In the Sept. 27, 2001 issue of the Loquitur, there was commentary regarding the death penalty. Reading both the commentary, and the abbreviated remarks from three students found at the bottom of page 12, compelled me to put in words an angle on the death penalty that wasn’t mentioned in the paper.
The Gospels do chronicle one instance of Jesus confronting the death penalty, in the oft-told but under-appreciated story of the adulteress.
A Jerusalem woman is found cheating on her husband. Per the Law of Moses, she is appropriately dragged beyond the city wall to be stoned to death. The Pharisees spy Jesus nearby, writing in the dirt, and resolve to test him. (This in itself is interesting; as if the priests already know that this rabbi of love will disapprove of the death penalty, thus giving the priests an opportunity to accuse Jesus of subversion.) They approach Jesus and ask what should be done with the woman.
Jesus’ famous answer is simple and anticlimactic. He says, “He who is without sin may cast the first stone.”
The story is taught in Catechism and Sunday schools as an anecdote with an easy message for kids: no one is perfect, therefore we shouldn’t judge anyone. And in the story it works, for the populace, clutching the stones they consciously selected for their part in the execution, their blood-lust surely at its peak, nevertheless feel their consciences pricked. They drop their stones and walk away, probably sulking and disappointed.
But there are deeper ramifications to this story than just a mere “nobody’s perfect” moral. To me, what is most significant about this situation is not what Jesus said, but what he didn’t say.
He did not say that the law was wrong.
He did not give a moral argument against capital punishment.
He did not say that the priests or the people, eager to kill, were behaving sinfully.
He did not say that the woman was innocent, and indeed she was not. The people prepared to kill her were acting according to the law, and were not doing anything wrong.
But by not saying any of the above, I think Jesus in essence said this: “Yes, the woman is guilty. Yes the law says she should be stoned to death. You are right, that is the law. Now forgive her.”
No other story in the Gospel more clearly exemplifies Jesus’ ministry. No miracles, no raising of the dead, not even the Crucifixion, defines by example the high standard of his expectations for us. No other story demonstrates the depth of love he wants us to offer each other. It is all right there, in eleven short verses in John.
And the implications are bigger than anyone wants to deal with. It means that we truly forgive those who transgress against us. It means that Fred Goldman should forgive O.J. Simpson for the murder of his son (regardless of whether you believe Simpson committed the murder or not; the point is, Fred Goldman believes it). It means the victims of the Sept. 11 World Trade Center tragedy should forgive their attackers. It means, incredibly, that the families wounded by Germany’s actions in WWII (and my family is one of these) should forgive not just the German people but Hitler himself. It is almost unthinkable.
Remember that Jesus was not political. He took no sides, nor rallied for any specific cause. Though he was a man who lived every day of his thirty-three years and surely had conversations regarding war, the Roman occupation of Palestine, and the tyrannical reign of Herod, it is important to realize that none of his opinions on these matters make it into the Gospels. Jesus was less interested in stopping an army from exacting bloodshed than he was in teaching each soldier in that army how to reach God.
Jesus never promised that forgiveness is easy, yet it is clear that forgiveness is what he expects from us. The story of the adulteress proves that he would never condone the death penalty. This is so clear, I wonder how so many earnest Christians can still approve of capital punishment. For example, it has always disturbed me that George W. Bush, when Governor of Texas, permitted a notoriously high number of death sentences to go forward, yet on the campaign trail stated that Jesus Christ was his chief role model. I don’t know how he can reconcile such a polarity. I suspect he has never tried.
Every book in the Bible is an exhortation for man to rise above nature. We are better than nature; we are higher than the beasts. But beasts only kill for two reasons: to eat, and in self-defense. No beast kills for revenge. Vengeance, retribution, these are attributes of humankind, and don’t put us at a level equal with beasts but beneath them. The opposite, of course, is forgiveness, which is also alien to beasts, and is the chief attribute that sets us above them. It is the ability to forgive that puts us closest to where Jesus wants us to be.
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