I was flipping through the radio and heard a broadcast from Vernon McGee on this–I think it was a live sermon, and is recorded here–and McGee, as is his wont, was very hardnosed about it. Indeed he went so far as to say that the death penalty was the underpinning of civilization (or something like that).
He made some decent points about incentives, saying that if the worst thing you can get is life in prison, then it gives a bank robber an incentive to shoot the witnesses, etc. That’s neat, but it applies to *any* capped punishment. E.g. suppose we say, “We will give you the chair, but we don’t torture criminals, because that would be sadistic.” Then someone could take McGee’s logic and show that this is crazy, because now someone with one homicide under his belt has an incentive to kill multiple people. We (allegedly) need to first torture people for one hour per murder victim, and *then* give them the chair, lest we set up faulty incentives…
(So if you see how his point could be ramped up indefinitely, notice that it could be ramped down. Indeed, the argument about incentives is what I’ve used–cribbing from a talk I saw Gary Wolfram give–against the “three strikes” rules. I.e. it was an argument for leniency, not an argument for mercilessness.)
And here we come to the crux of the problem. It is ironic for a born-again Christian to be upholding “law and order,” when the point is that Jesus rescued us from our fate before the Law.
Also, as Joseph Sobran put it (it’s October 21, 2010 in case this link is too generic): “In the end, the government murdered him. This fact ought to count for something in any discussion of temporal power. Maybe capital punishment is still justified, even if mistakes are made now and then and the Son of God is accidentally victimized. But I’d start with that accident.”
Now, what’s even more interesting is that in his sermon, McGee wraps up with the crucifixion. Yet the angle he takes is to condemn the Jewish mob for demanding the freedom of Barabbas, and likens that to today’s whiny liberals demanding that the coddled criminals be freed (rather than executed). That’s very clever, but I don’t think the true Christian lesson from that episode is, “Wow, what idiots, they didn’t nail Barabbas to a cross.” Rather, I think the lesson we’re supposed to draw is, “Wow, what idiots, they chose a murderer over the Son of God who had been healing and teaching them for 3 years.”
McGee is right that the penalty for sin is death. But that hardly means, “Therefore in a just society, murderers should be killed by the civil authorities.” After all, we are all sinners. Yes, a death was demanded, but Jesus already paid that debt on our behalf.
Obviously, Vernon McGee knows these truths–and he taught them more eloquently, and to thousands of people. But clearly the Old Testament verses on the wages of sin do not directly translate into what the civil authorities should do. Jesus explicitly taught mercy, even for an adulteress caught in the act.
(See here for some of my thoughts on Romans 13, which McGee had brought up earlier in his sermon.)
Last thing: I saw someone on Facebook (a strong Christian who is also hardcore libertarian in the Rothbardian tradition) just today mention that we shouldn’t conflate “the death penalty” with the State. And I’m fine with that, just as we shouldn’t conflate “education” with “government schools.” However, as a Christian I would not patronize private judges/defense agencies that sought to punish criminals with death.