Many, if not most Christians in the United States, support capital punishment. They are convinced that God not only allows it but even commands it. Many are quick to quote from the 21st chapter of the Book of Leviticus where we do read that God said “A life for a life, and eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” There are other passages where it is clearly stated that anyone who sheds life should be killed.
But there is other evidence in the Old Testament that clearly indicates that all did not agree that God commanded in all cases a life for a life. One example is how God himself dealt with Cain after he had killed his brother. God not only did not kill Cain, he said that no one else should dare to kill him.
Another passage in the Old Testament is the story in the first book of Samuel that relates how and why David did not kill Saul when encouraged to do so by Abishai. His aide told David “God has delivered your enemy (Saul who was trying to kill David) into your grasp this day. Let me nail him to the ground with one thrust of the spear.” David said “Do not harm him, for who can lay hands on the Lord’s anointed and remain unpunished.”
Wow! What a statement for Christians to contemplate as they participate in the execution of other human beings whom they believe have been anointed by the blood of Jesus.
But the greatest challenge to Christians who justify not only the killing of convicted criminals, but the hating of anyone, is found in the teaching of Jesus that Catholics will read this week (Feb. 17-18) at Mass.
According to St. Luke, Jesus has been talking to his disciples, not from a mountain but on level ground. He is speaking to them eye-to-eye, and clearly he is speaking to each of us personally. He tells us who hear him: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you; bless those who curse you and pray for those who maltreat you.” And while seemingly many of us would like to overlook what Jesus said, he went on to say “When someone slaps you on one cheek, turn and give him the other.”
Before we decide that Jesus did not really mean this, let’s remember the example he gave during his passion and death. He not only “talked the talk” but even though he was God, he became like us so he could “walk the walk.”
Yes, we have to love those who love us, but if we are to be Christians, we not only need to but are capable of loving everyone, even those who would be our enemies.
As we listen to Jesus speak to us, let’s pay attention. There is no need to give up on ourselves for our past failures. He doesn’t. He still talks to us. As we realize this, we hopefully will realize more and more why we should not give up on anyone. As God is compassionate and loving to us, we can and, therefore, we must seek to be compassionate and loving to others. Before we say we could execute someone, we need to ask “do we think Jesus would execute us?” Before we say we have the right to mistreat people in prison, we need to ask “do we think Jesus would mistreat us who have sinned?” Let’s not forget who tells us to turn the other cheek.
Msgr. Thomas R. Duffy is pastor of St. Michael Church in Garden City and dean of the Pee Dee Deanery.