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Navigating the rapids

A biblical strategy for examining capital punishment and other debates

Navigating the rapids


Unsurprisingly, my Oct. 19 stories and sidebars about the death penalty drew lots of reader response, favorable and unfavorable: See this week’s Mailbag for examples of both. For those who missed the articles, I was essentially saying that capital punishment isn’t wrong but life imprisonment without parole is a legitimate substitute. 

Some readers prefer a hard-line pro or con, and I deliberately didn’t take it, in line with WORLD’s journalistic desire to avoid either arrogance (confusing our own inclinations with God’s teaching) or relativism (saying everything is gray). You could read my essay on “Journalism and Humility,” but the shorthand we use internally derives from whitewater rapids, which fall into six classes. (Every half-dozen years or so I allude to this, and hope our longtime readers will be patient.) 

Class 1 rapids are easy to navigate, and Class 1 stories are those on which the Bible gives us explicit guidance. For example, the Bible unambiguously proclaims that homosexuality and heterosexual adultery are wrong, so we don’t give equal space to pro and con positions on those issues. We don’t consider sinners in these areas subhuman—all of us in different ways deface yet don’t erase God’s image in us—but we aren’t neutral about what God clearly condemns.

Class 2 rapids are a little harder, and Class 2 stories are those on which the Bible takes an implicit position, such as the importance of Christian education. On Class 3 subjects different sides can cite biblical backup, but careful study allows biblical conclusions—although differences of opinion remain. How to fight poverty is a Class 3 issue on which Christians legitimately disagree, but I’ve steered a raft through Class 3 rapids and written books and articles arguing for what I believe is a biblical approach to helping the poor. 

Class 4 rapids are more dangerous, and with Class 4 stories we have no clear biblical path but can bring to bear a biblical understanding of human nature and history: For example, we should not trust tyrants to abide by peace treaties. I’ve traversed Class 5–type rapids on the Rogue River and in the Grand Canyon in crafts captained by others, and ended up alive but soaked. With Class 5 stories we have no clear biblical mandate but can draw on historical experience. (Anyone who thinks government bureaucracies will be efficient is in for a soaking.)

As Class 6 rapids are potentially fatal waterfalls, so claims that “God saith” when He hasn’t can be deadly to faith. On some questions (specific foreign trade agreements, for example) we may have no clear biblical position, no historical trail for the discerning to apply, and not much else to mark the path. When WORLD reports a Class 6 story, we are likely to balance different perspectives, and our coverage might be similar to that of a traditional mainstream reporter. 

I’ve spent a lot of time analyzing some issues, such as same-sex marriage or abortion, and concluded that the Bible is clearly against both: WORLD is also. I had not spent much time on capital punishment but had thought it also a Class 1 rapids, with the Bible clearly favoring it in cases of murder and other crimes as well. Once I studied more, though, it seemed a Class 3: Scripture demands a reckoning for murder, but Christians should debate whether execution or lifetime imprisonment is best. 

Some readers made clear their disagreement with my conclusions. Some wanted me to emphasize particular aspects I hadn’t brought up. Some argued that America’s civil law should be the same as that of ancient Israel. Others disagreed because “the United States has been polluted by the intentional murders that have not been punished with the death penalty.” Some, arguing that our legal system is often unjust, wanted me to argue that capital punishment should be banned. Others worried that if I strayed from the traditional conservative position on capital punishment I would soon embrace homosexual marriage, and said they’d pray for me: Please do pray, but don’t worry. 

After doing 10 rugged interviews in Texas, writing 10 pages in WORLD and 10 posts on, and reading 110 letters and comments, I’m filled with thanks for the Bible and thanks to our readers for thoughtfully considering this hard, hard issue. 



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  • Anonymous (not verified)
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 04:18 pm

    Thanks for clarifying how you filter different issues.  This is helpful in understanding your approach to a wide range of issues.  I am for capital punishment, but I must say that it would be impossible for America's civil law to be the same as that of ancient Israel.  Israel was a theocracy, and no other country can be.  We can derive principles of governance from those God gave Israel, but there is room for disagreement on how those principles should be applied.  

  • Lala G
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 04:18 pm

    When I open WORLD, I do not want to read profiles of criminals, why they committed their crimes, what they think, what their names are, or anything else about them. In your discussion of capital punishment, why didn't you interview the families of murder victims instead of the murderers? Why not give their perspective on crime and punishment, if you must include present-day anecdotes?  (After the Sandy Hook murders, WORLD summarized many mass shootings by simply referring to the number of victims, but memorializing the full name and "reasons" of the shooters. That was very offensive, and an insult to the innocent victims.) Navigating turbulent waters calls for submitting our judgments to God's.  Instead, you passed lightly over several key issues, such as rulers (even unjust ones) not "bearing the sword in vain."  This statement is not limited to Mosaic era Israel!  When you reject the implications of this passage, it amounts to rejecting Scripture.  Shocking.  You did not even mention Jesus, who received capital punishment as punshment for sin.  I am simply without words to describe this omission.   You did not mention the deaths of sacrificial animals.  Those deaths were supposed to have an inescapable impact on people, to show the wages of sin.  Capital punishment is the same--facing death for sin.  A murderer might deceive himself and others, right up to the moment of actually facing execution and his Maker.  It is actually merciful to confront a person with the reality of sin and death.  You even argued from silence, claiming that few reports of executions in the Bible equals opposition to them.  You imply that it is more difficult to find two or three witnesses today than it was in the past.  Do you imagine that murderers committed their crimes more publicly then?  What about inanimate witnesses (a Biblical concept)?  Do you reject the testimony of DNA, fingerprinting, and other forensic evidence that helps to convict murders?  Finally, you advocate life imprisonment, in the face of statements by several of the murderers that their lives in prison were horrible, not worth living.  Why would you condemn criminals to simply suffer in confinement?  The Biblical purpose of punishment and death, which you didn't even discuss, is justice rather than revenge or a desire to see the perpetrator suffer. In addition, life imprisonment often means something less, so there are more alternatives than you suggest.  You mentioned making responsible those who falsely testify, but don't explore what it would mean for modern lawyers who claim innocence for clients who are known to them to be guilty. You admit that you hadn't given the issue much thought before writing the article and book review.  I think that it would have been better for you to spend more time digesting the books that you read and re-reading the whole counsel of Scripture, before opining on such a difficult and complex issue.