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Russell Moore Christian Blog and Commentary

Russell Moore

Russell Moore's Blog

Pope Francis pronounced this week that the death penalty is “inadmissible,” changing officially the Roman Catholic Church’s teaching on capital punishment. He had previously called for the abolition of the death penalty worldwide in 2016. The updated Catechism of the Church now regards capital punishment as “an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.”

According to the Pope, the mandate to oppose the death penalty comes from the Ten Commandments; “The commandment ‘You shall not kill’ has absolute value and applies to both the innocent and the guilty.” Some may wonder, then, whether consistent Christianity ought to, as the Pope says, mandate moral and political objection to capital punishment in all circumstances.

Let me first say where I agree with the Pope. He is absolutely right about the value of human life. I am glad that he has spoken up against a culture of death that sees life as, in his words, “disposable.” He is also right about the church’s responsibility to prisoners, to remember those who are jailed, to minister to them, and to work against policies that violate human dignity or harden criminals in their criminality.

That said, I cannot agree with Pope Francis that the death penalty is, in all circumstances, a violation of the command not to murder.

There is, of course, a stream of Christian thought that consistently opposes the death penalty. This is the pacifist tradition, represented in many places in the ancient church and in, for example, Anabaptist churches. The pacifist view sees all killing as morally wrong, under all circumstances. This view opposes not only capital punishment but also war or military action. This tradition would forbid Christians from serving in the military or from authorizing lethal action as civil magistrates with responsibility for military or police forces. At least since Augustine, the Roman Catholic Church has defended the principle of “just war” in at least some circumstances, as has most of Protestantism. But that’s where the debate is: is every act of killing murder, or not?

If one believes the state can order the military to kill opposing combatants in war, one does not, by definition, believe that every instance of the state killing is a violation of the commandment not to murder.

In fact, the Mosaic Law in which the Ten Commandments are revealed provides for capital punishment in multiple instances. To be sure, the civil aspects of the Mosaic covenant do not apply outside of the theocratic order of the Old Testament covenant nation of Israel. The new covenant applies a command of capital punishment in the old covenant to church excommunication in the new (1 Cor. 5:13; Deut. 13:5). Even so, the point here is that the Mosaic Law itself draws a distinction between murder and lawful execution by the state.

Moreover, the application of the death penalty predates the Mosaic code. In the covenant with Noah, God forbade murder and simultaneously made provision for the death penalty in some instances. “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image,” God declared (Gen. 9:6). Those who oppose the death penalty would say that this merely describes the reality rather than proscribing it. And yet, God seems to ground the shedding of blood by man in the dignity of human life. Humanity, created in the image of God, is of such value that to murder is to bear the most awful consequences imaginable, the forfeiture of one’s own life.

In the New Testament, Jesus and then his apostles forbid the church from exercising vengeance on anyone (Matt. 5:38-44), and even from exercising judgment over those on the outside (1 Cor. 5:12). And yet, in Romans 13, right after the Apostle Paul has called Christians away from vengeance (Rom. 12:14-21), Paul speaks of the Roman state “bearing the sword” against “evildoers” by God’s own authority (Rom. 13:1-5). Some have argued (unconvincingly, in my view) that this “bearing the sword” is police power, not death penalty. But police power, if armed with lethal arms, always carries at least the possibility of the death of the evildoer. If that is always and everywhere murder, then it deserves the full sanction of God’s moral judgment.

Paul does no such thing, even though the Bible elsewhere clearly calls out as unjust and immoral the state’s execution of the innocent (Rev. 20:4). The thief on the cross, in his repentance, recognizes that his actions are indeed deserving of the punishment he was receiving, which was death, while Jesus’ execution was not deserved and thus unjust (Lk. 23:41).

This does not settle the question of whether we ought to have capital punishment. There are, in many places, serious problems with the application of capital punishment. DNA evidence has uncovered places where innocent people were executed; such is immoral and an act of public injustice (Prov. 17:15). There are in many places racial and economic disparities in capital punishment. Such is an abomination to a God who is impartial and demands impartiality in justice. These are problems not just with capital punishment but with almost every aspect of criminal justice, including prison sentencing.

Christians can debate whether a state should declare a moratorium on capital punishment while reforming unjust sentencing practices. Christians can debate whether the death penalty is effective as a deterrent or whether the death penalty is meaningful at all in a world in which legal systems delay for years the application of the penalty. These are prudential debates about how best to order our political systems, not debates about whether every act of state killing is murder and thus immoral and unjust.

The Pope is here making more than just a prudential argument. He is applying the commandment against murder to every application of capital punishment. On that, I believe he is wrong. We may disagree, with good arguments on both sides, about the death penalty. But as we do so, we must not lose the distinction the Bible makes between the innocent and the guilty. The gospel shows us forgiveness for the guilty through the sin-absorbing atonement of Christ, not through the state’s refusal to carry out temporal justice.

Photo courtesy: ©Thinkstock/allanswart

I sometimes post pictures on Instagram of books that I’m reading, usually just a stack on my table to let my followers know what I’m thinking about at the moment. The stack is almost always very heavily redacted. It’s not (necessarily) a list of recommendations, but a real-time rundown of what I’m consuming. Even so, I would never include in the stack Why I Don’t Believe in God or Beyond Good and Evil or Why Country Music Is Awful, for fear that some might think I agree with those ridiculous arguments. There was one book that I didn’t post on Instagram though for an entirely different reason; I didn’t want to be thought a hypocrite. I still don’t, but the case was so compelling that I’ve decided I don’t care.

The book, Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, by Silicon Valley scientist and entrepreneur Jason Lanier, was, in some ways, dealing with predictable issues familiar to the genre: on addiction, attention spans, bullying, and so forth. What caught my attention though was the section dealing with something approaching a disturbing account of human nature, an account that rings true with what I’ve seen both in the digital and the real ecosystems.

We all know that social media platforms amplify the voices of “trolls,” those extraordinarily wounded psyches who seek out such venues to vent their inner demons with anger. Lanier’s argument, though, is not just that social media give a hearing to trolls but that these media are making us all, a little bit, into trolls. He uses a word that is less-than-evangelical-friendly, but that is synonymous with a boorish, mean-spirited, jerk, and says that social media actually can make us into people like this.

PERSON OR TRIBE?

To make his case, Lanier compares human nature to that of wolves, arguing that in every human personality there is the mode of the solitary and that of the pack. When our “switch” is set to “Pack,” he contends, we shift into emergency mode, to the protection of the real or imagined “tribe.” This mode is necessary, he contends; think of when individuality should essentially evaporate into the larger collective, say, in a time of military attack. This should be rare, though, and the “switch” should usually be kept in the “Solitary Wolf” mode.

“When the Solitary/Pack switch is set to Pack, we become obsessed with and controlled by a pecking order,” Lanier writes. “We pounce on those below us , lest we be demoted, and we do our best to flatter and snipe at those above us at the same time. Our peers flicker between ‘ally’ and ‘enemy’ so quickly that we perceive them as individuals. They become archetypes from a comic book. The only constant basis of friendship is shared antagonism toward other packs.”

This is why, he argues, nonsense is a more useful tool of building online “viral” content than is reason or imagination or truth. When “truth” is defined by what is useful or “memeable,” one’s embrace of that “truth” is a signal not that it is based in reality but instead that it makes one part of the digital “pack.” Those who fall repeatedly for what are self-evidently absurd concepts they latch on to on the internet are not necessarily stupid (though they may be). They are looking for a place to belong, and that’s the price.

Lanier argues that capitalism and democracy cannot survive while the “Pack” mode is permanently switched to “on.” He writes: “Tribal voting, personality cults, and authoritarianism are the politics of the Pack setting.” The solitary wolf is forced to care about the larger reality more than the perceptions of the tribe. That leads to the qualities of the scientist or the artist as opposed to what happens when social status and “intrigue” become more important, a situation that forces one to act more “like an operator, a politician, or a slave.”

INDIVIDUALS IN COMMUNITY

He’s right not only about the economic or democratic conditions around us, but also about a reality he doesn’t examine at all: that of the church. The church requires a balance between individuality and community. When individuality becomes disconnected from community, one refuses to submit to one another or to serve one another. But the opposite is also true. If I find my identity in the community, or in the community’s perception of me, I am no longer free to serve the community.

I can only do that if I bring to the community the gifts God has given to me, anchored in an identity that is found in Christ. That’s why the Spirit uses the analogy of the body and the organs of the body for life in the church—organically connected but distinguishable. Indeed, when the personal is absorbed into the raw rush to the collective, we end up with angry tribes within the church (“I am of Peter; I am of Apollos…” 1 Cor. 1:12). Those who do so are not selflessly serving the whole; they are instead seeking to selfishly find themselves, in a tribe they can war against another. This leads, the Apostle Paul tells us, to an animalistic biting and devouring of one another (Gal. 5:15).

Church splits and Twitter wars aren’t really all that different. Joining a cult and spending time wondering what people think about you online are different in degree, but maybe not that much in kind.

I’m not arguing that we all should delete our social media accounts. I am, though, wondering if you should spend some time asking whether your social media account is leading you places you can’t handle. Do you find yourself given over more to anger or to anxiety or to envy or to pack thinking? Then maybe it’s time to step back, or even to leave for a while.

After all, you weren’t created for a hive or a pack. You were created for a church. And, for that, you need more than a tribe. You need a soul. Your church needs that from you, too.

Photo courtesy: ©Thinkstock/marchmeena29

This week marks the 1000th issue of Action Comics, and the 80th anniversary of the Superman. Quite a bit has happened in the eight decades since Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created the now iconic hero. Brian Michael Bendis, long of Marvel Comics is coming over to Superman’s publisher, DC, to launch a new era for the Man of Steel. Oh, and, due to fan demand, the classic red trunks are back. As Clark Kent hits eighty, we perhaps should ask why the myth of the last son of Krypton has persisted so long in popular culture.

I do not write this as a neutral observer, but as a fan of the character—and the larger DC universe—since before I was even able to read. The stories from Smallville and Metropolis (and Gotham and Central City and Paradise Island) populated the Fortress of Solitude that was my childhood imagination in ways that, looking back, I think pointed me onward to the writings of Lewis and Tolkien and beyond. But why did I, along with millions of others over the past eighty years, want to put that red blanket over my shoulders and pretend to fly?

Superman's Appeal 

Author Grant Morrison (himself a prolific writer of comic books and graphic novels) has argued that Superman persists because he represents hope and power; he is the pop-culture equivalent of a “sun god.” Some psychologists would say that Superman appeals to us because of his power. We long for the grandiosity inherent in the ability to fly, outpace bullets, see through walls, or, as on the cover of that first Action Comics, lift a car over our heads. Some would say that children especially identify with the phenomenon of the secret identity; “I might seem to be bumbling, bespectacled Clark Kent, but if you could just see me in my Kryptonian battle armor…”

The idea of Superman as the idealization of strength and power would make sense. His name, after all, comes from Friedrich Nietzsche and his idea of the Übermensch from Thus Spoke Zarathustra. If Nietzschean power were what we longed for though, there would be other characters, more powerful than Superman, to stand in for hope. The atomic symbol of the Watchmen’s Doctor Manhattan would be far more appropriate than the S-looking logo of the House of El.

No, what we love about Superman is not his power so much as his vulnerability. In this, playwright David Mamet was right when he wrote in the 1980s that the real draw of Superman is not flight or X-ray vision, but Kryptonite. “Kryptonite is all that remains of his childhood home,” Mamet wrote. “It is the remnants of that destroyed childhood home, and the fear of those remnants, which rule Superman’s life.”

“Far from being invulnerable, Superman is the most vulnerable of beings, because his childhood home was destroyed,” Mamet argued. “He can never reintegrate himself by returning to that home—it is gone. It is gone and he is living among aliens to whom he cannot even reveal his rightful name.” The Superman mythos is then, he concludes, a fable not of strength but of a “cry for help.”

A Broken Hero

Mamet is partly right. An inexpressibly powerful alien force would not be as beloved, because such wouldn’t seem to ring true to our own lives. Kryptonite is the symbol of brokenness. More than the literal Kryptonite, though, is the metaphorical Kryptonite in the background. Superman wears the uniform of a lineage far away and lost forever. So in our world, he has learned to love those who welcomed him into the human family—the Kents. But even this further reveals brokenness. Superman may be the Man of Tomorrow, but he can be hurt; he can even be killed. And, yet his greatest weakness is that he can lose those he loves. We can identify with this. We don’t all come from Krypton, but we all have Kryptonite.

This brokenness, though, leads to purpose and mission. In the Geoff Johns era of the series (one of the best, in my opinion), Jonathan Kent tells his son, “Your greatest power isn’t being able to fly or see through walls. It’s knowing what the right thing to do is.” That’s consistently true of the character over the past eighty years. That’s one of the reasons the current incarnation of Superman is especially inspiring; he is a husband and a father, trying to do his best to balance family and work.

This sense of mission, and the ethical framework, undergirding it isn’t activated by a yellow sun, but by patient parenting. It didn’t come from Krypton, but from Kansas. Superman may carry out his adventures with the powers of Kal-El, but all the while he’s really Clark Kent. Those principles point him back to the joy and hurt of love that can die, but is as strong as death, stronger even.

Much has been made of the religious imagery in the Superman mythos—especially the Old Testament echoes of Moses in the basket. Some have suggested that Superman is a Christ figure, a concept implicit throughout the Superman Returns film and elsewhere. As a Christian, though, I think we identify with Superman not so much because he is godlike but because he is, underneath it all, so very human. We might be thrilled to see a superhero flying upward in the skies above us, but, really, we’re looking past him, for Someone else.

We’d all like to be saved from danger by a real or imagined Superman every once in a while. But super-men have come and gone. This character has persisted for almost a century. That’s not because we think he can save us, but because we know, deep in our hearts, that a Superman needs a savior too.

Photo courtesy: ©Thinkstock/Choreograph

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