Dartmouth College Chapel
September 25, 2011
Matthew 10:34 and Matthew 26:47-56
In keeping with the chapel theme for this term, “The Bible and the newspaper”, I have chosen to talk about state-sanctioned killing. This subject has been much in the newspaper this week because of the controversy surrounding two executions: one in Georgia of Troy Davis, and the other in Texas of Lawrence Russell Brewer. The state traditionally has claimed the right to kill in two situations: when there has been an egregious crime, and in war. We are also, of course, engaged in three wars at the moment. The rationale for killing in both cases – capital punishment and war - is that sometime the state has to end life in order to save lives.
Our scripture passages tonight give something of a background for approaching this question from a Christian perspective. Both passages are from Matthew. One reports that Jesus said, “I have come not to bring peace but a sword.” The other tells the story of Jesus’ betrayal, when Judas brought the Roman soldiers to his secret location. To defend Jesus, one of his disciples (John’s gospel says it was Peter) took a sword and attacked the soldiers, cutting off one of their ears. Jesus rebuked the disciple and said “Those who live by the sword shall die by the sword”, or “all who take the sword shall die by the sword.” Now these two stories, from the same gospel, demonstrate the ambivalence that Christians have long displayed about state-sanctioned killing.
I say state-sanctioned because I don’t think there’s any question among Christians, or indeed among people in general, that killing other persons is wrong. We are not permitted to do that, under any circumstances except, some would say, in self-defense. But when the state orders us to kill – well, most Christians seem to think that’s OK.
It has not always been that way. The Christian faith arose out of an execution. Jesus was executed, after a trial by the Roman government. His execution was not unique: two others were executed on that day, and, indeed, if you have seen the movie Spartacus, you know that executions by crucifixion were not at all unusual. Any act of perceived rebellion merited crucifixion. Now, since Christian faith has at its heart, and on its altars, the cross, the image of execution, one would think Christians would think about the subject carefully, and that we would be predisposed to oppose it.
But alas, throughout our history, and indeed up to the present day, a majority of Christians, especially in our country, seem to think that execution is OK.
Indeed, in a presidential campaign debate about ten days ago, one of the candidates was cheered when he expressed support for the death penalty. This same candidate has been among the most overt in his expression of Christian faith. Yet, during this past week, the opposition to the execution of Troy Davis in Georgia was led mainly by people of faith – Christians mainly, but others as well.
This issue is not new. I remember when Bill Clinton was running for president (I realize this was before some of you were born). He was in a sticky situation as governor of Arkansas because he had the power to commute an execution that was about to take place in that state. President Clinton also, you may not know, made a great deal of his faith when he was a candidate. So he may have been inclined, by his faith, to commute the sentence. Yet the polls (as you know, he also lived by the polls) said that he would gain political advantage if he let the execution go forward. So what did he do? He said that he consulted with his pastor, who showed him in the bible that executions were permitted. And thus, assured that he was acting righteously, he let the execution go forward.
It has often been said that an atheist could not be elected president of the United States. Perhaps that is true, but it is also true, I think, that an opponent of the death penalty could not, at this point, be elected president of the United States. And certainly any candidate who said, explicitly, that he or she would hesitate to use military force for moral reasons would have a great deal of trouble being elected in this very “Christian” country. Both positions are at odds with many of our national allies, where religious observance may be less prevalent, but where a different way of thinking about violence seems to dominate.
And it does seem to be a different way of thinking. Psychological studies of the brain-functioning of people who are asked to consider situations of violence and questions of justice reveal that people do think about them differently. People who are more accepting of capital punishment and of military action show a higher level of activity in the amygdala, which is the center of the brain’s ancient fight or flight response. These people are concerned about security at a basic, reflex level. Those who oppose capital punishment and military action show a greater level of activity in the frontal cortex, which is more involved with sorting options and making judgments. A good soldier is trained to respond to threats from the amygdala. A Supreme Court judge, on the other hand, is trained to deliberate.
It is probably apparent to you that my understanding of Christian faith elevates the importance of non-violence. I know that I am in a minority, but it is a minority that has always been present in the Christian church. Prior to the dramatic conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine, who made Christianity the official Roman religion, Christians did not serve in the Roman army. After Constantine, the army was Christian. So the mainstream of Christianity shifted. But small groups of Christians, monks and others, including later protestant groups like the Amish, the Church of the Brethren, the Mennonites, the Quakers – those who are affiliated with the radical reformation - have adhered to non-violence as a central tenet of Christian faith. My own tradition, Presbyterianism, has been a fighting one. But now there are many Presbyterians who are active in Presbyterians for Peace, or of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. I would like to think that even if we don’t oppose violence because of our faith, we are coming to oppose it on pragmatic grounds – based on the belief that violence hardly ever – maybe never – brings peace or justice. I know that some of you would argue with me on that point, and I welcome that discussion, after chapel or elsewhere. But for now, I just ask you to think about it. What does the newspaper say? What does the Bible say? Taken as a whole, both newspapers and the Bible are full of violence that is blessed by the state and/or by God. But for me, the whole weight of the Christian story goes against it.
When Jesus said, “I have come to bring the sword,” he immediately followed that statement (in Matthew) by making it a metaphor. He said that his teachings would be controversial and would divide families - son against father, daughter against mother-in-law. He was speaking, I think, metaphorically. But when he said, “Love your enemies”, I think he meant don’t kill them.
 I found this intriguing aphorism ion a bumper sticker printed by a congregation of the Church of the Brethren.