Capital punishment and the letter of James
When you hear stories about crime in your city, do you find yourself wishing the perpetrators were locked up for life? Do you sometimes feel like some criminals don’t deserve to live? You’re not alone!
Today’s Bible text, however, calls us to a life that refuses to submit to those feelings. Quite frankly, it calls us to ways of thinking about the criminal justice system, which, apart from God’s power, seem impossible to achieve and utterly ridiculous besides.
1) First, James challenges us to think about the nature of crime and sin. What comes to mind when you read verse 10: “And the person who keeps all of the laws except one is as guilty as the person who has broken all of God’s laws”? Have you ever thought about this verse when you hear people advocate for minimum sentences on the ground that judges aren’t tough enough? Or when you hear advocacy for capital punishment?
James is writing about showing favouritism toward wealthy people in church. He writes that favouritism is sin – a violation of God’s command to love one’s neighbour (v. 8, 9).
Before God, the guilt for a single minor sin, such as favouritism, is the same as the guilt for murder!
James also explains that a person who keeps all God’s laws except one is as guilty as if he or she had broken every God-given law. A lie to a customs official about the value of goods purchased abroad is a sin (“Remind the believers to submit to the government and its officers” Titus 3:1, NLT), and carries the same guilt as drug trafficking, sexual assault, child abuse, murder, theft, forgery, and genocide combined.
How can we call for a minimum sentence or for capital punishment, if we consider that our own sin leaves us on the same level of guilt before God as murderers? Perhaps our sense of outrage has nothing to do with the law of God – maybe it’s only about the law of the land.
2) James also challenges us to love criminal offenders. Verse 8 reads, “Love your neighbour as yourself.” If the inmate is my neighbour, how do I show love? Do I show love if I take away a judge’s freedom to tailor a sentence to the unique circumstances of the accused and the crime? Is it loving toward my neighbour, the offender, to advocate for capital punishment?
3) Finally, James challenges us to show great mercy to everyone, including criminals, and warns us of dire consequences if we don’t follow through. “For there will be no mercy for you if you have not been merciful to others” (v. 13). Advocates for minimum sentences and capital punishment will have to stand before God some day and justify their position in light of this verse. I’m not sure they’ll be able to do it.
In Matthew 18:21–35, Jesus told a parable about an unforgiving servant who had been forgiven a great deal. The penalty for failing to forgive was that the servant’s own forgiven debt was reinstated, leaving the original debt in full force and effect. In case his audience missed the point, Jesus concluded, “That’s what my heavenly Father will do to you if you refuse to forgive your brothers and sisters from your heart” (v. 35, NLT).
Do advocates of minimum sentences and capital punishment want to see if the Matthew 18 cancellation of salvation will apply to them as well? James 2:13 is no less severe: “For there will be no mercy for you if you have not been merciful to others.”
I certainly don’t want to be a test case in the final judgment. Do you? Remember, there’s no court of appeal.
“Yes indeed, it is good when you truly obey our Lord’s royal command found in the Scriptures: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ But if you pay special attention to the rich, you are committing a sin, for you are guilty of breaking that law.
“And the person who keeps all of the laws except one is as guilty as the person who has broken all of God’s laws. For the same God who said, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ also said, ‘Do not murder.’ So if you murder someone, you have broken the entire law, even if you do not commit adultery.
“So whenever you speak, or whatever you do, remember that you will be judged by the law of love, the law that set you free. For there will be no mercy for you if you have not been merciful to others. But if you have been merciful, then God’s mercy toward you will win out over his judgment against you.”