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Capital punishment from a national and biblical perspective

EARL CAMERON

Saturday, October 20, 2012    

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ONCE again, the nation is making a clarion call for the reactivation of the death penalty. On September 30, 2012, on the front page of one of our papers was the headline, "Hang them - Jamaicans call for death penalty...". Interestingly, even some formerly passive Christian leaders have now joined their voices in calling for the reinstatement of the death penalty.

In church recently, I heard a little boy praying that the death penalty be implemented. It touched my heart and caused me to recognise how our nation's children are affected by this wave of violence. If the government fails to reactivate the death penalty, vigilantism will increase and become commonplace.

The debate concerning the legitimacy of capital punishment is to a large extent influenced by the apparent tension between the Old and New Testaments. However, there is no disparity between the Testaments on this issue; it's a matter of interpretation. The Mosaic civil laws speak to the matter of justice and the application of the laws in godly and just societies. One principle in this law states that if a person takes the life of another maliciously, his life should also be taken (Exodus 21:12).

Jesus later spoke about forgiveness and mercy, "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy', but I say unto you, love your enemies..." (Matthew 5:43-44). Jesus was not objecting to punishment for wrongdoing; He magnified the law (see also Matthew 5:21-22).

The etymology of three Hebrew words used in scripture, "Ratsach," "Muth," and "Nakah", can give more clarity on the matter. These words are respectively translated "to murder", "to kill", "to strike". The KJV renders Exodus 20:13 as "Thou shall not kill," Ratsach, while the NIV translates it, "You shall not murder." A more accurate rendering of "Ratsach" is taking another's life through malice, hatred or treachery. "Muth" could be best interpreted as God putting His creatures to death. Deuteronomy 32:39 NIV, says, "There is no God beside Me. I put to death and bring to life." Also, "Nakah" speaks to the unintentional death of a person struck by another. "And this is the case of manslayer... Whosoever kills his brother unintentionally, not having hated him in time past." Deuteronomy 19:4, NKJV. Besides, the Bible term "manslayer" is similar to the legal term "manslaughter", used in our courts today.

From a biblical perspective, killing suggests that all murder is killing, but not all killing is murder. In Exodus 20:13, the Bible emphatically condemns committing murder; that is, taking a person's life through treachery and malice. However, it does not condemn capital punishment as some would suggest. Embedded in the Mosaic Law are civil laws that speak to killing and murder. Exodus 21:12-14 NKJV, states, "He who strikes a man so that he dies shall surely be put to death. But if he did not lie in wait, God delivered him into his hand, then I will appoint for you a place where he may flee. But if a man acts with premeditation against his neighbour, to kill him with guile, you shall take him from my altar, that he may die."

Contrary to the thinking of many, the Bible supports killing by the state, but only under certain conditions. The Bible suggests that one should be put to death in the case of premeditated murders, but not in the case of accidental killings, in which case the guilty party can seek refuge - protection from angry mobs or family members who might seek revenge. Murderers who sought refuge in the city of refuge were sent back into the community to be judged by the law.

The Bible clearly sets out the punishment for murder. Some might argue that in no case should the state take a life, but mercy and grace do not negate punishment and judgement. Jesus, who personifies mercy and grace, also spoke about judgement that will eventually destroy the wicked at the end of the age. While the Christian church in general does not promote the taking of human life, many Christians believe the state should be proactive in enforcing capital punishment that is at present on the books.

Jamaica's dilemma

Society has been overtaken by criminals who are unleashing a reign of terror and death upon this nation. Our prisons are jammed with criminals, some of whom are on death row. Are we allowing nothing to happen because we allow organisations like the Privy Council, Amnesty International, and some other human rights groups to tie our hands? We should not allow external or internal forces to dictate how we handle criminals in this country. After all, some of those advocating against the death penalty cannot identify with the level of crime that exists in this country because they have not lived here.

Prime Minister, I call upon you and all ministers of government to reactivate the death penalty for murderers without further delay.

Dr Earl PW Cameron is associate professor at the School of Religion and Theology, Northern Caribbean University, Mandeville, Manchester.

earl.cameron@ncu.edu.jm

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