Mass Murder or Achieving Justice? This does not Absolve the Church of its Responsibility
By Michel Audi
Arabic newspapers recently reported the execution of nine convicts, convicted of murdering the former Attorney General of Egypt in 2015. While some commentators likened the executions to the “genocide of innocent young people,” others saw it as bringing justice to the country.
The execution took place while the Constitution was being amended to renew the mandate of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and strengthen his authority.
The implementation of the death penalty was the fastest in the history of cases handed down by the judiciary. A period of less than three months separated the sentencing from the execution, in contradiction with Egyptian legal norms.
All newspapers in Egypt, both private and state-owned, have strongly welcomed the execution of the nine people. The Seventh Day said that “justice has been achieved for the killers of the attorney general.” Al-Watan newspaper published a story titled “The Day of Retribution” while another said “Terrorism Under the Guillotine of Justice”. Majed Habtah defended the execution of those convicted of murder, saying: “We did not hear the voices of opponents objecting to or rejecting the punishment, except after 2014 with the introduction of sentences against terrorists, and before that some of them were waving banners and chanting slogans demanding the application of the death penalty.”
Theological and Missiological Reflections
There is no doubt that we are facing here a difficult and complex subject. How can I, as a believer, deal with this sensitive issue? How does God view the death penalty? What does the Bible say? How can I reconcile God’s justice with divine mercy?
The Old Testament canon recommended the death penalty for several crimes: Murder (Exodus 21:12), Kidnapping (Exodus 21:16), Adultery (Leviticus 20:10), Homosexuality (Leviticus 20:13), The Prophetic Claim (Deuteronomy 13:5), and Sexual Abuse (Deuteronomy 22:4), in addition to several other crimes. But, we often find God showing mercy when the death penalty is due. David committed adultery and murder, yet God did not take his life from him (2 Samuel 11: 1-5; 14-17, 2 Samuel 12:13), but gave him an opportunity to repent. In the end, every sin we commit must result in death, because the wages of sin are death (Romans 6:23). But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
When the Pharisees brought the woman who had committed adultery to Jesus and asked him if she should be stoned, Jesus answered, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7). This incident should not be a sign of Jesus rejecting of the death penalty in any case. Here Jesus simply revealed the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. The Pharisees wanted to deceive Jesus and make him break the law of the Old Testament. They did not care to stone the woman. Furthermore, where is the man who was with her in adultery? Did not they both deserve the same punishment? Jesus wanted to have mercy on that woman and give her the opportunity to repent and change, and here is found the divine mercy that must always be in line with justice. Jesus showed grace to people in cases where the death sentence was otherwise deserved.
The following question must be asked: Is the death penalty an example of murder or the achiement of justice? Do we make up for one death by the death of another?
One may respond: Speaking is easy, but the difficulty lies in the application. What should we say to the mother whose children had been killed, to the parents whose children dead bodies lay before their eyes? What should we say to a man whose wife was raped in front of him? How do we offer them justice? How can we heal their hearts?
There is no doubt that the answer is difficult, and that it requires divine intervention. Justice is required and God himself is a just God. We must remember that it was God who established the death penalty in the Old Testament and gave governments the power to determine when the death penalty was due (Genesis 9: 6; Romans 13: 1-7). We cannot question his wisdom and justice when he condemns the guilty or his mercy when he is merciful. As believers, however, we should not rejoice when the death penalty is applied.
It is difficult to say with certainty what the Bible teaches us in this regard; we find two things held together. Surely Jesus offers us new conceptions of love and compassion. He asked forgiveness for those who crucified him. He is the God of new opportunities. He wants to transform life, not destroy it. But that also does not mean all forms of punishment are to be done away with. The Bible tells us in Galatians 6:7 that “a man reaps what he sows.” Justice must be achieved and whoever commits a crime will be punished. But is death the solution? Does not the death penalty deprive criminals from their right to repent? Did the carrying out of the death penalty put an end to the crimes described? Did it heal the hearts of the victims’ families?
The church, of all denominations, does not agree on a unified vision of this issue. Some are in favor of the death penalty. Others are against it. Still others distance themselves from the issue. But, this does not absolve the church of its responsibility for establishing the concepts of love and tolerance among the people. The church should combat extremist mentalities and work towards building an environment, a culture, of reconciliation among the people. It must address the causes that lead to crime, rather than reaping the negative consequences of it. We, as Christians, must be like Christ, hoping that we can succeed in changing the world we live in as he did.