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Punishment? A Capital Idea! May 11, 2006

Posted by TimTheFoolMan in death, Morality, Politics, Religion.

Elsewhere, I’ve described some of my core beliefs, and been asked to explain an apparent contradiction:

Question: How do you reconcile supporting the death penalty with “Thou shalt not kill”?

Instead of leaving my rambling answer into the comment, I’ve created a new entry.

Gee Sis… What’s an Exegesis?
Holding the validity of the Bible and also supporting the death penalty is actually pretty straightforward, and is bound up in OT exegesis and the translation of OT Hebrew into English. However, the concept of prooftexting comes into play as well.

First and foremost, if you look at the whole of the “Mosaic Law,” you have not just ten rules, but a whole array of rules, explanations, and clarifications. For instance, Exodus 21:12-14 specifies that someone who murders someone else (takes their life intentionally) should be put to death. (There are any number of other offenses that get you to the chopping block, but you get the idea.)

A more accurate translation of “kill” as it’s generally rendered in Exodus 20:13 is “You should not murder.” Taken in that context, involuntary manslaughter, times of war, and even the execution (so to speak) of the death penalty does not earn fatal punishment. The implication from the text is not one of deterrence, but a methodology to protect the rest of society.

Killing Time in Prison
Life imprisonment, ultimately, has a similar effect to capital punishment, with the caveat that it’s somewhat reversible. You can’t give back to an innocent man/woman the years they were incarcerated, but you can allow them to live the rest of your life.

Interestingly, the few arguments against capital punishment from OT scholars that I’ve heard are along the lines of the paragraph above. If there is any possibility of having the wrong person, any doubt, then prison is a suitable “death.” In fact, some of the subsequent verses in Exodus 21 actually say, “if someone does such and such, take him from my altar, so he may die.” This can translate as “cast him [or her] out, apart from society and civilized people.”

Text, Text, Text… tsk, tsk tsk
Finally, there’s the oft-quoted “a pretext without a context is a prooftext,” which is an odd way of saying “if you grab something from Hamlet, War & Peace, the Bible, or any large document and read a few words in isolation, you can probably make it say whatever you want it to.” This was the way the Ku Klux Klan (noted Bible scholars… NOT) used scripture to validate their behavior.

Sadly, it’s also the way many, many, many people justify all sorts of other things, from abortion clinic bombings to excluding women from positions of service and responsibility in the local church. Start with a pretext, find a verse, and ignore everything else around it (or at least anything else that may call it into question..

Instant theology… just add water. Just don’t do any historical or contextual research or critical analysis of the text. That just makes things too stinkin’ complicated, and may upset my held-these-beliefs-all-my-life-and-I-ain’t-stoppin’-now theology.


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