One of my non-Christian friends emailed me a couple weeks ago, asking me what the Bible said about killing and murder. He was alluding to the Ten Commandments, and so I told him that the Bible said, no murder (short version), and more generally spoke of a consistent ethic of life and of the value of human life. A few days later, he emailed me back.
“So you should not murder, and therefore the death penalty is abhorrent to all Christians? Sorry if this sounds simplistic.” (My paraphrase.)
I haven’t replied yet, because this could be a paper topic. I could talk about the voice of Scripture that runs throughout the Bible, the witness that says that the value for human life is tantamount, and that any judgment that comes is necessary judgment, and that God does not pleasure in meting out punishment. I could talk about contextualization and how God dealt with the people where they were, culturally and historically. I could talk about the trajectory of history and of the Bible, which reaches its climax in Jesus Christ, the full embodiment of God, and how we look to him to know what God is like and it is through him that we interpret the law.
But I’d also have to be honest with him: the death penalty is not abhorrent to all Christians, just as not all Christians seek to follow Christ with their lives, thoughts, actions, attitudes, and relationships.
My point is …
First, being a “Christian” can mean a wide range of things (and we touched on this in class). Does “Christian” connote someone who is pro-life, pro-death penalty, anti-gay marriage? (Because it does for some people.) Or does “Christian” connote the opposite? (Because I know a good few Christians whose values as gleaned from the pages of Scripture motivate them to fight for the woman’s right to choose, against the death penalty, and for gay marriage.)
Second, how do we navigate this broad swathe of Christianity? Being a Christian, at its narrowest, is to believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, that he died for our sins, and that he is the Lord and Savior of our lives (or something similar; I’m sure we could make it even more narrower). But it’s in the working out of what it means for him to be the Lord and Savior of our lives that we can sometimes differ.
Third, should we just be okay with this? I think that Christians who differ do so because they are sincerely and genuinely trying to figure stuff out, not because they’re being disingenuous, ignorant or moronic. (Okay, some do … sometimes.) And we all think our understanding or interpretation of the gospel and the Bible is the best, at least as far as we know (and if we didn’t, we’d have great trouble living out our convictions).
So … what to do?