Christian Ethics - Lesson 19

Capital Punishment and Civil Disobedience

In this lesson, the topic of capital punishment is explored in the context of Christian beliefs. The speaker argues that consistency is necessary in the Christian stance on capital punishment, pacifism, and war. He suggests that while it is important to acknowledge the Old Testament laws that allow for capital punishment, they should be seen as pertaining to specific situations that are no longer applicable. The New Testament Church should follow the more general, universally applicable moral principles set forth by God in the No Way covenant. The lesson argues for consistency in Christian beliefs and encourages a deeper exploration of the implications of capital punishment.

Ronald Nash
Christian Ethics
Lesson 19
Watching Now
Capital Punishment and Civil Disobedience

Contemporary Moral Issues

Part 5

V. Capital Punishment

A. Consistency in Positions

1. Ron Sider

2. Objection to Sider

B. Biblical Text

1. Capital offenses

2. Hermeneutical Principle

a. Distinguish between laws

b. Theocracy was temporary.

c. Certain offenses are no longer capital crimes.

d. Principle of Genesis 9 still applies.

C. Deterrent Effect

1. Gordon Clark

2. Failure to punish


VI. Civil Disobedience

A. Civil Rights Movement

B. Battle against Abortion

C. Biblical Precedent

1. Hebrew midwives

2. New Testament disciples

3. Three Hebrews

D. Objection and Response

E. Criteria

1. Unjust and immoral law

2. Legal means exhausted?

3. Public, not clandestine?

4. Likelihood of success?

5. Willing to accept the penalty

  • Gain insights into philosophical ethics and Christian responses, and the Christian role in society regarding the state, justice, economics, and education.
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  • This lesson introduces you to the theory of deontological ethics and Emmanuel Conte. You will learn that the deontological ethic judges morality by examining the nature of actions and the will of agents rather than goals achieved.
  • In this lesson you will learn about the system of ethics that focuses on virtue and introduces the Four Cardinal Virtues, which are temperance, wisdom, justice, and courage, and emphasizes the importance of being the right kind of person who possesses the traits of character, and C.S. Lewis's book "Christianity" provides an informative treatment of the Four Cardinal Virtues and the Three Theological Virtues.
  • You will gain insight into C.S. Lewis's views on Christian ethics and the morality analogy he presents, where morality is like a fleet of ships that must fulfill three conditions to succeed: every ship must run properly, the relations between ships must be proper and orderly, and the fleet must head to the right destination.
  • You will learn about the importance of distinguishing between society and the state. Society is a voluntary organization of people, while the state is the group of people who claim a monopoly on the use of coercive force within a geographic boundary. By understanding this difference, you can prevent the government from interfering with your voluntary associations.
  • You will gain an understanding of how the professor's theory of the state in Social Justice in the Christian Church aligns with the New Testament. He explains that the state is a God-ordained institution to check against sin, and he is a moderate anti-statist who recognizes the need for government but also the inherent evil in any concentration of human power. The New Testament recognizes constraints upon governmental power, and Revelation 13 is an example of how the state can symbolize anti-Christian government. The lesson also discusses the concept of justice and how it is often invoked without a clear understanding, suggesting that Christians should study ancient Greece for a better comprehension of the term.
  • In this lesson, you will gain insight into the evangelical civil war that happened 20 years ago, learn about its early stages recorded by Clark Penick, understand the harmful effects of left-wing evangelicalism, and see how many evangelicals on the left became enamored with their own self-virtue in what they thought was a crusade to help the poor.
  • By studying this lesson, you will gain insight into the major differences between capitalism, socialism, and interventionism. You will learn that interventionism is often responsible for economic crises that are attributed to capitalism. You will also learn about the overlapping and continuum nature of economic systems and the gray area where an economic system may be viewed as socialism or interventionism.
  • This lesson discusses the decline of old liberation theology and how some of its proponents are now advocating for capitalism and democracy as being what the poor of the third world need, and presents shocking quotations from individuals characterized as evangelical, such as Jose Marquez Bonino, who promotes Marxism and praises tyrants like Castro and Mao Tse tung, as well as material about the three major kinds of Marxism that have existed in the world.
  • This lesson will provide you with a comprehensive understanding of interventionism and its role in the Great Depression, including the fact that blaming capitalism for the depression is based on four myths, and that interventionism actually deepens recessions by disguising the information produced by a market economy.
  • Through this lesson, you will gain an understanding of the crisis facing American education, as highlighted by Alan Blum's book The Closing of the American Heart and the author's complementary book. The focus is on the importance of values, standards, and morality in education, and the need to reopen the American heart to reopen the American mind. The lesson introduces the three kinds of illiteracy currently affecting Americans at every level of the educational process, with a particular emphasis on functional illiteracy, which refers to the inability to read, write, or use numbers well enough to get along in society.
  • In this lesson, you will learn about the incompetency of public school teachers in America, caused by academically weak students being attracted to the profession, lack of content courses in their college curriculum, unimpressive and radical left-winged professional educationists, and the National Education Association being an enemy of America's young people, with four essential steps to improve education, including getting a clear focus on the educational role of the family, increasing local control of education, changing the curriculum to prepare students for life after school, and changing teacher education programs.
  • Gain knowledge of the difference between the biblical ethic and other philosophical systems. Though it may seem simple, it is an underlying system that can lead to complex issues. The divinely revealed scriptures are the starting point for moral reflection, but not a ready-made answer. Some New Testament commandments are archaic or obsolete, and many modern moral problems are not discussed in the Bible.
  • You will gain insight into the pro-life stance and be equipped to inform others. Christians need not be timid about talking about these issues.
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  • As you go through the lesson, you will learn about infanticide and euthanasia, and how the disrespect for unborn human life has led to an increase in cases of infanticide, along with some suggestions for what Christians should do in the case of children born with life-threatening handicaps.
  • In this lesson, you will explore the five major passages of Scripture related to homosexuality, including different interpretations of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, and concludes that the Bible clearly condemns homosexual activity.
  • This lesson explores the topic of capital punishment in the context of Christian beliefs, arguing for consistency and emphasizing the need to view Old Testament laws in the context of specific situations that are no longer applicable.
  • This lesson discusses the three approaches to war and peace and distinguishes between principled pacifists and hypocritical, unprincipled pacifists, who are members of the political left and denounce American military actions but support violent revolutionary organizations.
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  • This lesson provides insight into how responsible Christians can make ethical decisions about birth control, considering the importance of intention, distinguishing between ethically acceptable and unacceptable forms of birth control, and emphasizing the importance of wise and careful means in achieving family planning goals.

Theoretical and theological basis for Christians  living an ethical life.

Dr. Ronald Nash

Christian Ethics


Capital Punishment and Civil Disobedience

Lesson Transcript


[00:00:01] There's now time to turn our attention to capital punishment. Now, this is an issue that Christians have to formulate a position about, and it is an issue. Get this, it is an issue that is going to have implications for where we come out on some other things. There there must be, I suggest, consistency between where we stand vis a vis capital punishment and where we stand on the issues of pacifism and war. Ron Sider is right to this degree that if you make a complete and unqualified commitment to life and thus become a pacifist as Ron Sider is, then it would be inconsistent for that kind of a pacifist to go on and support capital punishment. So there is a need for consistency. Where I would object to sider is in is is in his attempt to lump together the state of innocent unborn babies whose lives are being snuffed out simply for the convenience of the mother or the irresponsible father, a man who intentionally and with premeditation, took the life of two young people to see no difference between the life of the innocent unborn and a man guilty of premeditated murder such as that is, I think, to ignore very relevant and very obvious distinction. It is also, I think, to ignore the particular reasons which may indeed justify acts of violence which are undertaken in defense of family and loved ones and homeland. It is to mix fish and fowl, apples and oranges. But let's agree that there must be consistency between the position we take these the capital punishment and the war pacifism issue.


[00:02:32] Now, when you talk about capital punishment, the major biblical text and Davis refers to it is the text in Genesis chapter nine. Whoever sheds the blood of man by man shall his blood be shed for God made man in his own image. A clear statement that if you murder another human being, you forfeit your own right to life. This idea then, is reinforced by the identification of 18 different offenses in the Old Testament, in the Pentateuch that are capital offenses, murder, causing the death of a pregnant woman killing a person by a dangerous animal, the rape of a married woman, adultery, incest, sexual intercourse with an animal. All of these offenses punishable by death in the Old Testament. Now, there are several interesting issues here that are worth studying, even if we don't think that capital punishment is a problem. Davis argues that we must distinguish between the specific legislation that God ordained for the mosaic theocratic state, a situation which has never prevailed before or since. All right. Page one, 99. And Davis. He says we must distinguish between those specific laws that God gave Moses that pertain to that particular theocratic state and the previous the previous laws that God gave under the no Way covenant. And and Davis's reasoning is this a theocratic state? This was a situation that prevailed only for a short time. Clearly, there are all kinds of provisions in him as a part of that legal code that we have trouble with today and in in in the different situations in which we exist. We we have trouble with the idea of executing people for acts of homosexuality or other forms of or other forms of sexual immorality. So Davis says, why not adopt this as your principle? These Old Testament laws should be regarded as rules, rules which apply to specific situations, a specific situation which has not obtained since then and does not obtain now.


[00:05:28] That is, we do not find ourselves in a theocratic society and the prescription to execute homosexuals, the prescription to execute people guilty of other forms of sexual immorality is not something that is binding upon the church. What is binding upon the New Testament Church are the earlier principles. See, Davis is in effect suggesting that these Old Testament types of legislation are rule related to specific situations. What does apply across the Testaments are the prescriptions that God gave to Noah when Noah set foot outside the Ark. The the re the re birth of the human race following its destruction at the flood. And one of those prescriptions is the prescription of capital punishment. If a human being intentionally takes the life of another human being, that he forfeits his right to life. The he saying the no way a covenant contains more general, universally applicable moral principles that we should still regard as having force today as as opposed to the more narrowly restrictive legal rules that apply to the more specific situations of the thematic theocratic state that we find pictured in the Pentateuch. And that at least that at least gives us that about the abiding nature of this commandment that endorses capital punishment, but recognizes that there are some actions that a human being can do that that result justly in the forfeiture of his life. Does the threat of capital punishment really deter potential murderers? You know, there are various grounds on which certain kinds of punishment of wrongdoing is justified. And one of those grounds is the deterrent effect that this punishment has upon potential perpetrators of that crime. Now, there are people who would like you to think that no threat. Punishment. No threatened punishment has any deterrent value at all.


[00:08:09] Obviously, people like that have never been audited by the IRS. They really haven't. They're living in a dream world. Now, it is true that many murders are committed in the heat of passion. Many murders result from circumstances in which no one went into the event planning a murder. The murder happened, of course. The fact that a person had a submachine gun in his hands seems to suggest that the possibility of murder of violence may have been there. Now, I was. Where was I? I guess it was a week before last. I was in Dallas, and somebody who lives in Virginia gave me, I think, a helpful illustration that suggests that capital punishment does have a deterrent effect. I don't quite know his source. But remember, this person lives in the state of Virginia, where there is where there is capital punishment for murder. And the story is that two, two people we're talking about wasting somebody. And one of the people said to the other, if you're going to do it, take them into the District of Columbia and do it. The difference between killing somebody in Virginia, I mean, you're here are two potential killers, undoubtedly people who have killed before deliberating over where they would perpetrate the act. And the advice was, if you're going to waste somebody, waste them in the District of Columbia. Why? Because there is no capital punishment in the District of Columbia, which is the one place in the world where they ought to have it. All right. I'm serious. That's the one place they ought to have it. What is it? The highest murder rate in the country? In the District of Columbia. Just before coming down here, I read the article on capital punishment in the Bankers Dictionary of Christian Ethics.


[00:10:31] And just by this, by chance, Carl Henry asked his good friend Gordon Clark to write the article on capital punishment. Now, some of you think John Gerstner has never heard Gordon Clark. Here's what Clark says. He says, In 1968, in the year in the United States, there were 6000 murders and no executions in 1969. There were 8000 murders and no executions in 1970. This was just before the book went to press. There were 10,000 murders and no executions. Now, does anyone seriously believe that if this country had executed the murderers in 1968 and 1969, we wouldn't have fewer murders in 1970? At the very least, Gordon Clark says capital punishment deters the guy. And I shouldn't be laughing. I'm sorry. Some people will be offended by that. But capital punishment does work to deter the person who was executed. He will never kill again. Well, I showed perhaps an unseemly lack of concern for criminals. But let's let's be let's be honest here. One of the reasons for the outrage is crime rate for an outrageous crime rate that victimizes innocent people and families with rape and theft and murder is because the criminal justice system in this country simply doesn't punish criminals. It turns these people loose. It fails to prosecute them and punish them to the fullest extent of the law so that they become free to prey upon society in a matter of months or years. We turn from this issue to the whole business of civil disobedience and revolution. Civil disobedience is on the minds of a lot of us these days because, of course, we remember we remember the heroic black people who fought for who fought for freedom and justice in the South. And those of us, those of you who are too young to remember those battles.


[00:13:01] There is there's absolutely no reason. To minimize the significance of what those people accomplished. They did it nonviolently. Certainly the cause was just what some of us insist upon, however, is that the contemporary battle with regard to abortion should be treated with the same kind of respect as the early civil rights battles of black people in America's South. And of course, we're now told that this is not a legitimate instance of civil disobedience. The principle is the same. I would argue, in addition, that the whole business of school choice, family choice, because of the education, is a matter of civil rights, where people are pushing their godless agenda into the lives of innocent young kids. Now, it is clear from Scripture that there are numerous instances in the Bible where believers, both Old Testament, a New Testament, resisted unjust political authority, and God honored them for doing that. There's the case of the Hebrew midwives in Egypt who were commanded by Pharaoh to destroy Hebrew newborns, and they resisted. They refused. There's the case of the New Testament disciples who said we ought to obey God rather than men. There's the case of the three Hebrew children, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, who said, We will not bow down and worship your idol and do with us what you will. Civil disobedience and numerous other examples that Davis does a good job of drawing your attention to. And then, of course, Davis also goes on and points out the positions of people like Aquinas and John Calvin, the Augsburg Confession and so on. Now there are those who object to civil disobedience, objected on the grounds that it leads to anarchy, the breakup of civilization. But clearly, if we're talking about nonviolent resistance, you see these people who would object to all cases of civil disobedience clearly have a very distorted view of the law.


[00:15:41] Once you recognize that there is a difference between just law and unjust law, they're one of the core layers of that recognition must be the right of people to resist, to even rebel against unjust law and unjust rulers. Now, let's. This is the first time we've turned to Davis's book today. Why don't you turn to page 216 and to 17? Because I want to not only draw your attention to some needed criteria of civil disobedience, but I want to question some of the things that I I'm not sure that everything Davis says on Pages 216 and 17 makes a whole lot of sense. Now, clearly, there is a there is good reason to try and identify in advance criteria for justifying acts of civil disobedience. But let's see if all of Davis's criteria make a whole lot of sense. His first one appears at the bottom of page 216. The first criterion is that the law being resisted must be unjust and immoral and clearly contrary to the will of God. I put a check by that. We shouldn't resist laws simply out of whim or for reasons of self-interest. The law that we are resisting must clearly be unjust and immoral. It must be a violation of the will of God. You don't go out there and disrupt society just because somebody is, let's say, discriminating against the Cleveland Indians. The second principle and here I have a question mark. Legal means of changing the unjust situation should have been exhausted. Now, I'm not so sure about that. Let's take Operation Rescue. Let's take the whole abortion thing. Clearly, we have not exhausted all legal means. Clearly, we are on the brink of some Supreme Court decisions, thank God, that are going to overturn Roe versus Wade.


[00:18:00] And and here comes the regret. Return. Return this whole business to state legislatures. What that means, of course, is that it will then be no longer the law of the whole land, that abortion on demand can occur, that states, state legislatures will have to fight this out. And there's a good chance that the number of states in which innocent babies can be killed will be severely restricted. People will still kill them in New York City, probably still kill them in Connecticut and New Jersey. But maybe it will stop the killing in states like Kentucky. Most likely we will stop the killing in Pennsylvania. All right. So we can maybe save hundreds of thousands of unborn children a year. Now, should we just sit on our hands until until the courts have finally settled this once and for all? I don't think so. I think what we're what we're what we're seeing are our courageous people agitating, trying to raise the level of society's consciousness on this matter. Maybe. Maybe they're not always doing it in the right way. But when people are dying, you just I mean, can you can you imagine? Can you imagine two people picketing, picketing outside of a German concentration camp and somebody else coming along and saying, well, look, we haven't yet exhausted all legal means in this matter. Why don't you put you know, why don't you put your picket signs down and give us a few more years? Well, in a few more years, there won't be any Jews left in Europe. He does say there may, of course, be situations in which the injustice is so grave and immediate that there is simply no time for lengthy legal appeals. Okay. Thank you for correcting me on that.


[00:19:52] Number three here, I think I do disagree with Davis. The act of disobedience must be public rather than clandestine. Now, he does have he does have a reason for saying this for the purpose of civil disobedience is to get the public's attention focused on unjust law. It's kind of hard to get the attention the public's attention focused on unjust laws if you're doing it secretively. All right. The whole purpose to civil disobedience does seem to be the need for public actions. However, there are times, I would suggest, when there can indeed be legitimate acts of civil disobedience which must be secretive and clandestine. Those Christians who protected Jewish people from the grip of the Nazi concentration of Nazi forces during World War Two, they could hardly make their actions public. The fact that they were resisting unjust laws at the risk of their own life and and and well-being was an act of civil disobedience. But it could not have been made public. Right. Or else they'd have been carted off. There wouldn't have been anybody left to save those Jewish lives. In the case of the Hebrew midwives, they could hardly. They could hardly have made their civil disobedience known publicly, because then Cyril would have put them out of business as midwives and would have issued an edict that the only midwives, all midwives would have to be Egyptians. Public civil disobedience is much more difficult in a totalitarian under a totalitarian regime like the Pharaoh or like the Nazis, where if you go public with your disobedience, you're going to get killed, you're going to get shot. But you're saying so long as we are dealing with a reasonably democratic government there. The civil disobedience can and should be public, because, again, one of the purposes for acting in a civil disobedient way is to draw the attention of unknowing people to the injustice of this law.


[00:22:31] All right. So you've helped us make a distinction there. Criterion three will work in a in an open society, but it won't work in a closed society. So we can just sort of add that little qualification of that that satisfy everybody. Certainly there should be some likelihood of success. Well, I don't know about that either. Boy, I'm kind of cranky here all of a sudden. All right. There must be some. We pointed that, we noticed that that's one of the criteria for a just war. You're not going to be prosecuting a just war. If there's little likelihood of success, you're going to sentence all these people to die and all of this bloodshed and harm and no real hope for success. Same way with civil disobedience. But look, I'm not sure those early civil rights fighters in Birmingham, Alabama. I'm not sure they were all that confident of success. I think rather they simply said that that lady who first refused to go to the back of the bus, I'm not sure she thought of winning or success. She just said, listen, white boy, that's not right. All right? You ain't getting me tomorrow. It ain't right. I don't care whether I succeed or not. There are times when you take a stand whether you're going to win or not, because it's the right thing to do. Finally, number five. And here I would put a check. And I'll let me also say here, I'm not sure. I'm not sure I could identify criteria of civil disobedience. But number five is correct. Those who consider civil disobedience should be willing to accept the penalty for breaking the law. These whiners and complainers who want to break the law and then get so mad when they get thrown in jail.


[00:24:38] This is what I I mean, if you're not willing to pay the price, then then don't start this stuff. All right. It seems to me that if your cause is just if this law is unjust and you are willing to take this stand, then you be willing to pay the price, which means being humiliated by the police, being handcuffed, being thrown in a paddy wagon, being thrown in jail, being searched, suffering the indignities that the police force are imposing upon many of these operation rescue people. Be willing to pay the price. Otherwise, don't. Don't pretend to get involved.