The Sermon Mall



Mean Crowd

Luke 4:21-30
"When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with wrath. And they rose up and put him out of the city, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their city was built that they might throw him down headlong. But passing through the midst of them he went away." They did not like his preaching so they decided to kill him as a lynch mob, and as you know "The Rest of the Story" you know that in the end he was put to death by legal means.
Perhaps because this story is our text for this morning and because of the execution of Kermit Smith this week, there is a legitimate place for a discussion of the death penalty. But to put it that way would obscure the fact that I am one of those "hit dogs that is howling." One of the proverbs I grew up with was a hit dog always howls. Tuesday morning in the New and Observer Anne Saker had a long article in the Metro section, "Few Pastors tackle capital punishment in sermons." Anne says "Members of the clergy do not preach about capital punishment very much, certainly not nearly as often as they have talked about abortion..." I am one of those who is hit by that charge. I have not preached a sermon in 27 years on the subject of Capital Punishment. So this morning in response to that charge I am going to share my troubled strugglings on that issue.
One of the reasons I have never done this before, is I really do not like to make such issues the topic of a sermon. But on this particular issue, I remember what Thumper's mother said in the movie Bambi, "If you can't say anything good, don't say anything at all." And I can't say anything good on this issue. How can I feel good about preaching on a subject in which I am out of step with the views expressed by the Presbyterian General Assembly and out of step with the position taken by all major Christian denominations. All which have officially denounced capital punishment. So perhaps it would be better for those who oppose capital punishment if I didn't say anything.
What I will share with you this morning is only the troubled wrestling of one Christian seeking to be responsible. I do not urge it upon you. I do not claim it as the Christian position. How could I when all the denominations officially oppose it? I am not even sure it makes sense. If you see great flaws and major gaps, you do me a service in teaching me where I might be more ethical, for I am certainly not a zealot in that I am For Capital punishment. It is only that I cannot be against Capital punishment and be for the system of justice which I think gives us a Christian people the best means to participate in making justice a reality for all of us.
Those who oppose the Death Penalty begin with the conviction that-- the 6th Commandment "Thou Shall not Kill" is being violated by the state. Yet most Christians throughout history have found ways to justify some killing-- there are just wars in which soldiers are not held to be guilty of killing when they shoot the enemy. There are accidental events in which death happens and those who are a part of those deaths are not guilty. "We were rough housing in the house and I pushed him and he fell and hit his head on the marble fire place and died." Surely a deliberated sentencing of death by Roman Law is different ethically and morally from the hostile lynching of a mob in his home town. The carefully deliberated sentence of a jury is not the same thing as maliciously planned and executed murder.
At least in the society and culture which lived and worshipped by the Ten commandments, the children of Israel, the Jews, who had these Ten commandments, also had death penalties which it was appropriate for society to execute. The woman taken in adultery who was brought to Jesus was going to be taken out and stoned to death for the crime of adultery and they did not think they were violating the 6th Commandment. The Biblical witness would not suggest that state imposed punishment of death was the same as a violation of the 6th commandment.
We keep trying to make life simple. To reduce it to slogans. Pro-Life or Pro Choice. Against the death penalty or for the death penalty. And I confess it never seems that simple to me. We live in the midst of a fallen world with human beings who are mixtures of haloes and horns. For society to function at all we all agree to give certain powers to certain offices for the purpose of protecting all of us. St. Paul in Romans says that the state has been established by God to protect the good citizens from the evil ones. Society participates in the deliberations of what is good and worth protecting and what is unacceptable and then gives power to certain institutions to enforce those standards.
It was the minds and heart of C.S. Lewis who confronted me with the great difficulties we have in deciding how we want society to punish those who violate the standards of society. When C.S. Lewis was writing and as far as I can tell even now, there are only two major approaches society can take to punishment. There are two broad and different concepts and notions of the purpose of punishment. One is the lex talionis, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. We call it Retributive Justice now. It is the notion that once it is proved what you did and what harm you did, then a jury determines what punishment would be fitting for that offense.
The other major approach to punishment is rooted in the idea that the punishment ought to be so tailor to the crime and the criminal that it will reform and change, rehabilitate the offender. If the criminal is sick, then the punishment ought to be a cure. If the criminal is like Susan Smith, emotionally and mental disturbed, then the punishment ought to be therapy that fixes her. The psychotic killer who is sentenced to a mental hospital to be treated, and is discharged when the doctors declare her well.
C.S. Lewis argues, and I have never been able to free myself from his argument, that it is only in Retributive justice that you and I as average, ordinary citizens can participate. As disappointing as it may sound the approach to justice in which all of us get a chance to be peers is the retributive system. You put me on a jury and ask me if I think that six months attendance at a 12 step group will rehabilitate this criminal because the crime was a drug related crime, and all I can do is shrug my shoulders and say I haven't got a clue. Only an expert, a doctor, a psychiatrist, psychologist, a counselor can even begin to make an educated guess. But if you put me on a jury and ask me if I think that it is just, fair and appropriate to take this person's license for a year because of the recklessness and damages done by driving drunk and I can say I think two years would be better, or I can say six months seems more fair to me. It is only in the retributive system of justice that we can all participate and where my harshness has to encounter and contend with your gentleness until we come up with something we both think is fair.
Now neither approach in our fallen world is without its abuses and liabilities. One look at the circus in L.A. and you can see most of the problems with our jury system. But rehabilitative justice is open to other kinds of abuses and liabilities. Suppose the expert does not think I have properly rehabilitated myself after 75 years in his hospital for running a red light. I stay in jail. Suppose that psychotic killer is given some medication declared to be well, and let out in six weeks after killing ten people.
In our crazy world of saints and sinners it seems to me that we are better served justice in a system that intends to be retributive. More people are able to participate and to have an opinion that matters and contributes. The retributive system of justice had a jury of human beings come back and say that what Kermit Smith did was so heinous, so cruel, so awful that the only thing they could think of that was an appropriate punishment for the offense of his deeds was for him to have his life taken. It is important for me to note that the retributive system does not argue that taking Kermit life will prevent others from killing people. That is not its intention. The retributive system does not attempt to bring peace to the family of the victims. All the retributive justice approach says is that these people believe that this punishment is appropriate for this particular crime.
As a Christian human being who believes that the expression of love for creation and society is best expressed to all human beings by justice, I find myself defending and supporting the retributive concept and approach to punishment. The capital punishment of Jesus by legal authorities is a very clear and stark reminder that not all capital punishment sentences are just, fair or appropriate. The sinfulness of humanity often gets expressed through our system. The lust for revenge and the abuses of power have resulted in miscarriages of justice and fairness. But the death sentences is not given out that many times when considered by all the number of cases which involve the death of a human being and the thief on the cross acknowledged that he got what he deserved. There are not that many mistakes.
So because I believe that justice is best served in our society by a retributive understanding of punishment, because retributive justice allows for the active and meaningful participation of all citizens in society, because each person does have a moral sense of balance, that such a punishment is fit for such a crime, I do not believe that a retributive system of justice ought then to have the ultimate option taken away from it simple because a few moral experts do not think it is right. If we believe that this jury of average human beings can and do come up with what is fair and just for 98 percent of the crimes why should we mistrust them and deny them the authority to make the ultimate decision in those other cases. On what grounds we will remove from this system the option of the death penalty.
To my poor troubled heart society works best with a retributive understanding of its punishment. But we can still work to rehabilitate those who violate society's standards but we just do not ask the jury to do that job. Retributive justice permits all men and women to participate as equals. And there does not seem to me to be any valid reason why the Retributive approach should have the death penalty removed from the options it might choose.
There are good men and women of deep Christian convicts who understand this issue in different ways. There is a speech given by Thomas More in Man for all Seasons when he is let out of prison and Henry has declare that all of his servants will sign the oath. Meg says what different does it make what the oath says, and More says, "Listen, God made the angels to show him splendor-- as he made animals for innocence and plants for their simplicity. But Man he made to serve him wittily, in the tangle of his mind. If God suffers us to fall to such a case that there is no escaping, then we may stand to our tackle as best we can, and yes, Will, then we may clamor like champions…if we have the spittle for it. And no doubt it delights God to see splendor where only look for complexity. But it's God's part, not our own, to bring ourselves to that end. Our natural business lies in escaping…so let get home and study this oath. Perhaps I can sign it."
We live in such complexity and with such difficult issues, it is because of such issues and their difficulty, that I rejoice that you and I are not saved by being right. We are saved by a grace we do not earn, we are redeemed by a mercy we have not right to receive. We are saved because we accept that Jesus Christ is our Lord and savior. We are saved because we acknowledge that we are not smart enough to be good and perfect all the time. You and I are not going to heaven because we have the right answer to the abortion question or capital punishment. We are not called by Jesus Christ to be right on any of these issues. We are invited by Him to try to serve him the best we are able in the midst of all of the struggles. To serve him wittily and to serve him joyfully, joyfully because we do not have to be right, we are saved by His grace which He has already given to us.
Rick Brand First Presbyterian Church of Henderson, N.C.