Cover Story

Dead seriousness

"Dead seriousness" Continued...

Issue: "Rethinking the death penalty," Oct. 19, 2013

The “eye for an eye” phrase is a quotation from Exodus 21:24, Leviticus 24:20, and Deuteronomy 19:21, and Jesus did not refute anything from the Old Testament—but He did refute those who distorted Old Testament teaching and took it out of context. Pharisees believed God had given Israel two torahs, the written one but also an oral one—and they believed the latter outlined death penalty procedures. 

The Talmud later recorded the rabbinical understandings against which Jesus spoke. Opponents of capital punishment quote famed death penalty critic Rabbi Akiva of the main Jewish court, the Sanhedrin, but Tractate Sanhedrin of the Talmud suggests that the anti-capital-punishment position was a minority view. Dozens of pages of that tractate lay out procedures for execution by burning, decapitation, stoning, or strangling, and give specific detail such as Rabbi Yehudah’s explanation of “the procedure for those who are burned: They would submerge him in manure up to his knees. … One pries open his mouth with tongs against his will, and the other lights a wick, throws it into his mouth, and it descends into his stomach and burns his intestines.” 

Jesus apparently did not favor such practice, and He also taught His followers not to resist with arms when they were persecuted for their faith. One of the first deacons, Stephen, soon put Christ’s teaching into practice when Sanhedrin members stoned him, a practice that was less throwing rocks than dropping boulders on top of a person 12-18 feet below them. Stephen set high the bar for not resisting: He and the many martyrs who followed Christ’s advice had such an impact that Tertullian in the second century famously said, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”  

JACK VIAN, JR., 42, is still trying to come to grips with the blood he shed when he stabbed the young woman he desired and the young man who seemed in the way. He’s one of 2,874 inmates in the Mark Stiles Unit east of Houston. More than 1,000 of those inmates have been found guilty of sexual assault or abuse, sometimes with a child—and 255 are in for homicide. 

Most of his fellow inmates have troubled family pasts, but Vian is particularly troubled about his lack of trouble before the double murder in 1991: “This was my first and only offense. Never been arrested. I was more or less a suburban kid. My mom and dad made sacrifices early on.” He grew up going to a Baptist and then an Assemblies of God church, and now “I’m here for killing two people. … They didn’t deserve what happened to them. … It’s kind of haunted me since then.”

Vian then was a University of Houston student. He says he was going to punch his romantic competitor and “had the knife, like holding a roll of quarters to give me some force. … When I started swinging, something else kicked in.” Vian’s life in prison also started with showing the willingness to fight: “They beat you up two or three times and you’re still willing to fight, then they leave you alone. … You become a wood.” “Wood” is short for “peckerwood,” in this context a prisoner who doesn’t pay protection and doesn’t “ride” (submit to homosexual acts).

Vian says he’s proved he’s a “wood” rather than a “ho,” and he wryly acknowledges getting good at prison time-passers like dominos. He says if he hadn’t gone to prison he would have transferred to Rice University, earned a degree in English and studied French with the idea of traveling to parts of west Africa, and eventually gone into politics: “Even though I didn’t get the death penalty, the whole life I had died that night. Just like their lives ended. Whatever life I had up to that point, it ended.”

DOES GOD FORBID government’s use of capital punishment? Nothing in the Bible orders a ban. Romans 13 notes that government “does not bear the sword in vain” and “carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.” The harder question is whether God demands the death penalty for murderers. God in chapter 9 of Genesis does “require a reckoning for the life of man,” but the reckoning throughout the Bible is a severe punishment short of execution. “Put to death” is a common refrain from Exodus through Deuteronomy when God is laying out civil law for ancient Israel, but in universally applicable Genesis only “a reckoning” is required—and life in prison is clearly a huge reckoning.

Scholars debate whether the subsequent verse in Genesis, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image,” is prescriptive or descriptive. The “shall” suggests a command, but translators (English Standard Version, New International Version, New King James Version) set off that phrase as a descriptive poetic quotation, similar to the way they set off a quoted saying in chapter 17 of Acts. The biblical context is important: Earlier in Genesis, Cain’s descendant Lamech boasts to his wives, “I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me.” Such boasting, and carrying through on it, became epidemic: When one person sheds blood, others shed his.

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