Forgiveness, Prisons, and Capital Punishment
I have been preaching a series of lessons on the life of Moses. This character simply has more material concerning him than one could ever preach, even if it was the only source of sermon material. Anyway, I’ve moved along pretty quickly, and I have omitted quite a bit of sermon material, more than enough for another series or two.
One passage that I did mention ever so briefly, but did not develop, was the story of the rebellion of the people of Israel after the spies returned from scoping out the land of Canaan. As a result of the rebellion God was about to destroy the whole nation, and Moses “stood in the breech” as it were and begged God to reconsider. Moses’ speech was quite effective, and God forgave the people. You really need to read the entire passage in context, beginning with Numbers 13:1, but the critical section is this: (Moses is speaking first)
In accordance with your great love, forgive the sin of these people just as you have pardoned them from the time they left Egypt until now. The LORD replied, I have forgiven them as you asked. Nevertheless, as surely as I live and as surely as the glory of the LORD fills the whole earth, not one of the men who saw my glory and the miraculous signs I performed in Egypt and in the desert but who disobeyed me and tested me ten times, not one of them will ever see the land I promised on oath to their forefathers… (Num. 14:19-23, NIV)
Have you ever really stopped to consider that passage? I would like to pose some questions regarding that theologically packed verse.
1. How does this passage correct our view of “forgive and forget?” That is one pop-psychology phrase that really irks me. How can a woman forget a rape? How can a child forget the murder of a parent or a parent the murder of a child? When we tell someone that they must forgive and move on I believe we heap untold amounts of guilt upon them. Here, live and in living color, God clearly forgives the people, but far from forgetting their crime, he stipulates that the generation that was old enough to rebel against him must die in the desert. Are we saying that humans have the capacity, and therefore the responsibility, to do something that God himself was not willing to do?
2. What does this passage have to speak to us about the use of capital punishment, if anything at all? Is it possible to forgive someone, and yet still demand that they forfeit their life because of the crime they have committed? I have heard it said repeatedly by many different people from many different walks of life that if you forgive someone you cannot punish them for the crime that you have forgiven. It is as if the act of forgiveness erases the crime. If I forgive someone of murdering my relative (and, by the way, I have had a family member murdered, so this is not simply an academic question for me), are they still liable for the crime of murder?
3. If you answered the above question in the negative, what does that have to say about lengthy prison sentences? How can we forgive someone of the crime of murder and thereby take the death penalty off of the table for discussion, and yet still demand that the person spend the rest of their life in prison? Are we not splitting the chin whiskers of a gnat? It seems to me as a matter of legal, moral and theological consistency that if forgiveness eliminates the possibility of the death penalty then it eliminates the possibility of any kind of penal punishment. I mean, forgiveness is forgiveness, right?
I am one of the strange breed of individuals who still believes in the appropriate use of capital punishment, and this is one of the passages (and there are many others) to which I can point and ask some serious questions. God clearly forgave. That point cannot be denied. And yet God punished, and used the “death penalty” as punishment. Are we simply to erase this episode due to the fact that is occurred on the other side of the cross? Then, what shall we say about God’s forgiveness on the other side of the cross. Was it erased too?
I am willing to discuss the issue, because I believe it is both a serious theological and secular issue. In addition to believing it is appropriate to use the death penalty, I believe it has been abused by the judicial system in the US, and I believe that there needs to be some major adjustments in how it is used. But that is true at every level in our judicial system.
I welcome any feedback and push backs.