Sunday, July 07, 2013

Evil Jesus

I'm going to comment on two posts by Arminian theologian Roger Olson:

I believe Christian churches of all kinds ought to do more to oppose capital punishment. They ought, at the very least, to declare it incompatible with Christian faith and put members who openly believe in it under some kind of discipline (not necessarily excommunication but at least forbidding them to teach it in the ecclesial context). And those who practice it, actively seeking it and participating in it, should be excommunicated from Christian churches. It ought to be a matter of status confessionis—as apartheid was declared by the World Alliance of Reformed Churches which helped lead to its downfall in South Africa.

I have a better idea: why don't Arminians hold a big pow wow and declare Roger Olson persona non grata? 

It is my considered opinion that belief that capital punishment, at least as it is known and practiced in the U.S. today, is a heresy when espoused by Christians. It manifests an embrace of the myth of redemptive violence by humans and flies in the face of the ethic of Jesus which forbids violent retribution. It is absolutely, incontrovertibly contrary to love. And it is, as practiced in the U.S. today, manifestly unjust.

i) To call it the "myth of redemptive violence" is just a question-begging label. 

ii) Why must capital punishment be "redemptive" rather than punitive? 

iii) Jesus doesn't forbid criminal punishment; rather, he forbids personal vengeance. A murderer is not usually my enemy. Most murder victims are perfect strangers to me. 

iv) So what if capital punishment is unloving? Love and justice are not interchangeable. Love is not the only moral duty. 

As you know, I am very much attracted to Yoder's Christian ethic. The only place where I am almost certain we disagree is about just war. I think a war might be just, but I would say even a just war is at best a necessary evil.

How is capital punishment "incontrovertibly contrary to love," but just war is not? 

The state of Texas recently executed its 500th person since capital punishment was restored by the Supreme Court in 1976. That’s more than all other states combined. 

i) That's true by default. Nothing prevents other states from vigorous capital punishment.

ii) Texas is the second most populous state in the union. In addition, many states don't practice capital punishment. So Olson's comparison is sloppy. 

The 500th executed person was a black woman. Not many women go to the death chamber in Texas or elsewhere, but many African-Americans do. Studies have shown that African-Americans are more likely to receive the death penalty than Caucasians—especially when the decision (or recommendation) is made by a jury rather than a judge.

i) Women are less likely to be executed in part because women are less likely to commit murder. In addition, juries often have a double standard for female killers. 

ii) Blacks disproportionately receive the death penalty because blacks disproportionately commit murder.

iii) I believe most black crime is black-on-black crime. So why is Olson denying justice to the black victims of murder? 

iv) I'm guessing that Caucasians with MBAs are more likely to commit white collar crimes than blue-collar workers. Does that mean Scott Sullivan, Ivan Boesky, Bernie Ebbers, Bernie Madoff, Michael Milken, Jon Corzine, and Ken Lay (to name a few) are victims of racial discrimination? 

Now I know that someone out there is already thinking: “Yes, almost, but it has never actually happened. There are checks and balances to keep innocent people from being executed.” I simply don’t believe they are sufficient to guarantee it. 
Our justice system is not foolproof which is one reason why capital punishment is wrong; judges and juries can never know with absolutely certainty that an accused person is guilty—even if they confess. (Many confessions are made under extreme duress.)

Why does Olson assume capital punishment is wrong unless we can eliminate the risk of convicting the innocent? Is vaccination wrong unless we can eliminate the risk of fatal reactions? Is driving wrong unless we can eliminate the risk of vehicular homicide? 

But there are many other reasons capital punishment is unjust. I have explained them here before. In brief they are: (from a Christian point of view) that it takes away a person’s time to repent and believe or to witness to other inmates, leading them to repentance and faith.

i) A death row inmate has ample time and incentive to make himself right with his Creator.

ii) The duty of the state is to exact justice, not mercy. Clemency for the killer is unjust to the victim and survivors.

...and (from a secular point of view) it offers no real deterrent to crime.

How does Roger Olson know that capital punishment lacks deterrent value? The very fact that we distinguish between white collar and blue collar crime is evidence that penalties have a demographic deterrent effect. If, given your socioeconomic status, you have more to lose by committing a crime of violence, the penalty is a deterrent. 

 …and costs the government more than incarceration for life.

It's because of death-penalty opponents like Olson that the appellate process is so glacial and costly. 

 Also, from just a humane point of view, it is extremely damaging to the families of those executed.

Justice delayed is extremely damaging to the families of murder victims. 

 ...and is barbaric for a supposedly civilized society such as we claim to be (no country we like to compare ourselves with in terms of social development practices capital punishment).

Like giving the mass murderer Behring Breivik a minimum 10-year sentence is a posh containment facility. 

I can just hear someone mocking my question above “Would Jesus do it?” Would Jesus push down the plunger to begin the flow of deadly chemicals to kill a condemned man or woman? Sure, sound arguments can be made that there are things we must do that Jesus would not do. “What would Jesus do?” is a simplistic principle for ethical guidance. But it’s a place to start.
I am not an Old Testament Christian; I'm a Jesus person. I cannot reconcile Christians believing in capital punishment with the Sermon on the Mount.

i) According to NT Christology, Jesus is Yahweh. Therefore, whatever Yahweh said or did, Jesus said or did. 

ii) Jesus is also the eschatological judge, who sentences the damned to hell. Yet damnation is worse than execution (Mt 10:28). 

As a long time reader and former student of mine, I'm sure you won't be surprised by my response. God is God; we are not. God gives and takes away; we are not permitted to take life in every way that God may take life. 

Notice Olson's about-face. First he says we should take Jesus as our frame of reference. He's our example. Then, when his bluff is called, he suddenly retracts that.

Also, I see a great discontinuity between God's establishments of laws for Israel and Jesus' teachings about what his followers are to do.

Capital punishment antedates the Mosaic code. 

When was the last time a person sentenced to life without the possibility of parole escaped and murdered someone? I haven't heard of it in America recently. 

Try Ted Bundy.

But you don't have to escape prison to be a repeat offender. Liberals who oppose capital punishment often oppose life imprisonment. You can't trust the judicial system to keep its word.

There can be little doubt that the Old Testament represents God as commanding Israel to practice ethnic cleansing—including the slaughter of non-combatant women and children. (And it won’t do to argue that it wasn’t true “ethnic cleansing” because it was limited to a certain time and place. 

It wasn't "ethnic cleansing." It was pagan cleansing or geographical cleansing.  

And yet, the vast majority of contemporary Christians would consider ethnic cleansing absolutely wrong and Christian support for it and participation in it heresy.

Is Olson saying the OT is heretical? 

The belief that holy war with ethnic cleansing (to be very specific with this case study) is always unequivocally evil must be based on a hermeneutic that bypasses and supercedes the Old Testament Pentateuch and historical books.

If it's "always unequivocally evil," then is Olson saying the OT commands were unequivocally evil?  


  1. Olson said...

    I am not an Old Testament Christian; I'm a Jesus person. I cannot reconcile Christians believing in capital punishment with the Sermon on the Mount.

    According to Matthew 15:4 and Mark 7:10, Jesus acknowledged the justice of the OT command to execute a son or daughter who knowingly curses his/her parent(s) (Exo. 21:17; Lev. 20:9).

    Jesus said:

    For God commanded, 'Honor your father and your mother,' and, 'He who speaks evil of father or mother, let him be put to death.'- Matt. 15:4 (WEB)

    Paul believed the same thing:

    Who knowing the judgment of God, that they which commit such things are worthy of death, not only do the same, but have pleasure in them that do them.- Rom. 1:32 (KJV)

  2. Steve said:
    I have a better idea: why don't Arminians hold a big pow wow and declare Roger Olson persona non grata?

    But of course they can't do that, because then it would show that they are actually Arminians instead of just anti-Calvinists.

  3. A denial of the death penalty is a denial of justice.

    "Try Ted Bundy"

    For a Canadian example, look up Allan Legere, the "Monster of Mirimichi." It's not pretty and would never have happened if he had received the death penalty like he should have.

  4. The more I read of Olson, the more he sounds like a crypto-Marcionite.

    It's scary just how many professing followers of Jesus claim to love Him with one breath yet seem to loathe Yahweh in the next.

    I guess having a joined-up theology just isn't important anymore...

  5. Not sure "crypto-Marcionite" is strong enough.

    Olson has figured out that you can't trust the bible and still deny Calvinism. So he refuses to trust any part of scripture that offends his personal preferences. If the NT describes Jesus as Lord of the Storm, Olson would hedge that it cannot be true as storms continue to cause people to suffer.

    Olson is not a Jesus person, but he would consent to accept Jesus to the extent that He is an Olson person.