I recently had the experience of lecturing at Pepperdine University on the (possible) roots of Jewish liberalism in the Book of Deuteronomy and the connection it makes between the redemption from slavery in Egypt and the obligation to help the disadvantaged. The subsequent discussion reminded me of something that has puzzled me for a long time: the apparent irrelevance of those passages (especially, in the current context, the ones about not mistreating “the stranger”: i.e., immigrants) to the political commitments of many who consider themselves Bible Christians.
That, in turn, reminded me of a related puzzle, this one based on a passage from the Gospels rather than the Hebrew Bible.
Consider, if you will, John 8:1-11, the story of the Woman Taken in Adultery.
Jesus went unto the mount of Olives. And early in the morning he came again into the temple, and all the people came unto him; and he sat down, and taught them.
And the scribes and Pharisees brought unto him a woman taken in adultery; and when they had set her in the midst, they say unto him, Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act. Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou?
This they said, tempting him, that they might have to accuse him. But Jesus stooped down, and with finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not. So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her. And again he stooped down, and wrote on the ground.
And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst.
When Jesus had lifted up himself, and saw none but the woman, he said unto her, Woman, where are those thine accusers? hath no man condemned thee? She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.
It’s a familiar story, having supplied two phrases (“casting the first stone” and “Go, and sin no more more”) that any reasonably literate English-speaker will recognize, even if unaware of their source.
And yet I have never heard it quoted in the debate on capital punishment. It seems, on the surface, to be quite decisive. The message seems to be that even if an offender has earned the death penalty under the law, no sinful human being is fit to carry it out. Is the Governor of Texas “without sin”?
So consider this an invitation to readers who know more about the Christian tradition than I do: What is the theory that reconciles this passage with support for actual imposition of the death penalty? (There seems to be more than a trace of doubt as to whether the passage was a part of the original Gospel of John, but that’s not someplace evangelical Protestants want to go.)
Footnote Some ground rules: This is not an invitation to argue about capital punishment, or about the truth or value of Christianity, or about the authority of the Bible. My question is how Christians who take the Bible as authoritative have actually dealt with the issue.
As to why death-penalty opponents don’t use this text, I think I have a good guess: it’s because, being liberals, they have swallowed the Rawlsian principle of “public reason” and thus consider the use of sacred text inadmissible in political argument. Since the words attributed to Jesus aren’t binding on non-Christians, they shouldn’t be used – says Rawls – in public discourse. Here I would add “The fool!” save for my fear of Hellfire.