Most people in our society do not personally know any murderers. We have a "connection" to killers only through the news media. Likewise, most people have no close ties to murder victims or their families. It always happens to someone else.
As a result, we do not spend a lot of time thinking about the proper punishment for murder. Now state lawmakers have proposed an advisory referendum that brings the issue home.
What type of arguments or logic can we bring to our consideration of this issue? Where can we turn to for guidance?
Many people look to the religious community - which is, of course, divided in its opinion on the death penalty. So a person seeking help from this community must go beyond the personalities, back to the foundation of their faith: the Word of God.
What does the Bible say about the death penalty? The dialogue between the Jews, Pontius Pilate and the Lord Jesus Christ, is illuminating.
"The Jews answered him, ‘We have a law, and by our law he ought to die, because he made himself the Son of God....' Then saith Pilate unto him, Speakest thou not unto me? knowest thou not that I have power to crucify thee, and have power to release thee?
Jesus answered, Thou couldest have no power at all against me, except it were given thee from above" (John 19:7, 10-11).
Jesus, at the trial before his crucifixion, does not say Pilate lacks authority to use the death penalty. Rather, he affirms that this authority, even to a non-Christian government like the one in Rome, was given from above, by God.
When did God authorize man to use the death penalty? Shortly after the cataclysmic worldwide flood, God made a covenant with Noah: "And surely your blood of your lives will I require...at the hand of every man's brother will I require the life of man. Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man" (Genesis 9:5-6).
Notice that God is not trying to rehabilitate the one who kills, but is requiring an equal punishment for the crime. The reason given for this is that man is created in the image of God.
When the Ten Commandments were given to Moses, God declared, "He that smiteth a man, so that he die, shall be surely put to death" (Exodus 21:12). Second, He clarified its use, saying, "At the mouth of two witnesses, or three witnesses, shall he that is worthy of death be put to death; but at the mouth of one witness he shall not be put to death" (Deuteronomy 17:6).
The DNA requirement in Wisconsin's advisory referendum could be one of these witnesses, while other collaborating witnesses would be necessary. Additionally, God cleared the executioner of all guilt, saying that when "the revenger of blood kill the slayer, he shall not be guilty of blood" (Numbers 35:27).
Some argue that these are Old Testament principles that Christ reversed in the New Testament. But Jesus' own words, quoted above, disprove such a statement.
Also we find the Apostle Paul acknowledging that some offenses are worthy of the death penalty: "For if I be an offender, or have committed any thing worthy of death, I refuse not to die" (Acts 25:11).
People like to argue for or against the death penalty on the basis of deterrence. Does its use keep others from committing criminal acts? If it is true that capital punishment does not deter crime, the Bible also helps us understand why. Solomon wrote, "Because sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil" (Ecclesiastes 8:11).
The Christian faith is based on the Bible, not men's opinions. People grappling with this issue should examine what the Bible has to say, in the context of punishment. Of course, God is loving, and verses about His love far exceed those on punishment, but He is also a true, holy and just God. Finally, remember: "Thou through thy commandments hast made me wiser" (Psalm 119:98).
Mike Mayhak is pastor of Faith Baptist Church on Madison's north side.