Pope Francis is wrong in asserting the death penalty always violates the Bible’s command not to murder, Southern Baptist ethicist Russell Moore says.
In a Feb. 21 blog post, Moore responded to the pope’s call the same day for a worldwide ban on capital punishment. The president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) took issue with the reasoning used by the leader of the Roman Catholic Church in his abolitionist appeal.
Pope Francis referred to the 10 Commandments in telling tens of thousands of people in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican, “The commandment ‘You shall not kill’ has absolute value and applies to both the innocent and the guilty.” He appealed to “the consciences of those who govern to reach an international consensus to abolish the death penalty,” according to Reuters News Service.
The Bible, however, distinguishes between the innocent and guilty, Moore wrote in his post.
The pope’s argument is not just practical but an across-the-board application to every use of capital punishment, Moore said.
“On that, I believe he is wrong. We may disagree, with good arguments on both sides, about the death penalty. But as we do so, we must not lose the distinction the Bible makes between the innocent and the guilty,” he wrote. “The gospel shows us forgiveness for the guilty through the sin-absorbing atonement of Christ, not through the state’s refusal to carry out temporal justice.”
The Mosaic Law the pope appeals to in calling for the death penalty’s abolition actually “draws a distinction between murder and lawful execution by the state,” Moore said.
Also, capital punishment approved by God predates the Ten Commandments and the rest of the Mosaic Law, Moore wrote. “In the covenant with Noah [in Gen. 9], God forbade murder and simultaneously made provision for the death penalty in some instances. Humanity, created in the image of God, is of such value that to murder is to bear the most awful consequences imaginable, the forfeiture of one’s own life.”
Moore also cited the Catholic Church’s centuries-long defense of “just war” theory in at least some circumstances. “If one believes the state can order the military to kill opposing combatants in war, one does not, by definition, believe that every instance of the state killing is a violation of the commandment not to murder,” he said.
Biblical support for the state’s use of capital punishment continues in the New Testament, Moore said. The apostle Paul refers to the Roman government “bearing the sword” in Romans 13, shortly after he urges Christians not to take vengeance, he wrote.
“Some have argued (unconvincingly, in my view) that this ‘bearing the sword’ is police power, not [the] death penalty,” Moore said. “But police power, if armed with lethal arms, always carries at least the possibility of the death of the evildoer. If that is always and everywhere murder, then it deserves the full sanction of God’s moral judgment.”
Paul does not offer any divine sanction, however, he said.
The understanding that the Bible draws a distinction between murder and the death penalty “does not settle the question of whether we ought to have capital punishment,” Moore acknowledged. “There are, in many places, serious problems with the application of capital punishment.”
These include “racial and economic disparities” in the use of the death penalty in many locations, disparities that exist in other aspects of criminal justice, he said.
“Christians can debate whether a state should declare a moratorium on capital punishment while reforming unjust sentencing practices,” Moore wrote. “Christians can debate whether the death penalty is effective as a deterrent or whether the death penalty is meaningful at all in a world in which legal systems delay for years the application of the penalty. These are prudential debates about how best to order our political systems, not debates about whether every act of state killing is murder and thus immoral and unjust.”
Moore said he agrees with the pope regarding “the value of human life” and his opposition to the “culture of death.”
“He is also right about the church’s responsibility to prisoners, to remember those who are jailed, to minister to them, and to work against policies that violate human dignity or harden criminals in their criminality,” Moore wrote.
The pope issued his call for a ban on capital punishment the day before a Catholic-sponsored international conference opposing the death penalty began in Rome.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tom Strode is the Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press, news service of the Southern Baptist Convention.)