The issue of capital punishment is not debated in Australia with anywhere near the same intensity as it is in the United States. Ben Witherington has recently posted a very good article, Why Capital Punishment is not such a Capital and Christian Idea. He comments:
“Jesus did not care just about the sacred worth of unborn life, or young and vulnerable life, though about the latter he indeed said things like ‘theirs is the Kingdom of God’, and he gave stern warning to those who cause the least, last, and lost to stumble. No, Jesus died for adult sinners as well. He died for hated Samaritans as well. He died for hated Romans as well. We could go on. He died for every age and stage of human life, because all of it was seen as of sacred worth and all of it needed atonement.
Jesus did not tell his disciples, pick up your swords and follow me, he said pick up your crosses and follow me. And when in extremis two desperate disciples at the Last Supper said ‘we have two swords, we are ready to rumble’ Jesus’ response was ‘enough of this!’. Sadly they had not gotten the point after lo those many months of his teaching them the ethic of non-violence and forgiveness. And when one of them actually used a sword to try and prevent his capture, Jesus not only stopped such action dead in its tracks, he paused to heal the wounded servant, on his way to execution. Who lopped off the slave’s ear? The very person who asked Jesus about forgiveness…
Jesus wanted no violence at all done in his name. It is not merely an irony, it is a disgrace that Christians later thought Jesus might endorse a Crusade or two. Those were some of the most shameful things ever done in the name of Christ, but of course, we could name much more recent examples from the Holocaust or the dark days of Apartheid in South Africa.
Christians still have a capacity for deafness when it comes to Jesus’ life ethic. Jesus you see was totally pro-life—- not just pro birth, pro life. And above all, he believed that justice, if we are talking life and death here, should be left in the hands of God. The Biblical message is clear— ‘vengeance is mine says the Lord, I will repay’.
Too often we forget that when John of Patmos heard the martyred saints under the altar cry out ‘How long O Lord’? they were reminded that only one person is worthy of unsealing the seals and judging the world, only one person knows enough, cares enough, is fair enough, is compassionate enough, is just enough, is holy enough, to judge the world when it comes to beginning or ending life— the Lamb upon the throne depicted in Rev. 5— only he is worthy of unsealing those seals. We are simply not good enough, not holy enough, not wise enough, not just enough to do it right. We just aren’t.”
We are so used to violence and wanting to exercise judgment ourselves, the radical call of Jesus is a jarring one.