Friday, July 2, 2010
The Ten Commandments and the Death Penalty
Rocky Anderson, former Mayor of Salt Lake, stated that the Ten Commandments were meant to be commandments and not merely suggestions. He further emphasized, quoting from the Book of Exodus: “Thou shalt not kill.”
The point which Mayor Anderson was likely trying to make is that to kill a killer is still to kill. This viewpoint is held by many who oppose the death penalty. They ask how we can discourage homicide when we espouse its use by our criminal justice system. An old adage says that you can’t teach a child not to hit by hitting. For opponents of capital punishment, the same principle applies: you can’t teach someone not to kill by killing.
The problem with an issue such as the death penalty is that evidence is sometimes taken out of context to enhance the emotional aspect of an argument. In particular, Rocky Anderson’s example of the Ten Commandments fails to consider the totality of the Law of Moses which was practiced during the times referenced in the Old Testament. The Law of Moses was a form of theocratic government. It is true that one of the Ten Commandments reads, “Thou shalt not kill.” But it is also true that the next chapter of Exodus goes on to prescribe capital punishment for a number of offenses. The context of the Ten Commandments clearly shows that while murder was forbidden during the time of Moses, it was also punishable by death.
Capital punishment is a sensitive issue. Strong arguments can be made—and have long been made—on each side of the debate. Rocky Anderson brings up an incredibly valid point when he infers that killing is killing, no matter who carries out the deed. The philosophical implications of capital punishment are profound and have tried the intellect of great thinkers across the world. The reality of capital punishment is even weightier, and tries not the intellect alone, but also the hearts of those involved. It could be said that there is nothing more sacred in life than life itself. It is therefore no surprise that the enforcement of the death penalty would generate a tremendous amount of passion and debate.
There are numerous and valid reasons for supporting either side of the death penalty issue. However, an issue of such importance deserves to have arguments which provide evidence in its proper context. Many a war has been fought by focusing on various biblical passages at the expense of setting aside the context. There is even debate today over the meaning of certain passages in the Koran which has given way to violence on a global scale. Controversy and holy writ often seem to be firmly intertwined. And yet to ignite passion by ignoring context is irresponsible. Yes, the Ten Commandments state, “Thou shalt not kill.” Yet the Ten Commandments are only ten out of 613 commandments found in the Law of Moses. And the violation of some of those commandments was punishable by death.
The death penalty is a sensitive issue which rightly demands our respect. While persuasive arguments can be found on either side of the capital punishment aisle, it is only ethical to take context into consideration when arguing for or against the death penalty.