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Death penalty biblical, not vengeful, Southern Seminary’s Moore says

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–Public support for the death penalty isn’t vengeful, it’s biblical, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary’s Russell Moore said Nov. 5 on the television show “Kentucky Tonight.”

Moore, instructor of Christian theology, joined three other guests on the hour-long show, which aired statewide on Kentucky Educational Television (KET). Several bills pertaining to capital punishment are expected to be introduced in the Kentucky legislature next year, including ones that would abolish it, impose a moratorium on it and prohibit it from being exacted on juveniles.

Moore, who supports the use of the death penalty, argued that Romans 13 gives the government the right to punish those who do wrong. Paul’s reference to the government bearing the sword (Romans 13:4), Moore contended, is a specific reference to capital punishment.

“I believe that Scripture mandates that the government take this position in order to preserve public justice and order,” he said.

The public outcry following the Sept. 11 attacks on America indicate how deeply the sense of justice is imbedded in human consciences, Moore said.

“There are people looking around at the wreckage in New York, and they are saying, ‘How can this happen?’ They see tapes of Osama bin Laden … giving orders to his followers,” he said. “[We all] have a sense of justice that I think is essential to who we are as human beings.”

The public’s support for the death penalty — which is shown in opinion polls — reflects a certain value for human life, Moore said, as persons recognize that taking the life of another human being demands an ultimate punishment.

“You have a public that recognizes there are certain offenses that are so heinous [and] are so shocking that something must be done publicly,” he said, pointing to bin Laden and recently executed bomber Timothy McVeigh. “I think it resonates with us because of who we are as human beings — created in the image of God.”

The four-member panel was split between those who supported and opposed capital punishment. Prosecutor Ray Larson joined Moore in support of the death penalty. The two men who opposed it were Edward Monahan, deputy public advocate with the Kentucky Department of Public Advocacy, and Irvin Green, an ordained minister who teaches at Lexington Theological Seminary.

Green and Moore sparred several times on the merits of capital punishment. Green said the reference to the word “sword” in Romans can be understood “in a variety of ways” — such as the power of a nation to form an army and wage a war and the power of the police to apprehend criminals. He said he opposes the death penalty on theological and practical grounds.

“I don’t think that it works,” he said. “There’s too much of an element of passion involved for it to really be a deterrent. Also, on cultural grounds I oppose the death penalty. The inequity in terms of the representation of minorities within the criminal justice system suggests it’s not possible for any penalty to be administered fairly, and this is the one penalty that you can’t take back.”

Green argued that vengeance is so innate in humans that the government’s motives cannot be trusted.

“I don’t have that kind of trust in the system,” he said.

Moore asked Green, “Do you believe the government has been given any responsibility, such as in war?”

“Yes,” Green responded.

Moore then argued that a distinction must be made between individuals seeking revenge and governments exacting justice.

“There’s a difference between an individual taking it upon himself to assassinate a public figure and a government waging war,” Moore said. “I believe that Scripture makes that distinction in terms of the state executing justice and an individual doing so.”

Green said he supports other alternatives to the death penalty, such as life without parole.

“I believe that life is a gift from God, and I don’t believe that God has authorized anyone to exact the death penalty in the absence of God,” Green said. “I think our biblical examples where nations were taking lives, those were nations that at least claimed to be under God’s guidance.

“The United States says, ‘One nation under God,’ but we’ve never called ourselves a theocracy.”

Moore responded by saying, “Nor am I arguing that we should call ourselves a theocracy. I believe that it is the state’s right as the state to provide public order and to provide justice, and I don’t think it requires a theocracy to do that.”

Moore said he opposes a moratorium on the death penalty because it amounts to simply one step toward its abolishment. He argued that the evidence usually cited in support of a moratorium — the fact that innocent people have been released from death row — actually supports the structure of the current system.

“I’m not seeing a list of people who have been executed wrongfully,” he said. “We’re seeing those who are innocent who have been found to be innocent, who have not been put to death.”

The panel also discussed the execution of juveniles. Monahan noted that the United States is one of only a handful of countries who still execute those under the age of 18. Monahan said the other countries are Iraq, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Nigeria.

Moore, though, said that the decision should be left up to juries, who are best able to take into account the individual circumstances.

“We think of the situation in Columbine, for instance, in which you have 16-, 17-year-old people who are not kids,” he said. “These are not children or innocent waifs. … These are cold-blooded murderers.”

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  • Michael Foust