than jurisprudence we must not be amazed that there is a vastly reduced interest in or knowledge of real justice. Money and fame contribute more to the outcome of criminal cases than does a yearning for justice and peace.

The OJ case and others before and since then make mockery of right and wrong. Winning the argument has become more important than serving justice. When each person has a relationship to the god of his choice there is no real metaphysical consideration anymore about right and wrong. Consequently, neither the US nor Europe can be proud of the way the sword is used in the hands of the state to encourage the good and to prevent the evil. Capital punishment can easily become cruel and unusual, not in itself, but in the way the money-driven power of clients can influence the lawyers, who will use ignorant and deliberately untrained members of the jury to establish...not justice, but their case.

Law without justice is power without reason or compassion. In our increasingly corrupt societies we have clouded moral reasons by our own embrace of law as a tool for power. The Israel in which there was to be capital punishment for clear and deliberate murder, was to be a holy people. To a large extend we no longer follow that precept and are corrupted ourselves. If there were even a small interest in holiness we would be willing to go out of our way and to leave no stone unturned to establish the guilt or innocence of the accused. Because as sinful human beings we ourselves are prone to hide behind the protection of the laws that favor us we can never be so sure of our search for justice. But short of a little more humility in that quest we do not speak or do justice at all. Instead we make use of laws to protect our own, often quite arrogant justification of what we think we deserve in peace, ease of life and (only) a sense of right and wrong.

I don't trust any of our Western societies anymore to have the desire for justice that would have to be the starting place for the kind of final punishment the death penalty always is. Nor am I that sure that we are meant to apply the death penalty in our very mixed and open societies. We may be condemned to have to live, for the time being, with the unsafe situation that murderers get to be free after a while. We are not the nation of Israel, the people meant to be holy also as a nation. We live in a world of wheat and chaff side by side. Our laws alone will not produce justice, nor a changed heart or the willingness to walk the extra mile.

But since the power of law is not the only restraint to evil, there remain always prayer, love and compassion to diminish the hate, envy and fragmentation that mark so much the life in our modern community.

Family Values

In the church of old, from Jerusalem to Nicea to the subsequent councils discussions have centered on those parts of Christianity, which had come into doubt or under some other form of attack. When a variation of the teaching spread, a council was called to clarify the church's view on such matters as the dual nature of Christ, on the persons of the Holy Trinity, on the canon of the Scriptures among other things.

As long as things were clear and without dispute there was no need to talk in order to settle the differences and to unify the church. A council did not establish truth, it defended it against heresies and drew up definitions and distinctions.

It is curious that long before recent election campaigns the item of family values has been discussed. Perhaps under a parallel weighty attack of heresies concerning society in general and the family in particular the formerly obvious needs again clarification and a focus.

This may not at all be surprising. The 20th century ideologies have tried hard to undermine and even disparage one of the central building blocks of life, the reality that we only exist because we have a father and a mother. We are children to parents. Our unique and first identity is the family of which we are a part.

The attacks have been from the gentle appeal to the family of Man as a way to combat racism to the ridiculing of the nuclear family in Stalinism, Nazism and more modern and certainly gentler forms of socialism. The African proverb that ‘it takes a village to raise a child' has been brought over to the US in a book that suggests it takes the White House to raise a nation.

When a state or philosophy take apart the most original and basic building block of our life it turns out that all kinds of problems ensue. For it is within the family that we learn to be human, to talk, listen, to learn patience, love and to discuss without shame. Here we already have an identity from conception on, an identity, which in other connections can only be earned after a while.

This is the way God made us. A man and a woman have a child and express therein their own continuity from their childhood into another generation. Here they are most evidently creative, in the image of the creator. Only they could have this child as a real person forever. There are no single-parent families; sadly, there are too many who do not accept their parental responsibilities and desert their child.

Little wonder that Stalin and Hitler tried to destroy the family with some success. They praised loyalty to the state, their specific cause and the collective of Volk or laborers and gave rewards to the traitors of their own parents and spouses. They saw in the family as an institution a rivalry to themselves. They did not want independent children or people, for such independence always raises the possibility of critique, distance and limited sovereignty, which no totalitarian regime can abide. For such regimes claim to be the final blessings for all people, beyond which there is no need.

Some socialist governments more recently tried to level all children by punishing privileges, By separating the children from their parents at an early age through quasi-compulsory child care and higher taxes for single working adult families.

The White House claim that it takes a village was really a way of saying it takes the state to raise a child; social programs, education, culture, health care were all to come by decisions of state, not of responsible parents or neighbors. The quote of an African proverb only provided the imagery of multicultural sensitivity.

The idea of family of course is also under attack with the rise of ‘alternative' consenting adult relationships, which in spite of their claim to be precisely alternatives still want to continue to use the term family. But if family is one thing with a definition, the alternative cannot have the same definition. To use the same term for different realities is a best confusing, a worst a deliberate lie and a grave form of self-deception.

Contrary to the New York Times article no Susie has and cannot have two mothers. Children are the result of one man and one woman conceiving a child. When Susie lives in a two-women household she is still the child of her mother and her father. Homosexuals have a definite relationship, it is something real, emotional and on some level satisfying, but it is not a marriage that can lead to a family. What is more, a homosexual only exists because his or her parents were not homosexual themselves. Thus they do not constitute what is defined as a family

Reality has a shape. Creation has definitions. Words without understandable links to that reality describe only wishful thinking, a deliberate deception, or the pieces of a joke. In this context the discussion about family values is understandable. Like earlier church heresies we are surrounded by teachings that present, in the name of truth, a view that is not true to the shape of the real world between men and women and children, for every man and woman was first a child of their parents.

There is another area that comes to mind, in which we should perhaps take the concern for family values just as seriously. Family values do not only relate to the natural biological family in need of protection against state or sociological ideologies. Family values are anchored in the created order. God made Man male and female to have dominion, to multiply and to continue that creation which God left unfinished. The truth of God and life is to be carried forward through generations, each taking the banner of faith in the broadest sense as a statement against sin, the Fall, and death until the Kingdom come.

It is not only a command to increase and multiply that is to have children and to thereby also have dominion over the earth. There are many ways to mark the land with the presence of image bearers of God. In a fallen world there are also situations in which it would be careless to have children, such as when destruction and war are all around us. One might well consider the responsibility and rightness of having children then.

On the other side my own parents celebrated Hitler's attack of the Soviet Union as the beginning of the end of the Second World War by conceiving my brother. They remembered Napoleon's earlier defeat by Russia's winter, the enormous exspance of the land and the experience of suffering of the Russian people and now new that Hitler could not win anymore.

Family values relate to the fact that we love, care for, and treasure and value people. We are not only responsible for ourselves, but also for others. And we are in some measure responsible to see that there are children who will be part of families and who will themselves grow up to honor father and mother, provide for them and continue their life beyond death in expectation of eternal life.

Just as it has not been a mistake that we exist, so also are we responsible in some measure to see that others exist, are loved as human ands receive that training that enables them to pursue "family values".

A close family member lost her husband recently and now is completely alone. Without children she she has little reality of family values experience. Our countries in the industrialized world are in the curious situation that we have so much wealth of goods and time, yet too few people to enjoy these things. Our birthrate is somewhat between 1.2 in Roman Catholic Spain and 1.9 in Scandinavian countries. 25% of Swiss couples do not have any children at all. The US can still expand economically because of the high numbers of immigrants to the labor pool. Europe will have to import other peoples' children, when it fails, as the US, to have enough children of its own citizens.

Several factors have contributed to this situation. Recent findings show these to be a concern to be free from the stereotypical assumption that a married woman of course will have children. Career choices rather than family are a second preference. Life is seen as a series of isolated moments to be tolerated or to be enjoyed; it does not consist of phases anymore, much less does it make up a longer history. The self-made man and woman of a century ago has often given way to the selfish man or woman. Against the fear of being controlled for years by the choice to have a child that does not go away one in fact becomes a control freak, and therefore never tastes the pleasure of having original significance in the life of another.

The number of books about raising children and what can go wrong, the many failures in broken families with their lives in fragments also encourage couples in their belief that they will not be good parents. Finally the belief in an already overpopulated world with the problems of wars, disease, hunger and neglect through divorce, held up in continuous examples all around us, encourages the seeming moral high ground of childless relationships. In fact, what we know as modern life can only be maintained by a population that grows through childbirth or migration. Africa is to some extend so poor because there are not enough productive people.

The use of contraception has not only allowed us to limit the increased conception after the Fall, but also gives us the choice to not have children at all.

Family values relate to the relationship we already have. We are families with our parents before we even have children ourselves. What we have received there we continue to give, and what we have given to children they return to their parents at the end of life. There is a continuity with our own children or those we foster or adopt. "Adam calls the woman Eve, for she would become the mother of all the living"(Genesis 3:20), and that in the face of his own advancing death in a fallen world. It is a statement of life against death, of hope against resignation, of creativity against repetition, of effort against fate, of the acceptance of God's grace and wisdom to counter our own fears, shame and frustration.

Potty after Potter

The widespread vocal reaction by many Christians to the enormous popularity of the Harry Potter books astounds me. The story is seen as dangerous to the spiritual well-being of children, the author is accused of introducing magic, Satan worship, spiritism into the lives of our children.

I was very glad that Prof. Jerram Barrs of the Francis A. Schaeffer Institute of Covenant Seminary wanted to write an apology to the author for the mistreatment she has received from Christians. That treatment reminds me of earlier rejections of the C.S.Lewis' Narnia stories, because they also encouraged imagination, where fantasy and talked about a witch.

We had a students with us at one time who would not allow his children to play Mom and Dad, for they were not mothers and fathers. Reality alone was important, not imagination, alternatives in the mind, reasoning to weigh what was right and wrong.

With these reactions I wonder whether and where these Christians have, as the British would say, gone potty, which means slightly crazy. Do they have so little confidence in their children's ability to distinguish between a story and history, between fantasy and reality? Has TV so destroyed that ability, because on the screen the visual image makes everything seem equally real?

Have they no clue about how a poem means? Do they know something about metaphor, idiomatic expressions, parables and other linguistic tools to make us think and not just swallow what we hear or accept what we see?

Would their daughters really go out and kiss the next frog they see, in the hope they might awaken a beautiful prince from a curse? The inability to read and to understand what is being talked about is perhaps a clue to why Christians are so often so gullible. Their world exists only of reality, not of language as well, by which we learn, but also select what it true, false or just imagined. In a divers creation is it a mistake to imagine a unicorn?

The seemingly trivial treatment in our world of demons, witches and superman, of sex, violence and marriage, of Buddha and God, of cheap life and death played out, of religion and religions should call us to attention. But the response should not be a withdrawal from the need to discern into a world of only "Christian" reality. In the life of the church through the ages all kind of strange fantasies, theological positions, moral precepts have made inroads precisely because we did not encourage enough discernment. That discernment comes only when we are willing to imagine alternatives, weigh them, examine them for their reality relation and reasonable place in God's word and creation. Whatever we receive as information, whether supposedly from God or man, needs to be fed through such a grid before being accepted or rejected.

One of the central freedoms of Christianity according to the Bible is the freedom to think and to create. It is more than a freedom even, it is an obligation. For we are not machines. Love to God and man is only possible if it is an integral part of choice. A choice requires an alternative, either real or imagined.

God made us with such choice. He stopped creating for the most part after six days and gave us dominion to continue what he had started, to work with his materials and to create realities which only we could make. Adam and Eve created their relationship, they created their children, they created names for the animals. For this they weighed between some way between alternatives.

It is therefore rather foolish for Christian to assume that everything is a moral question of right and wrong. Or that there is only reality and not also fantasy. In fact there would be no science, art or love and justice without the reality of imagination in the hands of well trained, sensitive and imaginative people.

Christians should relish imagination and be examples of people who distinguish between the foolish, the wrong and the righteous. Then they would see that Harry Potter is the hero in a story, not in a slice of history. And they would not kiss frogs or assume that God personally makes the snow in winter. And they would not join the folks down the road merely because they call themselves a church.

1) The stench from the White House

2) Sovereignty

3) Energy/environment/sovereignty

No God behind God. Sovereignty as final authority, control, and eternal existence: A holy God without challenger, without trouble or arbitrary moral Power. Yet adjustment to circumstances created by creatures.

Ordained whatsoever comes to pass:

Ordained a real creation, real science, and real history. All creation functions lawfully: things according to their template, people according to theirs, both natural template in their machine like form and, being made in the image of God as persons, super-natural. Creation according to the laws of nature, man according to the laws of God by obedience or disobedience.

God is a being, infinite in his characteristics. Not without definition of these characteristics. Any definition is a limitation, setting apart what is from what is merely other, imagined, etc.

Schaeffer's infinite-personal God: Infinite in the measure of his characteristics, personal in his specifics of being a person, not an inclusive being.

The person of God creates a world outside himself: looked at it, judges it as good. Man in God's image has mandate to create, name, and love

4) In the flow, process, etc.

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