Execution Responses

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Are you ready?

Below is a sampling of your reaction to my Wednesday post about the execution of Saddam Hussein. How I wish I could respond to each one of your notes!


God bless, Father Jonathan

Father Jonathan,

I believe that the Bible says, that if man sheds blood by man, shall his blood be shed. God has given the authority of punishment by death to the state. But please don't argue with me — it's God who said it, not me. Gen 9:6

"Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man." — Ray

RESPONSE: I'm certainly nobody to argue with God! And since you have asked me not to argue with you, I'm hoping my response to the message below will help you understand better my position.

Father Jonathan,

In Genesis 9:6, God authorized man to carry out capital punishment for murder. This was part of the Noahic covenant, which was sealed by the rainbow. Since we still see rainbows in the sky the covenant is still in effect. Genesis 9:6 — Charles

RESPONSE: I think both you and Ray bring up a fundamental issue about how Christians should apply individual passages of the Bible to our lives. There isn't space enough in this column to answer fully (and I don't claim my views are perfectly representative of all Christian churches), but here is a general guideline: We can best understand God's revelation through Sacred Scripture, when we examine it in its full context. This requires a profound understanding of the intent and cultural setting of the writer. And most importantly, it means relating all particular passages to the entirety of Scripture. As you will see by the messages below from other Christians who believe just as deeply as you, and I in the Word of God, there is a great diversity of opinion of how to apply passages like Genesis Chapter 9.

Father Jonathan,

How can you be a man of the cloth and say such things, that a person gets what he deserves! What if God gave us all what we deserved? —Jameel

RESPONSE: Jameel, I guess my article wasn't clear. I think we can say Saddam got what he “deserved” in only one sense. It is what ethicists call “distributive justice.” This has to do with making proportional retribution for wrongdoing. A judge, for example, would be acting unjustly to the victims if he were to slap the wrist of a convicted serial rapist. He “deserves” a much harsher punishment. So what does a mass murderer and tyrant like Saddam “deserve” in THIS sense? Much more! But you do bring up a VERY important point. We can't read Saddam's soul. We don't know the level of his personal culpability before God. In THAT sense, we can never say what somebody deserves. Finally, I agree with you wholeheartedly that if we were to get what we “deserved” in relation to God, we would all be in hot water.

Father Jonathan,

The question is clearly answered in Romans 13 and other passages where capital punishment is specified and the only authority that can deliver it is the government.

“For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.” (Romans 13:4)

Capital punishment by the government is a just and proper act that is in obedience to Scripture. Our government does not execute criminals for some of the crimes to which the Bible ascribes capital punishment. That is justice tempered with mercy.

Thanks for your articles. They add much to the discourse at Fox News. — Jeff (Georgia)

RESPONSE: Jeff, besides the comments I already made above about contextual interpretation of Scripture, I would add that Christians should look especially to the example of Jesus to make sense of seeming contradictions within the Bible. While many interpret the passage you cite from Romans as an outright approval of capital punishment, others do not. They look, for example, at the well known passage about Jesus pardoning the woman caught in adultery and conclude that Jesus himself rejected the idea of sinners killing other sinners for apparent wrongdoing. Here's the passage.

“Master, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery, and in the Law Moses ordered us to stone women of this kind. What have you got to say? They asked him this as a test, looking for an accusation to use against him. But Jesus bent down and started writing on the ground with his finger. As they persisted with their question, he straightened up and said, 'Let the one among you who is guiltless be the first to throw the stone at her.'” (John 8: 4-7)

So once again … context, context, context ... and a little bit of humility … to recognize our individual interpretation of Scripture may be wrong.

Wow! FOX News' fake priest decides he knows better, and that Jesus was wrong. Nice. So much for the Ten Commandments. And the New Testament. Now you can understand why so many people view Christians as nothing but a bunch of hypocrites. Maybe Jesus was Wrong. His followers have certainly failed as evidenced by your column. Shame on you. — Robert

RESPONSE: Robert, many blessings and Happy New Year.

Greetings Father Jonathan,

I think you are missing an important principle concerning "the moral right to extinguish another human life as payment for wrongdoing." Aware of the Biblical and societal consequences for certain crimes, the wrong-doer himself is responsible for his own demise by choosing to commit the crime. To remove personal responsibility for consequence is to walk toward total anarchy. Blessings. — Pastor Craig

RESPONSE: Pastor Craig, thanks so much for your note. I am happy to have an increasing number of pastors reading and contributing to this blog. I couldn't agree with you more that we often overlook the element of personal responsibility. I would add, however, that two wrongs don't make a right. One thing is the crime and another is the appropriate response of the competent government. The fact a criminal is guilty, does not give a free pass to the authorities to do whatever it wants. I'm sure we agree.

Dear Father Jonathan,

Thank you for your thoughts on the execution of Saddam Hussein. My views on capital punishment have also evolved over the years and I, now, am totally against it. There is too much killing in our world today and I just don't see how more killing will stop it. Too bad we couldn't have taken Saddam to an obscure prison somewhere — never to be heard from or seen again. My husband thinks that someone in the future would have made it possible for him to escape or be released and he thinks this possibility was simply unacceptable to the Iraqis. I only saw a small part of the video of the execution before I turned it off but, what I did see, made me actually pity the man. He seemed to be the only dignified person in the room (except perhaps the executioner who was explaining the hanging to him). I'm just sickened by the whole thing. Thanks for listening.— Grace (Missouri)

RESPONSE: Your welcome, Grace. Thank you for writing.

Father Jonathan,

I began reading your blog entry — Saddam Got What He Deserved — and was looking forward to another well thought out opinion from you. I enjoy reading your blog even if most times I disagree. So I was disheartened by this statement of yours:

“To begin, we must lay down some basic framework. Anyone with the gall to say Saddam Hussein did not deserve to die can't be part of this discussion. It would be a clear sign they have no respect for historic truth. Saddam Hussein was a tyrant, a sadist, and a cold-blooded murderer.”

I certainly do claim a respect for historic truth and do know that Hussein was all you say. However I still can say that he did not deserve to die. As an anti-death penalty advocate in all cases, I must say exactly that. As followers of the gospel message of Jesus, we have to make a stand somewhere against killing in any form. The crime does not outweigh the fact that all killing, from conception to natural death is, and always has been inherently evil.

I can appreciate self defense, but in the cases of the death penalty we can and must draw a line.

As I said I enjoy your blog, you are thoughtful, informed and easy to read. I am unhappy with your dismissal of those of us who believe that Hussein did not deserve to die, as disrespectful of history or ignorant of who and what he was.— Jack (Sidney NE)

RESPONSE: Jack, I hope my clarification above about “deserving” in the sense of distributive justice was helpful in clearing up your concern. On another note, your last comment makes me wonder if I was unclear about the possible relationship between capital punishment and self-defense. I tried to explain that there may be a case — though very rare — in which the only way for a local authority to defend its people against an aggressor is to exercise the death penalty. As in self-defense, in this case the intention of the government would be protect the innocent. The killing of the aggressor would only be a “secondary effect.” In ethics, we call this the principle of “double effect.”

Dear Fr. Jonathan:

Thank you for your insights into the wide range of moral and ethical challenges we face. I always appreciate your views. Although I am a practicing Roman Catholic who abhors abortion, I do not oppose the death penalty, specifically and limited to ending the lives of those people who are so intrinsically evil that it is our government's duty to remove them. We know how to identify them through our legal system. I exclude one-time murders and rapists, but include those who commit heinous crimes, add torture or have committed long-term abuse, and will never be rehabilitated. If allowed to live, those "evil ones" may continue to hurt others. It is in defense of their potential victims that government must end their lives. Again, thank you for being a good source of information and logical reasoning during these trying times. — Patrick (Fargo, ND)

RESPONSE: Patrick, I'm hoping some of my responses to other readers above will help you separate the different motives you list here for your sanctioning of capital punishment. You say you would limit it to “ending the lives of those people who are so intrinsically evil that it is our government's duty to remove them.” I think this standard is a bit too ambiguous. Remember, we need principles that can be applied to any government … no matter their personal character or views.

Father Jonathan,

As a Catholic, I am deeply offended that you are acting in your official capacity to offer serious matters like inarticulate ill-informed movie reviews. Worse, you use paper thin ethical arguments that seem to fence-sit the idea of killing another human being. But more practically, I have a serious question for you — who of sound mind and spirit would take moral or ethical instruction from a contributor at Fox News? The entire affair is grievously offensive to me, as well as many fellow Catholics, and I hope it is summarily addressed by the church. — Jason

Father Jonathan,

As a Catholic, I want you to know how proud I — and my whole family — are of you. You have brought back the hope we had lost long ago.— Mother of 3

Father Jonathan,

Be strong. You are bridging the gaps not only between absurdity and common sense, but between diverging Christian denominations. Gratefully, one of your faithful Baptist fans

RESPONSE: It’s really amusing to see how people react so differently to the same stuff. I don’t expect to bridge any major gaps, or restore lost hope, but I’m happy some people find what I write to be helpful. And, I’m grateful for people like Jason (above) who remind me of how big this world is, and our responsibility to reach out.

Father Jonathan,

Saddam being kept alive in prison would prolong the hopes of his murderous supporters to continue the fight to someday free him and restore him to power. Many innocents would have died in that process. Do those lives matter? Do the authorities, moral and civil, have the duty to anticipate this sort of obvious course of events in order to minimize the loss of life connected to Saddam? Your position is one of extremism and mortally dangerous to innocent people in harm's way. You have cowered in the face of monumental evil. — Pete

RESPONSE: Pete, I’m with you about the need to face monumental evil with courage. But I also think we need to temper our courage with prudence. It is the best way to avoid extremism. Am I doing that? I think so, but I may be wrong.

Father Jonathan,

Do you want to give a Biblical defense to your position? From a Biblical position, it is clear that your reasoning is wrong. Why? Look at the O. T. laws dealing with capital punishment. Clearly not all 30+ laws involving capital punishment would pass your criteria. Death is itself God's judgment against sin. Death may come at a different time for different people, but the wages of sin is death. All sin. I have heard in other settings it God is unjust respond with the death. It is in this light that I think it is fair to say that in extreme circumstances a government has the moral right to execute a convicted criminal if it is the only way to defend its people from a grave and imminent threat. Death is also a punishment. — Rev. Casey

RESPONSE: Reverand, I’m not sure if I understand your point, but I just wanted to welcome you to this forum.

Father Jonathan,

We the people as a society do have the right to extinguish another human. The Bible gives us the conditions also. It's really perfectly clear. Rape, first degree murder, kidnapping and breaking into a person's home while he/she is in it at night. This is God's law. This doesn't mean that we don't forgive. Forgive yes, however there is still a penalty to be paid. — JJ

RESPONSE: JJ, I’m glad these conditions aren’t “perfectly clear” to our government. They would be executing tens of thousands of people yearly. Remember, context!

Father Jonathan,

There is no tragedy in the hanging of Saddam Hussein. The only tragedy is that he did not receive the hours of painful torture prior to his hanging that he so rightly deserved. Respectfully, it is not immoral to execute a criminal. God is clear that crimes are to be punished. Death is a punishment ... and when someone earns it, they should get it. Otherwise, there is no justice in this world at all. In fighting for what is moral, the efforts are so wrongly and narrowly focused on protecting the rights of those so evil, that they cannot co-exist with normal society. How moral is that? We should not be arguing over whether it is moral to kill an evil man. We should, in fact, be fighting for moral ground where it matters most (saving Christianity from Islam or unborn babies from abortion) and not concentrating on the value of the life of someone like Saddam.

Quite frankly, Saddam should have been shot on sight when they found him in his little hole. We're fighting a war, after all, against the evil Islamic murderers who seek to destroy us. And you want to discuss morality? How about self-preservation? That's what we are fighting for against the evil that is Islam. — Anne-Marie (Florida)

RESPONSE: Anne-Marie, I think we have to fight simultaneously for preservation (as you suggest) and ethical integrity … even with our enemies. This consistency, is part of what separates the good guys from the bad.

Father Jonathan, the Bible gives rulers the right to enforce the law, and calls for capital punishment of many crimes. But you already know that, right? — Rev. Barbara

RESPONSE: Reverand Barbara, I sense some irony. In any case, I have been pleasantly surprised by the number of e-mails I’ve received from people quoting Scripture to me to defend their position. I love it. That’s the way it should be, as you implied. But I’ve also been surprised that people have used the same Bible and even the same passages to contradict one another. It just shows how important it is that you and I, as religious leaders, teach people the art of proper interpretation. I don’t suggest I have all the answers, but I know they aren’t simple. Here’s another great note below from a Methodist minister.

Father Jonathan:

I am a United Methodist pastor in Missouri, and I have been wrestling with the whole capital punishment issue in general. I have frankly mixed feelings about its' value or place in a moral society. Sometimes I find myself feeling like particular capital punishment cases were correct; other times, not. The late founder of Group Ministries, Michael Yacconelli, wrote a book entitled Messy Spirituality, in which he gave permission to people like me to have flaws and inconsistencies in our theology. I suppose that describes my view toward capital punishment.

As far as Saddam Hussein, I have to say that I have really wrestled with this one, and have fairly settled on the belief that capital punishment was correct in his case, though the circumstances of his actual execution were deplorable (taunting, cursing, glee, etc.) While I think I can understand some of what happened, it still wasn't "ok," and should itself be investigated and punished. We live in a fallen world, and when evil becomes so great, as it was in Saddam's life, his deeds simply could not go with anything short of life for life. Thanks for your truly excellent reflections! — Rev. Jeff, Faith United Methodist Church, (St.Charles, MO)

Dear Father Jonathan,

I am a big fan. You always put things into perspective. Saddam did get what he deserved and I feel like his country had to do it to protect themselves. The reason for this being that with all the unrest, if he was in a prison, someday when US troops are gone, the insurgents might break him out and he would be free to do it all over again. Thanks once again for being the voice of reason. — Ralph

RESPONSE: Ralph, mine is a little voice — sometimes reasonable — in a very big world of fact and fiction.

Fr. Jonathan, I enjoy reading all of your commentary, I looked on with interest when your recent article on Saddam Hussein was posted. I had one question about your article: Given what you know, do you think that Jesus would have volunteered to be one of the executioners of Saddam Hussein? Thanks for all of your commentary, I read them with interest and pass them onto my friends and family, keep up the great work. In Christ — Charles

RESPONSE: In interesting way to look at it. I’m always a bit hesitant to put words in the mouth of Jesus or attribute to him this or that action in hypothetical cases. But this time it’s pretty clear … no way, and for lots of reasons.

Hello Father Jonathon, I live currently live in the U.K and watch Fox news all the time because I think its the best news source on the planet! Also, as an American living overseas, it's great to keep an eye on what’s going on back home. I love your contributions to FOX news and all of the issues that you challenge in relation to our ever change world — its nice to know that God's opinion counts when it comes to FOX. Father Jonathan, as Christians we now have a voice in America's newsroom! Your recent column was right on the money. God does not sanctify the taking of life, pure and simple. As a conservative Christian, I do not find it hard to oppose the death penalty — in fact, I most vociferously denounce it. Life in prison without parole and making sure the prisoner has no distractions but his own mind will suffice quite nicely for our faith. God Bless you. —Rick

Father Jonathan — though I am a Republican, and a conservative Evangelical (some would say fundamentalist) Christian, I have serious reservations about the death penalty. Some of my reservations are based on Scripture, we are told that it is appointed once for a person to die, and after that, the judgment, and that we are to leave vengeance up to God. The other part of my reservations come from the nagging feeling that it is possible that someone who is executed may have at some point heard and accepted the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and would have come to a saving faith in Him. We would never know if that would happen in any particular situation; but I think we should afford all people every opportunity for salvation. We seem sometimes to forget that God doesn't give us what we, as sinners, deserve, but extends grace to us, perhaps we should extend a little of that grace to others. — Jim (lititz, PA)

Father Jonathan, I have only recently found and begun reading your weekly column. I find it very insightful and a breath of moral fresh air. Your column on the execution of Saddam was right on and the only article I have read that put the entire act into perspective. Thank you for your explanations and insights. I am now a devoted reader. — Chris

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