Presentism and the Death Penalty According to Stassen & Gushee’s “Kingdom Ethics”

The following is an excerpt from Stassen & Gushee’s Kingdom Ethics (2003; pp. 199-202):

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Those who favor the death penalty and argue for it biblically often take as their key passage not Jesus’ teaching but Genesis 9:6: “Whoever sheds the blood of a human, by a human (shall or will) that person’s blood be shed” (e.g., House, “In Favor of the Death Penalty,” 39-47; Murray in Clark and Rakestraw, Readings in Christian Ethics, 2:457-58; Vellenga in Stassen, Capital Punishment, 132). They take this verse to be a legal command, part of God’s covenant with Noah and obligatory on all humankind. Because it is pre-Mosaic rather than a part of Jewish law, they argue, it is universally applicable and not limited to Israel. They avoid advocating what, interpreted as universal law, this passage would teach—that all killers, including accidental, manslaughter, defensive killing, killing with mitigating factors, or killing in war, must be put to death. Instead they advocate only what would correspond roughly with legal practice in the United States. Thus, it is fair to conclude that U.S. secular practice shapes their biblical interpretation, consciously or not.

They then let their interpretation of this passage govern how they interpret the rest of the Bible. They usually overlook the examples of murderers whom God did not want killed, like Cain, who murdered his own brother out of pre-meditated jealously. Found out, he cried, “I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and anyone who meets me may kill me.’ Then the Lord Said to him, ‘Not so!’…And the Lord put a mark on Cain, so that no one who came upon him would kill him” (Gen 4:14-15). Similarly, Moses was seen in the act of murder and instead of receiving the death penalty was chosen by God to deliver his people from slavery (Ex 2:11-3:12).

David committed adultery with the beautiful Bathsheba and then and Bathsheba’s husband killed, thus twice deserving the death penalty, according to the Mosaic law. Nathan the prophet confronted him, saying, “You have smitten Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and have taken his wife to be your wife.” At this David confessed his sin, “and Nathan said to David, ‘The Lord has put away your sin; you shall not die” (2 Sam 12:9, 13 RSV). Accused of adultery, Tamar admitted she had committed adultery with her father-in-law , an act specifically requiring the death penalty. She was allowed to live, and her adultery produced an ancestor of David and Jesus (Gen 38; Mt. 1:3; Lk 3:33). The book of Hosea tells how Gomer committed adultery repeatedly, and Hosea, not without great pain, forgave her, welcoming her back into their covenant relationship. In this forgiveness Hosea saw a picture of God’s willingness to forgive his people of their “whoring” after other gods.

These interpreters also tend to bypass the fact that the first five books of the Bible also command the death penalty for owning an animal that kills people (Ex 21:29) […]. Proponents of the death penalty either overlook these other crimes that require the death penalty or say that “Jesus freed believers from the judicial authority of the Law” (House, “In Favor of the Death Penalty,” 60). But Jesus apparently did not free believers from the law of Genesis 9:6. They say Genesis 9:6 is a covenant with Noah, father of all who survived the flood, and so does apply to all; or is based on our being made in the image of God and so differs from all the other Old Testament Law.

Genesis 9:6 also dominates their interpretation of Jesus. In three ways they teach that Jesus added nothing to the conclusion they have reached from Genesis 9:6. (1) Jesus “said nothing specific about the death penalty; “Capita; punishment never became an issue for Jesus”. (2) Jesus “centers on personal responses…the attitude more than the act”. (3) His teachings were not “directed to the governmental authorities of his day”.

House draws a threefold conclusion: Jesus (a) “accepted it [the death penalty] (b) as a valid exercise of governmental authority and (c) a proper part of the Mosaic Code.” This conclusion that Jesus accepted the death penalty is drawn by the same author who two pages previously said Jesus said nothing specific about the death penalty. The conclusion that Jesus accepted it “as a valid exercise of governmental authority” is drawn by the same author who one page earlier said Jesus did not direct his teachings to governmental authority. The conclusion that Jesus affirmed the Mosaic Code is drawn by the same author who three pages earlier said Jesus freed believers from the Mosaic Code. What might appear triply contradictory is explained by House’s commitment to maintaining that Genesis 9:6 as the universally valid law for present-day practice by governments. Therefore he fences Jesus off from saying anything that might suggest a different insight or interpretation of Genesis 9:6. And then he runs Jesus into confirming Genesis 9:6 as a law for governments. Jesus is not allowed to say anything that could differ from his interpretation of Genesis 9:6 but is allowed to confirm that interpretation.

It is striking how different this is from the approach we are taking. The method of Hose and others systematically avoids learning anything positive from Jesus and instead takes genesis 9:6 as the dominant authority. Thus Velenga establishes the Old Testament’s teaching on the basis of Genesis 9:6 and the law of retaliation passages in the Old Testament, and then states the New Testament adds nothing new: “The teachings of the New Testament are in harmony with the Old Testament.” And Jesus’ teachings “did not meddle with laws,” did not say “that laws should be changed” and “were not propaganda to change jurisprudence.” “Rather, the whole trend is that the church leave matter of justice and law enforcement to the government in power…. Natural law and order must prevail.” Thus in two ways Vellenga fences Jesus off from saying anything new about the subject, and says that Christians must instead let the secular government in power set our standards.