As almost all readers of this blog know by now, Zacarias Moussaoui has been sentenced to life in prison, probably in a Federal “supermax.” Do I think this was a good sentence? No. On the one hand, imprisonment probably will be hard on the fanatic would-be martyr who believes he has a divinely-ordained role in history. By the 3,000th morning in his concrete cell he may begin to wonder how his life fits into “Allah’s” plan. On the other hand, the punishment does not seem commensurate with the crime, he will be a constant threat to prison guards and staff—he still wants to kill infidels, he will try to spread his religion of hate, and I await the day when terrorists seize hostages demanding his release. I think he should be executed.

So how do I reconcile my affirmation of the necessity of capital punishment with my status as a Christian? Neither easily nor comfortably. Taking a human life is a momentous, tragic action. And I have helped do it many times. So probably have you. Whenever the Federal or state government of which I am a part (“We the people . . .”), to which I pay taxes thereby enabling its actions, whose services I use including police protection, and whose legitimacy I affirm each time I vote, takes a human life I am involved. I can be involved and support executions, or I can perhaps minimize my involvement by protesting executions and moving to a state without capital punishment. We all of us are involved already (unless maybe you are in prison for nonpayment of taxes and have renounced your citizenship)

So how do I reconcile my affirmation of the necessity of capital punishment with my status as a Christian?

First, turning to the Bible, we note that the Old Testament prescribes execution for certain offenses. Now, certainly not everything sanctioned by the Old Testament is to be practiced by Christians. But, Christianity historically has held that the Old Testament is canonical Scripture, that the same God is revealed in both Testaments, and that both are inspired by the same Holy Spirit. I need a New Testament warrant, explicit or implicit, to dismiss an Old Testament command. Second, turning to the New Testament I find two affirmations in tension with one another. On the one side, Jesus said that his followers are to turn the other cheek, love their enemies, and not resist evil (e.g. Luke 6:29; Matthew 5:44; Matthew 5:39). On the other side, Paul said that God instituted government to establish order and justice and gave to government “the sword,” that is the authority to kill, in order to carry out its mandate (Romans 13:1-7). Even though Paul is by no means Jesus, Christianity historically has included his writings as canonical Scripture also—he may not be dismissed out of hand.

So how do these two teachings fit together? Some have asserted that Christians never can be part of government (e.g. the Amish option) and so will never be in a position to kill anyone. Others have argued that different teachings of the Bible are for different periods of human history: Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount was for his followers then, Paul is for us now. Still others have held that we Christians as Christians follow the nonviolence of Jesus, while we Christians as citizens must follow Paul here (e.g. in private life we Christians are nonviolent but in our public life as citizens we Christians may legitimately serve in the military, or police, etc.).

In the Reformed tradition we have emphasized that this world is God’s world, fallen and sinful though it is now; part of our duty as Christians is to help establish order and justice, imperfect though these will be. Into a fallen world God has placed government to establish order rather than chaos, justice rather than injustice. In our sinful world justice and order only can be established by violence (“the sword”). There is not a perfect choice—either sinful chaos and injustice, the strong oppressing the weak, or, imperfect government establishing approximate order and justice through violence. (Augustine taught us that all governments, all nations, are established and maintained only by sinful violence, but in God’s providence government helps to restrain the very violence out of which it arose.) The Reformed tradition has not been pacifist. As Christians we may participate in government, including needful violence, as part of our mandate to be for justice and against injustice. But, as we see in Jesus, this violence is never good, it is evil: a necessary evil, like war. Evil for which we need forgiveness. (In the Reformed understanding, we need forgiveness for even our best actions, since these will be mixed with our imperfections and sins.) Profound thinkers in this vein have included Augustine of Hippo, Reinhold Niebuhr, and even Abraham Lincoln especially in his Second Inaugural Address.

So, since violence is the God-given prerogative of government, then the question of capital punishment for me comes down to pragmatism: a dead murderer cannot kill anyone else, it seems there would be a deterrent effect, and the punishment is commensurate with the crime. Zacarias Moussaoui is the poster boy for capital punishment.