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A New Commandment

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On Thursday, August 30, Texas governor, Rick Perry, was just hours away from being personally responsible for taking the life of a man for a crime that the state agreed he didn't commit or plan. A state board had recommended clemency so only the governor's pen stood between Kenneth Foster and a needle that would deliver a lethal injection for the 403rd time in Texas since the death penalty was restored there in 1982.

Mariceo Brown admitted to killing Michael LaHood, Jr. in 1996 in self-defense. Brown was convicted of murder and was executed in 2006. Foster was tried with Brown as a co-defendant. Under the “Law of Parties” he was held responsible for the crime because he was present, even though he was 80 feet away in a car with the windows up and the radio on. Just because he had driven Brown to the location where the unplanned killing occurred, Foster was convicted of murder.

In a brief statement, Gov. Perry, a devout Christian, described his decision to commute Foster's sentence to life in prison as “right and just.” Certainly, taking two lives for one would have been an unjust violation of the Old Testament law of “an eye for an eye” (Exodus 21:24). Limiting retaliation to just one life in exchange for another was progress over the feuding between clans in the ancient world when these laws first appeared.

Beyond the old laws, Christians have the words of Jesus in the New Testament. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “you have heard it said 'an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,' but I say to you, do not resist evil and if someone strikes you on the right cheek turn to that one your left cheek also.” (Matthew 5:38-39) Pushing further, a few verses later (5:43-44) he calls us to love our enemies and do good to those who persecute us.

Not only did Jesus revise and even reject some of the former commandments, he offered a powerful new one. At his last meal on earth, he told his disciples that they had new commandment, to love one another (John 13:34). Assuming that all of humanity is covered by that commandment, it would seem a small act of obedience to the law of love to end executions. That might be a pretty lousy way to run a government, but Jesus rejected the human governance of the world expecting a much higher standard from those who would dare to follow him. So how is it that Bible-believing Christians can ever be numbered among those who support capital punishment? Christians who advocate the death penalty are either not reading the whole Bible or they are simply asking the government to do for them what their faith forbids.

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Rev. Ian Lynch is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. He is pastor of First Congregational Church, UCC in Brimfield, MA He blogs at Culture Dove
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