Friday, March 2, 2007

retribution and grace: thoughts on capital punishment...

Here's an excerpt from a paper I recently wrote for my ethics class. If any of you are interested in reading the whole thing, let me know... one more crazy week of papers and finals and this quarter will be done!

Dietrich Bonhoeffer states that the Christian life must be founded upon Christ as the center of our existence. As Bonhoeffer points out, Jesus is somehow miraculously both the presence of God with us, and a fully human being who enters into our sinful nature but is not subsumed by it. In Christ, humanity is “crucified, dead and judged.” But this is not all: the resurrection is the calling forth of a new creation, a “new humanity” that is in Christ. Additionally, Christ, the “God-man,” is present with us now, though not in the same manner as when he walked our planet in an earthly body. Christ is now “in us” and we are his body. What does this mean for Christians? Bonhoeffer’s answer: wherever the Church is, there is Christ.

The life of the Christian does not simply reflect Christ; it is Christ living in us. Inversely, whatever Christ does, the “new humanity” that Christ called into being by his resurrection must be doing. And what does Christ do? Christ brings new life. Christ brings grace, love, and forgiveness. Retributive justice has already been taken care of on the cross. Christ has stood in our place, in “the centre, between… ‘I’ and God.” Humanity, says Bonhoeffer, “has the law, but cannot fulfill it… Christ as the centre means that he is the fulfillment of the law.” The body of Christ, the Church, exists as the new creation resulting from the fulfillment of the law.

How does Christ as the center of our existence change our response to the death penalty? It requires the development of an ethical hermeneutic that adheres to the new life created in Christ’s death and resurrection. Richard Hays centers the Christian ethic on three “focal images” that serve as imperatives for Christian life. They are Community, Cross, and New Creation. He succinctly states that “Jesus’ death on a cross is the paradigm for faithfulness to God in this world.” As such, our actions as Christians should not be given weight based upon their ability to produce a desired result, but by their “correspondence to Jesus’ example.” This ethic involves a community living in stark contrast to the world around them. Instead of demanding retribution, they forgive. Instead of holding onto power, they surrender it. The Christian community operates from a paradigm of grace.

Hays points out that the way of the cross is an overarching theme throughout the New Testament. In Mark, “the way of the cross is simply the way of obedience to the will of God, and discipleship requires following that way regardless of cost or consequences.” In Matthew, we are given a “hermeneutic of mercy.” On two different occasions, Jesus confronts the Pharisees with Hosea 6:6: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” Hays believes mercy is key to understanding Matthew’s ethic. So we must ask, what is more ethical for the Christian, to sacrifice a criminal for the sake of the Law, or to show mercy by commuting a death sentence? As Hays points out, “Jesus practiced [non-violent enemy-love] to his own death, and the Gospel of Matthew presents this teaching as a commandment that is to be obeyed by Jesus’ disciples.”

In John’s Gospel the mandate is love, the kind of love Christ shows in self-sacrificial action. Jesus’ followers are to share that same kind of love with the world. The implications are clear: if we call ourselves followers of Jesus, we must never fail to take seriously Jesus’ own rejection of violent retaliation and his command to love our neighbor and our enemy.

Likewise, for Paul, “Jesus’ death on the cross is an act of loving, self-sacrificial obedience that becomes paradigmatic for the obedience of all who are in Christ.” But, one might argue, we are not Christ! To this Bonhoeffer would quickly respond, “Yes, we are!” We are Christ’s body, and therefore capable of exhibiting the love of Christ. Yes, the passion of Christ is an entirely different kind of event. But it is an example to Christians, a symbol of what we are capable of when Christ lives in us, one that we too often neglect to take seriously.

Paul’s message in Romans is “the voluntary surrender of prerogatives for the sake of the other.” To re-phrase Paul's rhetorical question: “Jesus was willing to die for these people, and you aren’t even willing to commute their death sentences to life in prison without parole?”

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