Cruel and unusual punishment
Exactly one hour ago the hangman in Changi Prison pulled the lever on the gallows, dropping Van Nguyen, a 25-year-old Australian man convicted of smuggling drugs into Singapore, to his death. He apparently committed the crime in order to raise money to pay his brother's debts. Later today, Kenneth Boyd will be put to death in North Carolina, making him the one thousandth person to be executed in the USA since capital punishment was reintroduced.
Christians are divided — almost bitterly — over the question of capital punishment. Many simply reject Old Testament laws concerning the ultimate penalty for serious offences as archaic and assert that Jesus did away with His Father's heavy-handedness when He pardoned the woman caught in adultery. Others take God's commands seriously, and assert that “He knows best”. (For a list of those crimes deemed worthy of death, see Leviticus 20:9-16).
According to the Old Testament, the purpose of death by stoning was twofold — to deter crime (Deut. 13:11) and to rid the land of the wicked (Deut. 17:7). Opponents of capital punishment argue endlessly that statistical evidence gives no support to the notion that capital punishment deters crime. They may be right — in our system that just may be true. We fail to heed the revealed wisdom of God, who “admits” that punishment does not of itself act as a deterrent:
Because the 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 (Eccl. 8:11).
Nevertheless, Scripture enjoins the death penalty. When done scripturally, it is both fair and merciful. The executed person, unaware of the passage of time, will wake up in the next instant to face His Maker and be given full opportunity to repent and enjoy salvation.
But Christians need to avoid arguing from scriptural law that execution is always good, right and just. It is only good and just if the sentence is arrived at as a result of observing all biblical laws about doing justice. “Executions” carried out by despotic regimes often amount to murder. Everybody knows that many innocent people are legally killed in the USA. The Western adversarial system of determining guilt, in which lawyers are paid to push a point of view, actually militates against justice being done. Biblical law requires objective diligent inquisition to determine the guilt or
innocence of a person (Deut. 19:18). Combined with the other great biblical principle — lex talionis, in which those who deliberately testify against an innocent person find themselves meeting the punishment that would be accorded the defendant if convicted (Deut. 19:19) — you could almost guarantee that the innocent would never be convicted. (The dropping of lex talionis from the law in Europe hundreds of years ago laid the grounds for the inhumane witch trials.)
In short, capital punishment is only virtuous if the crime is worthy of death, if investigation is thorough and scrupulously impartial, and if the punishment is carried out in the swift manner enjoined in Scripture.
The Van Nguyen case illustrates the inhumanity of man's system. No leeway was made for his motive. Instead of swift punishment, he sat on death row for three years. For three years he agonized over the suffering he had brought upon his mother. During that time, according to reports, he truly transformed, ministering to the needs of other prisoners. For three years his mother has suffered the most incomprehensibly intense anguish contemplating her son's future death. Until yesterday she had not even been able to touch him. As I write, she remains inconsolable. Van Nguyen's lawyer, Julian McMahon, broke down and sobbed on the radio this morning an hour before the trapdoor dropped. What else can one call it but cruel and inhuman punishment?
Because mankind has rejected biblical laws pertaining to the administration and execution of justice, the choices we are confronted with are all baleful. We either practice “cruel and unusual” methods of execution, prolonging the agony for all concerned, or we offer, as the alternative, the more cruel and unusual punishment of making a person rot in prison for the rest of their lives.
Meanwhile, big tobacco company executives in expensive suits knowingly deal in a product that brings death and misery to millions. And instead of doing it to save a loved one from financial ruin, they do it out of sheer avarice. But it's legal! Where is justice? This world doesn't know the meaning of the term. Oh hasten the day spoken of in Isaiah 42:4:
He will not fail nor be discouraged, till He has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands shall wait for His law.
Justice will finally reign.