Thursday, May 15, 2008

Should We Invade Myanmar?

Published 05.16.08 at

On May 3, Cyclone Nargis struck Myanmar, one of the poorest nations on the planet. With a 12-15 foot tidal wave following it and winds around 150 MPH, devastation was the only result. Current Red Cross estimates of the dead range from 68,883 to 127,999, and up to 2.5 million people have been displaced. Already skyrocketed food prices were forced even higher by the destruction of the rice crops. And, as is always the case in such scenarios, sanitation and medical concerns mean that what happens in the ensuing weeks could easily wind up making the event itself seem like only the preamble. And what is the world doing to help? Everything it can…which is to say virtually nothing at all.

Because, you see, Myanmar is ruled by a group of petty tyrants who care more about their own paranoid fears than about the lives of millions of their people. And as international aid shipments are seized or wait helplessly by because they have so far kept their borders mostly closed to outsiders, we have to ask ourselves a very serious question: Just how many lives have to be at stake before it’s no longer possible to hide behind the flimsy excuse that we are honoring the emaciated abstraction of national sovereignty?

This is more than just some theoretical question poli-sci grad students might debate over darts and micro-brews, and we enable a grave evil if we let it remain merely that. This is real people’s lives hanging in the balance in a situation where hours, let alone days, matter. And if I have one regret at this moment, it is only that I did not write this column yesterday…or the day before that.

I confess that I don’t know whether we should invade Myanmar. But that’s only because the particular facts of the military scenario, the location of the people, and the likely cost in men and materiel are well beyond the scope of my own knowledge. But I want my President to make one of two statements. I either want him to explain to the rest of America why the facts of the situation justify using military force, or else I want him to explain to me why they do not. Because when considered as a theoretical question without the input of such details, this case is beyond obvious.

When your next door neighbor swears at his children, feeds them French fries and cake, and allows them to watch Tyra on TV, you pray for him and swallow the bitter pill of parental authority. But when a tornado hits his home and you can hear his children screaming for help as he sits on his lawn telling you to mind your own business, you wouldn’t even wait for the sheriff to arrive. How else would you live with yourself at night?

Our Declaration of Independence proclaims a profound belief “that ALL people are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life….” Well? Are they, or aren’t they? And if they are, why does it boggle the imagination that we would do something to save the lives of tens of thousands in a far away place just as we would to save the lives of a few or even one next door?

Unfortunately, American foreign policy hasn’t always been motivated by what it should be: our serious commitment to this simple idea that all people matter equally. And yet this is the principle which has made this country great and could serve to make our foreign policy equally great. This is a chance for us to do the right thing for no other reason than that it is the right thing, a chance to be truly proud of our ability to project force beyond our borders. Myanmar is a country with no strategic value whatsoever. It is nothing but a humanitarian opportunity, which may in fact give it the greatest strategic value of all. What will the slogan be this time: no war to deliver food in Burma?

We all know the United Nations will not act in time. Too many of the world’s governments fear putting their own oppressive sovereignty in jeopardy by setting a precedent like this. Let them rot in the guilt of their indecision. This is not tomorrow’s problem.

So what do I want? Only to force this discussion to take place and quickly. Besides, if my suspicions are correct, then real military action may be unnecessary. The mere threat of it may be sufficient to get them to relent. The Junta say they don’t want aid brought in because it will generate rebellion. Let’s change their calculus by threatening something worse than rebellion. Even paranoid fools would prefer the mere chance of insurrection over the guarantee of invasion. Thus my hope is that we’ll have to do nothing more than rattle our very loud sabers.

But if more is necessary, I submit two simple ideas. In principle, this is the rightest possible use of our military might. But in practice, I defer to the judgment of people far more informed about the particulars. Perhaps military action is impractical. Perhaps it jeopardizes the activities of NGOs already on the ground in small numbers. Perhaps the window of opportunity has already passed. Perhaps we’re just stretched too thin already. Or perhaps there’s just no good way to deliver food at gunpoint. As I say, these are questions for others to answer. But as for me, I would desperately hope that at the very least we would be willing to use our vast resources for the short time such an operation would likely last to at least have a chance at saving the lives of so many thousands of people. Lives which our most cherished documents affirm are supposed to matter as much as our own.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

What Love Isn’t

Publication Forthcoming in Greater Phoenix Christian Chronicle

I think I’m on safe ground saying that our culture is confused about love. In fact, people’s most common mistake when it comes to love is calling things love that are actually just examples of selfishness based on attachment to a person. Though it is natural, normal, and good to be attached to people, we must never assume that this is love. And the easiest way to see this is by comparing it with our attachment to our possessions.

I am attached to my car, which is why I would suffer if it were stolen, damaged, or destroyed. But I don’t love my car because I don’t care about my car’s needs. My car is an object, not a person, and I only care about what my car means to me by virtue of what it can do for me. This is the proper relationship of humans to objects.

The problem is that what most people call love is in fact merely this sort of attachment, just directed at a person rather than an object. It’s probably not over-simplifying to say that most people would define love as attachment to other people. Of course, love often involves attachment, and there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with being attached to people. But whereas objects have value exclusively because of their attachment to us, people have value all on their own independently from us. That is why the destruction of a person is always a tragedy (even in cases where it is necessary), regardless of whether this destruction hurts anyone else’s feelings. Humans have value regardless of their attachments. They have value in themselves.

And that’s where the possibility of love comes in. Love means serving people’s real needs, regardless of whether doing so runs contrary to our own emotional pleasure. This is why it is so inverted that people use the word love to describe so many acts which are merely emotional self-indulgence.

For instance, when you feel like you must be around another person all the time and your heart aches in their absence, this is not love. This is just being emotionally addicted to someone. Love would ask whether you are a the ideal blessing for this other person.

When you see your child suffering pain because of his own poor decisions and your agony is so great that you intervene to spare him, this is not love. This is worshipping your own empathy. Love would recognize his need to learn discipline and consequences, regardless of how much pain watching this caused you.

And when you weep because someone close to you moves away for marriage, this is not love. This is the contemplation of companionship lost to you. Love would celebrate their joy at a union which will give the gift of new life.

It’s not that feelings are bad, but all of these examples involve placing more emphasis on our emotions than on the needs of the other. And the easiest way to tell whether we are being loving or being selfish is to ask a simple question, “Am I acting to serve my own pleasure and pain, or am I acting to do what is good for them?” When we put our feelings ahead of other’s real needs, we have discovered ourselves objectifying other people and treating them as merely means to our own emotional gratification. Thus, the most common examples of what our culture calls love wind up being incredibly selfish acts instead.

Obedience is only shown when we don’t want to follow the rules but still do so. Submission is only shown when we disagree with the leaders but follow them anyway. And love is only shown when serving another person’s real needs will cause us pain and we choose to do what is best for them rather than what feels good to us…as the Cross should remind us.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Why I Support Capital Punishment, Part 11

Published 05.09.09 at

Previously, we saw how capital punishment is compatible with love, honors God’s sovereignty over life, and encourages the condemned to repent and be saved. Now, let’s finish our discussion by looking at three Biblical counter-examples to execution.

Religious Objection 6: What about Cain?

In Genesis 4, Adam and Eve’s two sons bring their offerings to God. God accepts Abel’s and rejects Cain’s. In his anger, Cain strikes and kills his brother. God discovers Cain’s violence and banishes him for life while also protecting him with some sort of Divine mark. Doesn’t this show that even God does not favor executing murderers?

One way to explain Cain’s survival is that the law against murder wasn’t given by God for another 1600 years after Noah’s flood. Even the Old Testament wasn’t written by Moses for another 900 years after that. But response fails since there is the punishment of banishing. If it wasn’t a crime because the law hadn’t been given yet, there would have been no punishment at all. Also, Cain clearly expected to be punished by God and men. Thus, his severe but non-capital banishment demands explanation, and the only Biblically plausible answer is that this wasn’t murder.

Nothing in the text indicates that Cain intended Abel’s death. Not only are there are hundreds of ways to strike a man and kill him unintentionally, but it’s even possible, seeing as how this is the first homicide in history, that Cain didn’t even understand the consequences of his assault. Furthermore, even if Cain did intend to kill Abel in a moment of rage, it’s not clear this would legally qualify as pre-meditated. God’s penal system distinguishes negligent homicide from murder. Thus, one might say we know it wasn’t murder precisely because only God banished him.

Religious Objection 7: What about King David?

In 2 Samuel 11, King David sees Bathsheba bathing on a rooftop near the palace, commands her to be brought to him, commits adultery with her, discovers she is pregnant, fails to trick her husband into sleeping with her to cover the pregnancy, and then has him killed through a complex military conspiracy. How does God respond? He sends Nathan the prophet to chastise David, who repents for his crimes and goes on living, but God condemns the bastard child to death.

If God is for capital punishment, why doesn’t David get executed? Both adultery and murder were capital crimes in Israel, and this must have been the worst-kept secret in the Mediterranean. There were even witnesses for every part of the conspiracy (a necessary component of Old Testament capital law). So why the leniency?

I believe it’s because David was King of Israel, anointed by God Himself through the prophet Samuel. Though this will sound strange to our ears; which have been trained by the concepts of law as king, the rule of law, and equality before the law; David was above the law. No matter what the anointed of God does, he is still holy because of the anointing and cannot be touched. David demonstrated this by refusing to kill King Saul, who deserved it many times over. Moreover, when David learns that an aide assisted Saul’s suicide in battle, David immediately executes him for touching God’s anointed.

So David was spared a doubly-deserved death only because he was king. Nevertheless, a life penalty was still taken: the child. Thus, the Bible gives one precedent to explain why David wasn’t killed and also a reason to think that the murder still required the compensatory death of a human. It’s certainly a difficult passage, but it’s also certainly not a clear repudiation of the death penalty.

Religious Objection 8: What about the woman caught in adultery?

In John 8:1-11, the Pharisees bring Jesus a woman caught in the act of adultery to see if He will authorize her execution. After He famously says, “He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her,” they all depart, and Jesus sends the woman on her way, saying, “Neither do I condemn you; go your way; from now on sin no more.” Of all passages in the Bible, this one most clearly shows that Jesus opposed capital punishment.

First, we should note that this passage is textually dubious. The best manuscripts don’t include it, and both its placement and style controvert its authenticity. Even so, the Christian community has long considered this an iconic story of Jesus’s mercy. So, to merely throw it out would be inappropriate. Besides, it may well be a legitimate story, just not one included in the John autoscript. Hence, an interpretation would be more helpful than a dismissal.

The trouble is that most people wildly misunderstand this story. The Pharisees’ only reason for bringing this woman to Jesus was to put Him in a dilemma. On the one hand, He couldn’t call for her execution since Roman law prohibited anyone other than a Roman court from doing this. The Pharisees proved they knew this when they later brought Jesus to Pilate rather than killing Him themselves. On the other hand, He couldn’t oppose her execution because this would have proven He was a false prophet for contradicting God’s Law. The passage even explains this in verse 6, “they were saying this, testing Him, in order that they might have grounds for accusing Him.”

So, the Pharisees wanted to make Jesus a heretic for opposing capital punishment, but He evaded their trap. The tremendous irony is that now, two thousand years later, people who claim to love Jesus teach that He was precisely the heretic His enemies wanted to paint Him as. If Jesus was in fact repudiating capital punishment in this story, then He was neither the Divine Son of God nor even a true prophet. As I’m apparently more reluctant than others to embrace this conclusion, I can’t interpret Jesus as rejecting the Old Testament here. Had He been, His enemies would have left jubilant rather than ashamed. There are many theories on the meaning of this story, but the one thing we must not do is use it to say Jesus overturned God’s Word as His enemies intended.


The religious and the secular arguments agree: capital punishment is purposeful, rational, and pleasing to God. If you have read all eleven of these columns, I thank you for your persistence and your patience. I trust this has been useful.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Why I Support Capital Punishment, Part 10

Published 05.06.08 at

Previously, we saw that neither forgiveness nor mercy are compelling reasons to abandon the Biblical practice of capital punishment. Now, let’s continue with the religious objections people raise against it.

Religious Objection 3: Execution is incompatible with love.

God loves all people, and we are told to “be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48) If we are supposed to love all people, this probably means not killing them.

But there’s an obvious problem here. God, Who loves all men, has killed many of them both directly Himself and also indirectly through His agents. He killed Ananias and Sapphira for lying to the Holy Spirit (Acts 5). He killed Uzzah the priest for mishandling the Ark of the Covenant (2 Samuel 6:3-11). His servant David famously killed Goliath for taunting God’s army (1 Samuel 17). And He seemed quite pleased for Elijah to slaughter the priests of Baal (1 Kings 18:17-40). So, here’s the quandary. Either God doesn’t actually love everyone or else it can be a very loving thing to kill someone. Either option moves execution off the list of things prohibited because we are supposed to imitate God’s love. The best solution is both simple and counterintuitive.

Is it possible to love someone and execute that person? My emphatic answer is, “Yes.” Loving someone means wanting what is best for that person. Though I obviously admit that many people advocate execution because of hatred for the criminal, it is also possible to advocate it out of love for him. Loving the murderer means honoring him as a moral agent with accountability for his actions and also allowing him to pay for them with the only payment that is proper. Failing to execute him denies him this opportunity to atone for what he has done. Loving the murderer also means preventing him from further defacing the image of God embodied in himself. Failing to execute him only enables his ability to continue his own self-destruction.

Religious Objection 4: Only God may decide who lives and dies.

Since only God can create life, only God has the prerogative to terminate life. When we execute murderers, aren’t we playing God and usurping powers reserved only to Him.

I think the best response to this challenge is a simple illustration. If a child tells the babysitter that she can’t make him go to bed at 9:30 because she’s not his mother, is he correct? No, because the babysitter has had bedtime authority delegated to her by the parent, within whose natural authority such power resides. If the babysitter walks in off the street and tries to put a child to bed, she is usurping parental authority. If she enforces the will of the parents in absentia, she is honoring that same authority. The issuance of instructions makes all the difference between improperly playing parent and properly discharging duties entrusted by the parents.

How do we know that God controls life and death? The Bible. How do we know that God assigns the authority to execute people to earthly governments? The Bible. Whatever certainty we have about the one equally enjoins us to perform the other. Executing murderers is not playing God. It is obeying Him.

Religious Objection 5: Execution prevents the possibility of repentance and being forgiven by God.

As Christians, our primary objective in life is to facilitate the reconciliation of sinners to God through repentance and accepting the sacrifice of Jesus Christ for their sins. When we allow our government to execute people, we are deliberately cutting off all chance for those most desperately in need of salvation to receive it, which is the only thing worse than the homicide itself.

Precisely because I so strongly agree with the spirit of this objection, I am happy to report that it actually endorses just the sort of capital punishment process we currently have in place. Nothing pricks the conscience to consider matters of eternity like the impending danger of death. Foxholes, sinking boats, life-threatening illnesses, and death row all serve as excellent motivators to ponder our status with God and do whatever we can to insure the right result.

Knowing you will die on Tuesday at 8:00 AM does far more in this way than the general knowledge that you will die at some completely unknowable moment in your incarcerated future. If we really want people to come to Jesus, the best way to raise that likelihood is by telling them when it will happen. Furthermore, people on death row regularly receive visits from the clergy, who are far more motivated to evangelize them than they are the ordinary inmate. Thus both the murderer himself and those around him are uniquely motivated by capital punishment to secure his salvation. Far from preventing repentance, execution increases the likelihood of it.

Another issue connected to this objection is the idea that people who have genuinely been converted should not suffer execution. Aside from the insoluble problem of distinguishing genuine conversions from forgeries, which would be enough to respond here, there is the fact that anyone who had truly repented for his sins would also be the last one to claim that he deserved to live. If he has embraced the gravity of his corruption necessitating the substitutionary atonement of Christ, he is not going to turn around and seek clemency from the state. More likely, he will embrace the attitude of the thief on the cross, who acknowledged the justice of his own condition during crucifixion beside his Lord. And, tellingly, the reward for his repentance and faith was the gift of eternal salvation with no reprieve whatsoever for the earthly punishment of temporal death.

In the next column, we’ll look at the three commonly used Biblical counter-examples to capital punishment: Cain, King David, and the woman caught in adultery.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Why I Support Capital Punishment, Part 9

Published 05.02.08 at

In the last two columns, I showed how the Bible consistently affirms capital punishment from Genesis to Revelation, including the teachings of Jesus. Nonetheless, many sincere Christians doubt this, and it is only fitting to entertain their objections.

Religious Objection 1: We should forgive people, not execute them.

Since forgiveness is the core of Christianity, people often say we are obligated to extend forgiveness to the murderer. After all, Jesus taught us to pray in Matthew 6:12, “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors,” and He added the emphasis in verses 14-15, “For if you forgive men for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions.” Such mandatory forgiveness hardly seems best expressed through execution.

One way to respond is by examining precisely what a justice system based on this interpretation of Jesus’s teachings would look like. If it is true that executing someone is an unchristian exercise in unforgiveness, it’s hard to see which punishment wouldn’t have to go. Though LIPWPP is more lenient than execution, life imprisonment still seems to be fairly unforgiving. It’s difficult to imagine a murderer sitting in jail after 40 years pondering the awe-inspiring forgiveness of his captors. Much shorter imprisonment would be more forgiving, but no imprisonment at all would be the zenith of forgiveness. Even community service, probation, and fines are less than fully forgiving. Thus, not merely execution, but all possible expressions of a justice system are incompatible with the forgiveness people claim Jesus is advocating here. LIPWPP advocates are showing the shallowness, not the depth, of their commitment to the principle of forgiveness.

I’m sure some would object that I’m being ludicrous here, but I would remind them of the clarity of the text. Its seemingly universal scope is not limited to merely capital crimes or execution. Moreover, Christian doctrine holds that we can be forgiven for any and all sins. Therefore, if the duty of the government is to forgive as much as God forgives us individually, we must not punish even a pickpocket or parking violator lest we forfeit our own forgiveness.

Now if someone seriously advocated anarchy for this reason, I would at least applaud his consistency. But one needn’t embrace such radical stupidity to honor Jesus’s doctrines. The problem, obviously, not with what He taught, but with how His teaching gets misapplied. Jesus was not trying to establish forgiveness as the guiding principle of government. He knew this was impossible. Forgiveness is an individual matter, and doesn’t even factor into governmental matters. Likewise, punishment, which is entirely a government domain, is not something individual citizens are tasked with doing. Jesus was instructing individuals, not writing a Constitution. Judging a state’s laws by their forgivingness is like judging a fish for how well he rides the bicycle.

Religious Objection 2: We should show mercy and not execute people.

Right at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus in Matthew 5:7 says, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” Later, when challenged by the Pharisees for His associations with sinners, Jesus says in Matthew 9:12-13, “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are ill. But go and learn what this means, ‘I desire compassion, and not sacrifice,’ for I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” Surely we can offer enough mercy to the murderer to grant him life in prison instead of execution.

Before dealing directly with this argument, I’d like to point out what it inadvertently acknowledges: that capital punishment is perfectly just. In urging a punishment reduction, mercy advocates are conceding that execution is the appropriate starting point. Reducing an excessive penalty to something proper is only remedying an injustice, not an expression of mercy. Mercy is someone doing less than he is justified in doing. Lowering the penalty for theft from hand amputation to imprisonment is just averting an injustice. Making it merely a fine would be an act of mercy. Thus, moving a murderer from death row to LIPWPP is only an act of mercy insofar as death row was the correct place for him for his crime. I mention this because many people who urge mercy also complain that capital punishment is barbaric, unfair, excessive, or unconstitutional. Capital punishment could be inherently wrong, or it could be right but unmerciful. It cannot be both.

Still, shouldn’t we try to be more merciful? Well…more merciful than whom? I only ask because I just spent two columns establishing that God the Father and God the Son both affirm capital punishment for murder. In fact God even specifically says He is offended by people being too lenient to murderers and thus failing to expiate the bloodguilt which the murderer brought upon the land (Numbers 35:31-33, see Part 7). Are we really to put ourselves in the position of claiming that we can and should be more merciful than God Himself? The arrogance of this insult to His character is astonishing.

The truth is that we already are fairly merciful to murderers. We allow them much greater mercy than they afforded their victims in that we give them time and counseling to come to repentance. We are merciful in that we kill them in the least painful way, far less painfully than they generally kill their victims. And we are merciful in that we prevent them from polluting their own souls with subsequent evils, as both Augustine and Aquinas taught. I’m actually quite proud of how merciful we are already, much to the chagrin of certain bloodthirsty sorts who think our appeals process is too slow and say charming things like, “Hangin’s too good fer ‘em.” If our practice offends those who love justice without mercy as well as those who love mercy without justice, it’s likely we’ve found a healthy way to thread the needle through both values.

In my next column, we’ll continue our discussion of religious objections to capital punishment such as encouraging salvation, playing God by taking life, and whether execution is loving.