The CNN religion blog published on 1 May an article of Al Mohler in which he argues that ‘Christians should support the death penalty’.
On 2 May, Roger Olson responded to what he describes as Mohler’s ‘ambiguous defence of the death penalty’.
This discussion was occasioned by the recent failed execution by lethal injection of a person condemned to the death penalty in Oklahoma.
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Mohler believes that ‘the Bible clearly calls for capital punishment in the case of intentional murder’. His arguments? The direct ones are all from the Old Testament, while the New Testament texts he quotes are very general, and they are, at best, inferrances on the topic under discussion. He also tries to qualify the implications of his conclusions by stating that ‘society is to take every reasonable precaution to ensure that no one is punished unjustly’; which, we know already, from innumerable cases, is an impossible task. There simply cannot exist absolute assurance as to someones’s guilt, which makes mistakes – meaning, state sactioned murder of wrongly accused innocent victims – unavoidable.
Olson also argues that, in order to be consistent, on the basis of the Old Testament we should also support capital punishment for unruly teenagers and for idolaters, which, of course, Mohler would not consider. He also adds that Mohler’s suggestion that a secular state should apply Biblical rules of capital punishment implies theocracy, i.e. a reconstructionist view of social order.
Mohler believes that ‘the Bible envisions a society in which capital punishment for murder is sometimes necessary, but should be exceedingly rare’. And he adds: ‘I believe that Christians should hope, pray and strive for a society in which the death penalty, rightly and rarely applied, would make moral sense’.
Olson legitimately asks Mohler: ‘Why rarely? If murder deserves execution and murder is common, why should execution be “rarely applied”?’ A very good question, indeed, which Mohler’s article does not think to address.
Mohler further suggests that ‘the Bible [meaning, again, just the Old Testament] also affirms that the death penalty, rightly and justly applied, will have a powerful deterrent effect. In a world of violence, the death penalty is understood as a necessary firewall against the spread of further deadly violence’.
This is a common argument among death penalty defenders. Yet, there is absolutely no evidence whatsover that this is more then just wishful thinking. And a very costly one, meaning countless innocent victims wrongly accused and executed.
Finally, Mohler observes that, from a social and racial point of view, in the American society, ‘there is very little chance that a wealthy white murderer will ever be executed. There is a far greater likelihood that a poor African-American murderer will face execution. Why? Because the rich can afford massively expensive legal defense teams that can exhaust the ability of the prosecution to get a death penalty sentence. This is an outrage, and no Christian can support such a disparity. As the Bible warns, the rich must not be able to buy justice on their own terms’.
This sounds as a very noble concern, but Mohler does not go beyond pointing it out. The reality Mohler describes is, of course, outrageous, but it is obvious that he has no solution to it. No surprise, then, that Olson ignores it altogeter.
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Personal conclusion: It will come as no surprise to the readers of this blog that, for me, Olson really makes more sense, and Mohler rambles in his typical fundamentalist fashion. His positions seems rooted either in a nostalgia of Christendom, if not, worse, in a hidden reconstructionist worldview. Both of them are no solutions at all for the problem discussed here and really dead ends for an engagement with contemporary culture and society on any other matter.
Roger E Olson is Foy Valentine Professor of Christian Theology of Ethics at George W. Truett Theological Seminary of Baylor University. He is an Arminian Baptist.
R. Albert Mohler Jr. is president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is a neo-reformed Baptist.