How Shall We Then Kill? #2

More people would be alive today if there were a death penalty, or so it's said. No doubt, capital punishment can be a deterrent to crime. But as French existentialist Albert Camus noted,

For centuries the death penalty, often accompanied by barbarous refinements, has been trying to hold crime in check; yet crime persists. Why? Because the instincts that are warring in man are not, as the law claims, constant forces in a state of equilibrium.

The law does not address and cannot balance man's "warring instincts." So while executing murderers may rid society of the truly twisted, it does not "untwist" future societies.

It is partly this internal war in man, or his state in general, that causes me confliction regarding the death penalty.

In the previous post I used the Wayne Adam Ford verdict as a springboard to consider the subject. My final two points touch upon this interior dissonance.

Part of the defense strategy in the Ford case was to highlight the killer's troubled upbringing. This is a typical tactic nowadays, but its effectiveness is debatable and, in many cases, problematic. Most people have had a less than ideal upbringing. Whether it's abuse or abandonment, rage or frigidity, legalism or license, none of us were raised in a perfect home. What's more, we manage to refrain from going psycho. Because of this, I often wonder if the "troubled childhood" invocation elicits skepticism and annoyance rather than empathy.

Nevertheless, I am one of those bleeding hearts that believes a difficult, dysfunctional upbringing can cripple us -- emotionally, spiritually, socially, sexually -- for life. We are damaged goods. And while the roots of evil run deep, the awful fruit takes on a myriad of forms.

I pastored a church for eleven years. No amount of education or training could have prepared me for the depths of brokenness I would encounter in others (and eventually, myself). If you preach to pain, it's said, you'll always have an audience. The truth is our churches are full of dysfunctional, hurting people, some of whom are a tick away from criminal or psychotic behavior. This is representative of our society in general.

I was raised in an alcoholic home. My father was often AWOL and when he was there, he was cold, critical, angry and violent. I was eventually kicked out of the house when I turned eighteen. It took me years to unravel the depths of insecurity and hurt that saddled me and tainted my personality.

Near the end of his life -- the last ten years of which he spent sober and repentant -- my Dad told me about the abuse he underwent as a kid, something he'd refrained from for fifty-plus years. His real father abandoned the family when my Dad was five or six. Enter the stepfather, a cruel man who beat his stepson and left him, for the most part, orphaned. I spoke to a relative once who told the story of the day she found my Dad locked in a closet, squatting in feces, naked and bruised.

Is it any wonder my Dad became a violent alcoholic? But is his awful upbringing any excuse?

You can call this a sob story...but it's my sob story; it's left me intimately scarred and, ultimately, grateful. I cannot excuse my Dad's treatment of his family. But neither can I blow off the damage inflicted upon that lost, little boy.

And somewhere in this there is a balance.

There's no question but that my own history and upbringing informs (perhaps taints is a better word) my perspective. While we can never excuse criminal behavior on the basis of a difficult upbringing, I believe we cannot dismiss or devalue the psychological damage, pain, loss, regret, isolation and utter helplessness that torment some people.

Jesus seemed to address this impressionable, tender pliability in children and spoke some of His harshest words against those who mishandled them:

And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me. But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.

Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to sin! Such things must come, but woe to the man through whom they come! (Matt. 18:5-7 NIV)

In this verse, the millstone is not reserved for the one who sins, but for the one who "causes one of these little ones" to sin. Notice, it's not the sin but the forces or people which propel someone toward sin that Jesus addresses. Somewhere along the way, Wayne Adam Ford was an innocent child, one of these "little ones". What changed him? What "caused" him to sin? Does it matter? Christ appears to suggest it does.

My father's alcoholism tore our family apart. His actions shaped my life, crippled my emotions, reverberate inside me to this day. In many ways, he has caused me to sin. But somewhere behind that facade, underneath his rage, was a "little one" whimpering alone in a dark closet.

People aren't born to be alcoholics, thieves and serial killers. There are processes that get them there. While the law may address the crime it cannot address these processes, these "warring instincts," these spiritual, psychological and sociological forces that make monsters out of men. And without accurate discernment of the forces and compassion for those in their grip, capital punishment should be the last resort.



Kelly Klepfer said...


You have a gift for stating the obvious, disarming the passionate opposing view, and turning it all back to Christ.

Good job. These are thoughts we all need to wrestle with.

As the mother of two girls gut level response is "Nuke Him!" As a follower of Christ - it gets a little trickier.

michael snyder said...

I like what Kelly said...

"You have a gift for stating the obvious, disarming the passionate opposing view, and turning it all back to Christ."


Jeanne Damoff said...

I like what Kelly said as well. And I'm deeply moved by what you said, Mike.

I read this post yesterday and it is still resonating with me. Thank you for your honesty about your past and the scars it left. As you said, "People aren't born to be alcoholics, thieves and serial killers. There are processes that get them there."

Yes. There's always a story. And the mind-boggling truth is there's a Redeemer who can reach all the way to the mired depths, no matter how black the darkness may be. So, how much time should we give Him before we quench the dimly burning wick? Or should we presume to have the right to quench it at all?

Much to think about.

Tim Frankovich said...

Remember in all this musing to make a distinction between "we" as Christians and the government.

As Christians, we are called to forgive. We are called to witness. We are called to love the unlovable.

But the government is ordained to stand in the place of God Himself when it comes to punishing the wicked, not as God the Loving, but as God the Avenger. Romans 13 makes it completely clear what the government's role is to be (one could even argue that it's the only true role given by God TO the government in Scripture).

Can I attempt to love and forgive the person who murders someone I know and love? As an imitator of Christ, it is absolutely required of me to do so!

But at the same time, my government is required by God to punish that person. And "the sword" does not mean therapy.

Mike Duran said...

You're right, Tim. In fact, I made that point, quoting from Romans 13, in part one of this series. This, however, may be the only New Testament verse that actually supports (at least infers) the death penalty.

Can you think of other N.T. Scriptures which call Christians to support capital punishment? I can't.

I agree that we must "make a distinction between we as Christians and the government." In a way, that's exactly what I'm trying to do. As believers, we must both comply with the laws of the land and issue grace and mercy. In fact, it is the balance of a Christian perspective and judicial power that should temper this difficult subject.

In this series, I am not questioning the biblical or social basis for capital punishment, but wondering whether or not Christians bring the proper spirit to the subject. Thanks for the comments, Tim!

Janet Rubin said...

Another thought-provoking post. You haven't changed my opinion (not that you wanted to) that captiol punishment is a fair punishment for murder. I believe it is. But we (Christians) must approach the condemned criminal with love and forgiveness. We are all sinners, capable of evil. When my 7-year-old got caught lying to me last week, she broke down in repentent sobs. I felt badly for her and understood her motive for lying (she was ashamed of something she'd done and was afraid to admit it.) But lying is an abomination to the Lord and trust an important thing in a family, so in love I punished her and forgave her.

Becky said...

Mike, what a great post—authentic and even-handed. Your spirit of compassion runs deep.

You wrote a powerful line, but I think I need to comment: People aren't born to be alcoholics, thieves and serial killers. There are processes that get them there. Aren't we? Aren't we all lovers of the flesh, greedy, haters of others? I think that is exactly what the sin nature gives us all—the nature of an alcoholic, of a thief, and even of a serial killer.

It is for THAT reason that I should forgive, because of the enormity of the debt I own for my own forgiven sin.

BTW, I have a completely separate issue with our current means of arriving at who receives capital punishment, but that doesn't seem to apply in the case you're concerned with.


Mike Duran said...

Thanks for the comments, Becky! You're absolutely right about everyone possessing a sin nature. However, there are many forces that shape/cultivate/contribute to the anatomy of those things in our lives. I'm unsure how much genetics and upbringing determine the outcome, but guess they play a part.

Lisa and I have raised four children (the youngest recently turned 18). Because I had an alcoholic father and have struggled first-hand against similar addictive tendencies, we've gone out of our way to discuss the issue with our kids. I am very frank and open with them about my background. As far as I can tell, none of them are, or are headed toward, drug addiction or alcoholism. No doubt, this is part of God's great grace and mercy. Praise Him! Nevertheless, I'd suggest that had their upbringing been different, that root might be a hideous tree threatening to consume them.

Was Wayne Adam Ford destined to be a serial killer? Would things have turned out differently had his childhood been better? I think so. Of course, he would still be a sinner. He just may have avoided becoming a monster. While we all possess the sin nature, there are very fine forces / circumstances that contribute to its specific cultivation.

Thanks for the great comments, Becky!

Becky said...

Interesting thoughts, Mike.

Of course, you are right. Genetics and our environment affect us. And yet, people become monsters with little provocation. I hate to use the overused, but Hitler is a good example. Every thing I read about him would indicate he had no overriding reason to hate Jews, except what we would consider a minor offense.

Then on the other hand, people who have endured horrific upbringings overcome their past and lead productive, upright lives.

The point is evil is in each of our hearts. Our sovereign God gives us the upbringing of His choosing. And He created us with the genetic make up we live with.

I think, though, we have to face the fact that the root of the problem is sin. That's the evil in our heart. That's what causes person to sin against person, creating a society of violence and greed and lasciviousness. That's even the deterioration of our genetic makeup that predisposes a person toward addictive behavior.

As I see it, that I am under judgment, but for Christ, condemned to die because at heart I am no better than the serial killer, is cause for me to extend mercy to others whose hearts are like my own.

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sheik said...

Seems pretty straight forward, doesn't it? Perhaps one of the clearest laws in all of human history. Four words. No exceptions. Handed down from God, so they say. Published in the world's most famous book. Pretty simple, right? Now, we have the so-called "Christian Right" led by Pat Robertson and a few others. A group of people who claim they are Christians. A group of people who claim to be doing God's work. A group of people who would love nothing more than to see the Ten Commandments in every school, court room, park, and public building. So you think they would have a pretty good understanding of the Ten Commandments, right?

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