Saturday, June 11

Preaching State Violence

This is part 6 of terrette's death penalty discussion.
terrette: I have read the Kerby Anderson piece and I would find it very difficult to discuss it as if it were a serious contribution to the topic of the death penalty. There is simply too much fluff, too many self-defeating contradictions, and too many outrageous claims in it for me to be able to approach the piece with the sort of care and attention I like to give to others' texts. So as not to appear dogmatic, dismissive and baseless in saying this, I will discuss at least one example of specious nonsense from Mr. Anderson. If I wanted to address all the specious nonsense in his piece, I would have to write a book-length study, and, as you can imagine, I have more important things to do now than to exert myself in this way.

However, before I discuss a single example of patent nonsense from Mr. Anderson, I need to ask how you position yourself with respect to Anderson’s piece as a whole. Your contenting yourself with pasting onto your message a few of Anderson’s statements showed, at the very least, a lack of generosity on your part (toward Anderson, but also toward me). It also now forces me to begin by asking you some elementary questions. You said that you have read Anderson’s piece carefully and that it "made the most sense" to you; and, so, without further clarification from you, I will have to assume that you wholly accept Anderson's:

i) transcendental monarchical politics and, specifically, the claim (which Anderson bases on a passage from Paul to the Romans in which Paul praises Roman government (13:1-7)) that government officials anywhere and everywhere are not so much voted into office and therefore accountable to voters as they are ordained by God and thus worthy of citizens’ unquestioned obedience (“…human government is ordained by God…”);

ii) fascist insistence, worthy of one of Hitler’s youth, on a principle of the government’s infallible use of violence (“We are to obey government for we are taught that government does not bear the sword in vain”/ “…we are to obey human government that bears the sword”);

iii) implicit but unmistakable call for the government’s widespread and frequent use of the death penalty ("So the increase in the crime rate [Anderson wrote his piece in 1992, before years of steady decline in all types of crime in the United States] is most likely due to many other factors and cannot be correlated with a death penalty that has been implemented sparingly and sporadically");

iv) refusal to recognize religion and politics as being of two essentially different orders and consequential desire for government (at any period of history, including that of the present-day United States) to be founded not so much on a democratically-supported constitution as on "moral principles," where this means a non-ceremonial "Old Testament law code" ("There is and should be a relationship between Old Testament laws and modern laws. We may no longer be subject to Old Testament ceremonial law, but that does not invalidate God’s moral principles set down in the Old Testament. Murder is still wrong [does anyone argue the contrary?]. Thus, since murder is wrong, the penalty for murder must still be implemented" [but the whole point of the discussion is to argue what the penalty should be, and why or why not it should be the destruction of a person's body. If Anderson is simply saying here that good government should not legalize murder, then I myself share his views; to the degree, however, that he believes that government is or should be an extension of a priesthood or Christian ministry that consistently creates policy on the basis of reductive, literalist readings of the Old Testament, then I cannot follow him].

v) simplistic and fantastical readings of the Bible, in which Anderson swiftly appeals to “the context” (as if there could only ever be a single context for a given passage) in order to reverse sensible readings, and refuses to take into account the many different registers of Biblical discourse, including, most importantly, the spiritual and/or prophetic import of certain books;

vi) wild speculation designed to feed and comfort fear-mongering (“…if the death penalty is used in a consistent way, it may deter as many as eight murders for every execution carried out”).

To Anderson’s credit, I can say that I sympathize with his desire to make two types of arguments. The first is that the complaints about the discriminatory use of capital punishment do not address what is wrong with capital punishment in principle; the second, that the claim that the government is committing “murder” by destroying the bodies of convicted murderers is not a sound one. Indeed, you will find in our recent correspondence evidence that I do not criticize capital punishment solely on the basis of its discriminatory implementation, nor confound “killing” and “murder” (though you have, possibly on the model of Anderson, argued on two occasions for the importance of this distinction, as if I had myself denied it or diminished it).

Let's now turn to the all-important "New Testament Principles" that Mr. Anderson dedicates a few lines to. This should be an important section to our discussion, because I have asked you to explain how it is that the teachings of Jesus Christ can be enlisted as support for what today we call capital punishment. So, how does Anderson’s piece, which you say “makes the most sense” to you, respond to this question? First, note that Anderson argues that such a question is not exactly relevant or necessary, since the idea that "murder is wrong" can be found already in Genesis 9:6 (as if that idea alone were sufficient to justify the death penalty!). In other words, Anderson argues that, strictly speaking, the rest of the Bible is unnecessary for our finding Biblical support for capital punishment. Nonetheless, despite Mr. Anderson's repeatedly arguing that the essence of what the Bible has to offer in support of capital punishment precedes even Old Testament theocracy, the fourth paragraph of this section takes on the daunting task of arguing that Jesus did not "set aside" "capital punishment." (Throughout this article, "capital punishment" is used with clumsy anachronism and a mindless conflating of religious and political orders and concepts. To speak with a minimal amount of seriousness about "capital punishment" and the Bible, one would have to ask where the juridical notion of "capital punishment" comes from and what its history is and not merely assume that the same notion is everywhere present, albeit in different language, in sacred scripture.) How does Mr. Anderson achieve such an ambitious goal of portraying Jesus as a supporter of "capital punishment" and so keep Jesus from contradicting a present-day political agenda based on a so-called creation-order principle? Let's read (I’ll underscore where necessary):

Some have said that Jesus set aside capital punishment in John 8 when He did not call for the woman caught in adultery to be stoned. But remember the context. The Pharisees were trying to trap Jesus between the Roman law and the Mosaic law. If He said that they should stone her, He would break the Roman law. If He refused to allow them to stone her, He would break the Mosaic law (Lev. 20:10; Deut. 22:22). Jesus' answer avoided the conflict: He said that he who was without sin should cast the first stone. Since He did teach that a stone be thrown (John 8:7), this is not an abolition of the death penalty.
Do you have a Bible at your house, or can you find one in the local library? If so, read, will you, John 8:7 and tell me: do you agree with Anderson that Jesus is here teaching “that a stone be thrown” and that, moreover, by implication, not only does Jesus not offer an “abolition” (what an incredible word here!) of the death penalty, he clearly opens the door for its support and prescription? Is it reasonable, especially for someone like Anderson who finds such self-empowerment in a recourse to “the context,” to chop off half of what Jesus says in John 8:7, namely, his call that a stone be thrown only by one who is without sin, in order to flatten the entire teaching of forgiveness and moderation into a call for violence? Anderson: “Since He did teach that a stone be thrown (John 8:7), this is not an abolition of the death penalty.” Can you read such a statement without cringing at its patent reductionism? Can you take comfort in its obvious attempt to falsify the text? If I myself may be allowed to appeal to “the context,” I would find it worth mentioning that, four verses later, in John 8: 11, John concludes his narrative of this incident by writing that Jesus himself said: “Neither do I condemn you.” So, does Jesus show himself to be a “death penalty” advocate here? Please tell me how!

But I need to comment, as promised, on your use of this piece. First of all, it is a little embarrassing for both of us, I think, that you gullibly incorporated elements of Anderson’s commentary on the topic you and I agreed to discuss and did so, moreover, without addressing its radical fundamentalism (the likes of which only that of an Osama bin Laden could rival) and without—I see this as a minimal requirement of responsible reading—stating how you position yourself with respect to it (what you accept and what you do not accept, in general—see my example above, if you need a model). One consequence of your slavish appeal to Anderson is that, in mimicking his language, you repeated its vagueness and thus brought into our discussion a whole host of problematic assumptions that neither you nor Anderson has justified. What do I mean by this? Let’s look at the part of Anderson’s piece that you reactivated for your own purposes:

Here is the passage you quoted from Anderson in an apparent show of unqualified support:

Within this Old Testament theocracy, capital punishment was extended beyond murder to cover various offenses. While the death penalty for these offenses was limited to this particular dispensation of revelation, notice that the principle in Genesis 9:6 is not tied to the theocracy. Instead, the principle of Lex Talionis (a life for a life) is tied to the creation order. Capital punishment is warranted due to the sanctity of life. Even before we turn to the New Testament, we find this universally binding principle that precedes the Old Testament law code.
You then asked me: “What did you think?” Well, I think that this is a highly simplistic and vague series of statements. (It is also my hunch, but only a hunch, that these statements are most likely motivated by a narrow agenda of radical right politics including things like increasing the military budget in the United States and resisting universal health care and a living wage for US citizens, but that is another matter that we can discuss another day.)

First, it is improper and anachronistic to speak of “capital punishment” within Old Testament theocracy. The advantage of this improper use, of course, is that it allows Anderson to treat the Book of Genesis as if it were a document to be read not only from a purely modern vantage point, but from a purely political vantage point; that is, it allows him to read the Book of Genesis as if it offered a code of law on par with—to be classed and consulted alongside—any other contemporary law code in a court of law. (In this respect, it is much like the attempt on the part of orthodox Muslims in certain parts of the world, such as northern Nigeria, to erect religious states in which the Koran becomes the law of the land in all matters.)

Second, Anderson employs a term of relation—“is tied to”—in a similarly vague way that you employ the expression “based on.” To say that the principle of “a life for a life” is tied to the creation order means what? Are we supposed to allow Anderson to get away with making the entire Bible seem to fall in line with this one passage from Genesis, to be “tied to” it, once the passage has been distorted into a modern code of state and/or federal law? To make the New Testament so collapse, one would have at the least to rewrite the entire Mount of Olives episode so as to make it appear that Jesus in fact, however surreptitiously, opts for the Law of Moses (but then this would have brought the adulterous woman to a swift, violent end at the hands of the bystanders, scribes and Pharisees). As we saw, this is, indeed, what Anderson tries to do, and he does this in clear contradiction of the event, its outcome, and its spiritual significance. He turns the Mount of Olives episode into an apology for the Old Testament law and, by extension, for retributive justice in the form of summary, mob violence.

Let us, therefore, reread the Old Testament passage in question. Genesis 9:6: “Whoever spills the blood of man, his blood will be spilled by man, because in the image of God, God has made man.”

(Let me note, in passing, and as another contextual reminder, that in the verses that follow, Moses extends his “alliance” to animals. The implication of his doing so is that the blood of animals is equally sanctified. Would you, therefore, in an attempt to follow Anderson, call for the death penalty for those who, in a premeditated manner, kill and consume animals? You have already insisted on the sanctity of human life, so you should be attentive, perhaps, to your own distance from this pre-theocratic principle and be prepared to accept its consequences and thus not to embrace Moses’s “pre-theocratic” alliance so unquestioningly and on second-hand alone with respect to other points.)

This passage from Genesis can be said to presage the law of retaliation and retributive justice, but that in no way authorizes us to apply retroactively Anderson’s (on my view, irrelevant) arguments about the interdiction of murder that he bases on the sixth commandment to the Book of Genesis. We cannot so “tie” one to the other in good faith. Nowhere is it a question for Moses of “murder” or of “premeditation” in the sense that you and Anderson seem to understand these terms (that is, as legalistic categories implying the fully conscious and pre-programmed destruction of human life). Thus, we could more pertinently argue on the strength of this passage alone that whenever a life is taken by man, another life must be taken by man, and so on, until no men remain, and the same for animals. Indeed, on this more faithful understanding of Moses’s words, the “universally binding principle” can know no bound, and life after life will be spun away until all lives have been lost and all flesh has been destroyed.

Of course, Christians do not usually argue in this manner (at least not as far as I know), but if they find reason not to, they do so by appealing to the New Testament and not, as Anderson does, by trying to force capital punishment ideology into Genesis or, what amounts to the same, pre-Christian Jewish codes of law, and subsequently to argue that the New Testament is effectively irrelevant and, at best, redundant on the issue of the death penalty. Anderson says, “Capital punishment is warranted due to the sanctity of life.” This statement is anachronistic and vague. How does capital punishment, the state-managed destruction of life, find a Christian justification in the Old Testament, due to the sanctity of life? “Due to”? If life were sanctified, how could the Old Testament be arguing here for its destruction? And by the state, no less?

You also wrote the following in your response to Anderson’s piece:

“The death penalty is an expression of the value of human life. The state does not ‘murder’ the one guilty of murder. The criminal gives up his/her own right to life when he [sic] commits the crime.”
I recognize in your words Anderson’s argument about the distinction between murder and killing (a distinction that I find compelling, but, as I said, irrelevant to our discussion), but I see that you have departed from Anderson in two significant ways (there is nothing necessarily wrong in departing from Anderson!).

Here, you argue in a way that I find highly problematic and that I’ve discussed in my previous letter that the right to life of the criminal is “given up” the moment he or she commits premeditated murder. This way of arguing is problematic because it tries to diminish the responsibility that agents of law and citizens of a democracy have in determining whether or not destroying convicts’ bodies is just; further, it is problematic because, if we accept it, then the logical consequence is that, in murdering others in a premeditated fashion, criminal citizens effectively “express” the value of human life, since their actions, you argue, immediately bring about the revocation of their right to life and this revocation—-these are your words—-is itself an“expression”of human life as a whole.

Your argument would thus inspire us to be good Christians by murdering our fellow citizens in a premeditated fashion. Insofar as the “expression” of human life has the importance for Christians that you attach to it, and insofar as that “expression” can only be achieved through the immediate “giving up” of one's right to life -- a revocation that is immediate and conclusive and that is only made official by means of the death penalty. Then, I suppose, we may as well start killing one another if we wish to celebrate the ultimate value of human life. Either you have to embrace these implications of your argument, and horribly murderous consequences follow; or you have to admit that there are other, equally good means of “expressing” the value of human life, and thus the argument for the necessity of the death penalty as an essential condition to expressing life's value is greatly weakened, since what it affords us can be had easily by other, less violent means. So, which would you prefer?

Tadoussac, Quebec. photo by terrette