Francis X. Clooney: “If we quote a verse out of Genesis or another verse out of the Letter to the Romans without due attention to context, we run the risk of ‘proof texting’: finding a verse in the Bible that justifies what you feel you should do today.”

File photo by Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer

Nation & World

The death penalty and Christianity

long read

A Q&A with Francis X. Clooney examines how both sides in an endless debate seek biblical backing

The botched execution of Oklahoma death row inmate Clayton Lockett in April ignited a national discussion about capital punishment that was followed by fresh debate over the executions of three felons last week in Missouri, Georgia, and Florida.

Christians on both sides of the issue have been weighing in on capital punishment, saying that Scripture supports their position.

R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, has argued that “the Bible clearly calls for capital punishment in the case of intentional murder.” But Christian activist and author Shane Claiborne has countered that the teachings of Jesus provide no support for the death penalty.

To add context and nuance to the conversation, Paul Massari of Harvard Divinity School Communications turned to Francis X. Clooney, Parkman Professor of Divinity and professor of comparative theology and director of the Center for the Study of World Religions at the School.

Clooney questions the reasoning of those who say Christians should support the death penalty, but also suggests that opponents who quote Jesus may not be comfortable with the logical extension of the teachings they cite. Absolute opposition to the death penalty may seem out of touch with a realistic view of the world; tolerance of it may seem far removed from the teachings of Jesus.

HARVARD DIVINITY SCHOOL (HDS): How do you understand the assertion, articulated by Christians like Dr. Mohler, that “God affirmed the death penalty for murder as he made his affirmation of human dignity clear” in the Bible?

CLOONEY: It strikes me as not unexpected, since Christians have often enough argued for such punishments, reconciling them with a view of God’s plan as set out in the Bible. But what Jesus would say is often treated differently. A few years ago, I went to Mass one Sunday at a local parish. The Gospel was the part of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus says, “Turn the other cheek. Do not resist evil.” The homilist said, “The teaching of Jesus is radical nonviolence. But that’s not the teaching of the church, so let me now tell you about the teaching of the church.” He went on for another 20 minutes about just-war theory and the legitimate use of force by the state, and so on. The views of Jesus were not mentioned again.

This is a typical situation. On the one hand there’s Jesus, and we’ll never criticize Jesus. On the other hand there’s the way we do things — and the way most Christians have done things for a long time. It is not surprising that in Christian arguments for the death penalty, Jesus doesn’t really come up at all. Many of us find him too radical for everyday life.

HDS: But are they saying, “This is the way we do things,” or, “The Bible calls for capital punishment in the name of human dignity”?

CLOONEY: Many Christians — Southern Baptists, Protestants, and Catholics, too — will say both. They look at the Bible and say, “Clearly the death penalty can be found in the Bible,” and find guidance there for what the states should do in 2014. Most are not reckless in their calls for capital punishment. Leaders such as Dr. Mohler recognize the continuing need to respect human nature, the possibility of the abuse of government power, the dangers of state-sponsored violence, and the miscarriages of justice that not infrequently have taken place. They’re not saying, “Kill people without hesitation, or because they merely deserve to be killed.”

They’re also saying that the death penalty doesn’t permit individuals or lynch mobs to take the law into their own hands and go out and kill those they think should be killed. They recognize human dignity, but also legitimacy of the death penalty, and they try to make the case that these go together. In this way of thinking, such power is given over to the state, in accord with the theory of the legitimate role of state power, which goes back to the Middle Ages and before.

HDS: So, in this view, capital punishment and respect for human dignity are separate commandments from God, but not necessarily tied to one another?

CLOONEY: They’re interrelated in the sense that they both come from the plan of God. For Dr. Mohler, these commands are not contradictory either. Rather, respect human nature, and, in some rare cases, take the life of fellow human beings, particularly those who kill other humans. It is as if to say, “Because we respect life, we take life.” By this view, neither value replaces the other. They’re not saying, “We kill people because they don’t deserve human respect,” but they also refuse to say, “Respect for human beings means that you can never kill anyone.” Rather, the thinking goes, respect for human life and capital punishment are distinct issues, and a Christian can hold both.

HDS: What about the Biblical passages cited by Christians who support capital punishment? Is there a larger context to these that adds some complexity?

CLOONEY: Passages can be found that sanction putting someone to death, and many a text reports the killing of individuals and groups. But the path from one or another Bible verse to state policy today is very complicated. If we quote a verse out of Genesis or another verse out of the Letter to the Romans without due attention to context, we run the risk of “proof texting”: finding a verse in the Bible that justifies what you feel you should do today. Centuries of modern Biblical scholarship have shown us that these texts don’t float free of their contexts. You have to read them according to the intentions of the author, the options of the time, and so on. Rarely can they be applied without modification to the world in which we live.

Take the Genesis text, where after the great flood God is bringing the world back to life. In that context, God stresses the sacredness of human life, and therefore predicts and warns: “Whoever sheds the blood of a human, by a human shall that person’s blood be shed;for in his own image God made humankind” [Genesis 9:6]. This saying could be taken a number of ways. It could sanction the death penalty, or it could simply remind us that violence leads to more violence. If you kill, your blood will be taken in turn.

Human life is always sacred. By elaborate reasoning, I suppose, it could be taken to justify killing those who kill, and thus to support the death penalty in 21st-century America. But it could more easily be argued as having very little to do with the death penalty in today’s America.

All of this is difficult. It is a problem to take any verse out of context. It is also a problem to think that in 2014 we can apply verses from the Bible directly to the policies of Texas or Oklahoma or the federal government, and thus justify the death penalty. Yet, to be honest, it would also be a problem to end up in a position where no Biblical verse ever provides guidance in 2014. So some balance of verse and context is needed. On the whole, I am not at all convinced that any biblical verses support the modern world’s use of the death penalty.

HDS: Is it ever possible for capital punishment to be applied in a way that makes moral sense?

CLOONEY: Since we live in a world tainted by sin, and since things that aren’t desirable or ideal are still part of what it takes to live in this imperfect world, then hard and realistic compromises are often necessary. Most of us most of the time do not live out the example of Jesus without compromise. Some believe that in a hard and violent world, the death penalty is a necessary evil. On a larger social scale, some Christians defend going to war and killing people either in direct combat or by bombing armies or cities. If we lived in an ideal world, there wouldn’t be any wars, or a death penalty. But the world is not ideal, and so we kill. Such is the logic.

HDS: So is the Christian view to say, “No more war. No more fighting. Conscientious objection. Never the death penalty,” and so on? Or is it to say, “In the world in which we live, let’s talk about the death penalty. What are the rationale and the evidence that the death penalty serves a useful social function?”

CLOONEY: This is exactly what each of us needs to decide. Even if we wish to follow the radical example of Jesus, we still need to use the intelligence God has given us.

Even aside from how we use the Bible in this debate, the death penalty is subject to doubt, and it’s quite possible to give a hard time to its proponents. Is there evidence that it does any good? Isn’t it rather often a matter of revenge? It is supposed to be a matter of warning people: “Don’t do that because you’ll get killed if you do”? But do such warnings work as a deterrent? And what are the collateral effects of trivializing human life by killing people for any reason? Where’s the evidence that the death penalty is applied fairly and that there’s no systemic bias involved?

In the end, I think a lot of people — maybe even a majority of people who think seriously about these issues — would say that the evidence is just not there that the death penalty achieves a good commensurate with the evil of giving the state permission to take life. Accordingly, arguments about all these points are quite common today, of course, and that is for the better. Quoting the Bible or any sacred text does not excuse us from debating the evidence for and against the death penalty.

HDS: So where do you draw the line in the discussion between morality and the real world? For instance, supporters might say that the death penalty would be a deterrent if cases weren’t tied up in court and we executed sentences more efficiently. If that were true, would capital punishment be OK?

CLOONEY: Good point. Certainly one can say, “Neither this nor that is absolute, so we just have to make a prudential judgment based on effectiveness.” Does the state have a right to control handguns, or enforce traffic laws, or to arrest someone who’s robbing a bank, abusing a child, running a corrupt Wall Street firm, or polluting the environment on a massive scale? Of course it does. And of course we have to try to be fair in the application of the law, improving an imperfect system.

In an ideal justice system, the death penalty might conceivably be carried out fairly and without bias. But since our justice system is not ideal, that hope is not very plausible. And so, in today’s society, we still have to debate whether the death penalty serves any good purpose, just as we can debate whether life imprisonment without the possibility of parole serves any legitimate purpose that does anyone any good.

HDS: Death penalty supporters say that the Bible doesn’t say that human life is an absolute value. People get killed in the Bible all the time. Other values have to come in.

CLOONEY: Yes, but we need to be very cautious in then making a list of values that are superior to human life. Moreover, values are interconnected, woven together. In the Catholic Church, for instance, there’s the ideal of the “seamless garment of life.” From conception to a natural death not hastened by poverty or injustice, life is an absolute value that must always be respected. You can’t sacrifice a human life for the sake of another good you have decided to be of greater value. You can’t say that human life is worth respecting only some of the time. If you do, where do you draw the line? Best to say, from conception to old age, all human life is to be respected, protected, and enabled to flourish. Neither abortion nor the death penalty is tolerable; neither is the ruining of lives by systemic poverty and the violence that makes so many suffer their whole lives long. In fact we tolerate many things that demean human flourishing, particularly when others, far away, are affected rather than ourselves. But in our better moments we can hardly condone such callousness.

HDS: Most Biblical citations of Christians who support the death penalty draw from the Old Testament. So where does Jesus come in?

CLOONEY: The worldly view, even among Christians, is that you can’t run society based on the principles of Jesus. If everybody turned the other cheek, then all the “bad” people would win. If everyone gave up his or her wealth, society would collapse. So you need to seek out other references in the Bible.

Opponents to the death penalty are surely right in holding that Jesus wouldn’t allow it. The incidents we see in the Gospels — the woman caught in adultery, for instance — reject killing, and reject the self-righteousness and anger that lead us to kill. Jesus clearly says, “Turn the other cheek.”

If Christian death penalty supporters want to adhere to the Bible, they need to face up to the exemplar of Jesus, too, and not leave him out of the picture when defending the death penalty. Every word of the Bible then needs to be reread in light of the teachings of Jesus.

To be fair, those of us defending the radical nonviolence of Jesus similarly need to read the whole of the Bible as well, not merely ignoring the parts we’d rather not think about.

HDS: Is it a matter of Christianity with Jesus or without Jesus? Every church wants to have Jesus at the center, but also wants to put in other principles, as well as accommodating moral and political issues. But is the example in the Gospels the only one for being a good Christian?

CLOONEY: No Christian will want to promote Christianity without Jesus at its center. A Christianity grounded in the Gospels and thus in the life and death of Jesus will end up being radical Christianity.  It will hold to standards that resist merely coming to terms with any given political situation, catering to the whims of the state and the majority, and so on. But accommodation to political realities will still take place. Think of St. Paul’s “real world” accommodation of cultural conditions, the fact of empire, etc.

HDS: You mention St. Paul. Why do death penalty supporters often cite his writings?

CLOONEY: Paul lived in the Roman Empire and had to make space for the Christian community amidst Roman power. He had to show that Christians were not the enemy of the state, and that Christianity was not opposed to all civil power. And so Paul had to talk about respecting authority, paying taxes, the power that kings have, etc. In his Letter to the Romans, he writes: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God” [Romans 13:1].

The radical alternative would have been to be a fringe group that the Romans would have sought to destroy — and that might well have died out, like many others. The history of how the church came to be amidst the empire is a well-known topic, and many scholars have written on how Christianity learned to live with — and benefit from — imperial power. That’s our history, right down to the death penalty, and there is much to be ashamed of.

And yet, to be fair, even Jesus seems to admit some accommodation. There’s the scene where he’s asked whether or not the Jews should pay the Roman tax, and he says, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” [Matthew 22:21]. He doesn’t say that it’s all God’s, as if Caesar has no power or realm of authority.

But still, there is no direct path from giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s to the death penalty in one or another American state today. Much exegesis and many prudential arguments must occur in between, before we might get anywhere near justifying the death penalty simply because Jesus spoke those words in Matthew 22.

HDS: So, are Christians like Dr. Mohler arguing for a position that is actually “worldly,” but portraying it as wisdom received from God?

CLOONEY: Again, this requires a difficult balance. On the one hand, he’s employing a certain kind of Biblical literalism, where we take the words at face value as assertive of truths that can be directly applied in 2014. God says it’s OK to kill people under certain circumstances, so the states have the authority to execute prisoners now.

Others among us remain very skeptical, and do not believe we honor God’s word by such direct and seemingly simplistic applications.

On the other hand, Dr. Mohler seems to be assuming that the death penalty is justified because it’s good for American society today. But the evidence for that opinion is open to dispute, as I mentioned above. Quoting some passages from the Bible does not end the debate. But in the end, perhaps the burden is still greater for those who oppose the death penalty because it is not in keeping with the teachings and life of Jesus. If we really believe that, then we need to act like Jesus all the time, not just when it is the death penalty that is up for debate.