THE END OF SACRIFICE: The Capital Punishment Writings of John Howard Yoder. Foreword by Mark Thiessen Nation. Edited by John C. Nugent. Harrisonburg, VA: Herald Press, 2011. 287 pages.
I am one who has long been troubled by this reality. I have found it difficult to reconcile this position with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In The End of Sacrifice, a collection of writings focused on capital punishment, we are given a strongly argued and developed argument from scripture and theology against this practice. The author is John Howard Yoder, the late and highly regarded Anabaptist theologian, pacifist, and advocate for nonviolence. The book is edited by John C. Nugent, Professor of Old Testament at Great Lakes Christian College in Lansing, Michigan. Although the theological tradition out of which Nugent emerged tends toward the cultural conservatism that embraces “law and order,” including the use of capital punishment as a means of keeping order, he has embraced Yoder’s teachings and has sought to interpret and make available Yoder’s insights. This is the third book that he has authored or edited on Yoder’s thought.
In this book, we are presented with essays, both published and unpublished, that appeared from 1960, when he published an article on the subject for Christianity Today to the time of Yoder’s death in 1997, at which time he was still working on a lengthy piece that was being shared online entitled “You Have it Coming: Good Punishment.” Placed in chronological order, these writings show development of thought and argument, but also strong consistency. Yoder was able to interact with a wide variety of theological, biblical, scientific, political and sociological resources, but from beginning to end standing at the center of his argument is the cross. Jesus’ death is the key to understanding how Christians ought to respond to this question of capital punishment. In responding to the cultural influences – theology trumps culture. Rather than culture leavening the church, the church should leaven society.
In different ways Yoder addresses the societal/cultural arguments for and against capital punishment. He appreciates the liberal attempt to argue against its use on humane grounds, as well as the evidence that the death penalty fails to deliver on its promises to deter crime. He notes that it’s rarely carried out in a consistent fashion, with those who can afford good legal representation rarely being executed. He notes the expense incurred in pursuing executions. Despite all of this, the populace seems unwilling to let go of it as an appropriate legal measure. Why is this? Could it be that there is a primal need to spill blood to avenge spilt blood? If so, how does the biblical witness address this primal need – this desire to achieve an eye for an eye?
The argument put forth in this book stands upon the premise that in the cross of Christ, all sacrifices come to an end. Whatever the reason for offering them, he is the fulfillment. Over time he draws considerably on the work of Rene Girard’s concept of the scapegoat, to understand what is happening here, but the cross is central. His perspective is rooted in the way he reads scripture. For him, there is continuity between Old and New Testament. This is, ultimately, one story moving toward its fulfillment in Christ, who is the final sacrifice, whose death recognizes the sacredness of life and sheds light on our inability to affirm this sacredness. In this telling of the biblical story there is a movement away from the primal violence, where the law of retaliation defines relationships, toward a principle of nonviolence. In the primal understanding of life, if blood is spilled, it must be avenged. When we read the Torah, we find that it tempers this demand for vengeance by limiting it to proper equivalencies. What is important to note, is that, as Yoder demonstrates, if we’re to follow the Law in using the death penalty, then we must recognize that it doesn’t distinguish between premeditated murder and manslaughter. A life taken requires a life to be given. But moving forward this is called into question, and it is overturned by the one who serves as the scapegoat – Christ. As laid out in his earliest essay, published in Christianity Today, there are two substantial reasons for rejecting the death penalty. First, the Torah seeks to limit vengeance, not require it (eye for an eye, etc., is a limiting factor). Second, “the idea of expiation grows from the truth that is life is sacred, that is, it belongs to God.” In his death on the cross, Jesus has met the need for expiation. In his final work on this topic, he writes that what the death of Jesus ultimately does is offer “a paradigm whereby, in one place at a time, the awareness that ‘this is too much’ can break through. None of these changes opens the new age, yet each of them partakes in a fragmentary way of the victory of resurrection and Pentecost, thus offering to others elsewhere, noncoercively, the power to replicate reconciliation” (p. 233). Jesus’ death shines the light on the darkness that is this need to retaliate. Key to Yoder’s understanding is that all of this is cast in a theological framework. The blood of all life belongs to God, and execution is a sacred/ritualistic act. Christ is the final sacrifice, ending the cycle of violence.
Being an Anabaptist, Yoder is cautious about the way in which Christians should influence the discussion in the broader culture. Although he’s not advocating Christians taking power and implementing his vision, he does believe that Christians can and should be a leavening agent, prophetically calling on the broader culture to bring this culture of violence to an end.
Whether or not you share all of Yoder’s presuppositions, this is an argument that needs to be engaged. If Christians are to be faithful to the one who died on a cross, can they (we) continue to embrace and support and encourage the use of the death penalty and remain faithful to this confession?
John Nugent is to be commended for his diligence in gathering these texts, for placing them in context, explaining Yoder’s methods, and as Mark Nation points out in his foreword, cleaning up Yoder’s unpublished works. With Mark, I am impressed by John's ability to interpret and set forth Yoder's ideas. But even if you aren't a follower of Yoder at every point (and I'm not), I believe that this volume will be of great value to the church as it seeks to be a leavening agent in the broader culture. The arguments against the death penalty presented here are not only cogently presented, but they are truly rooted in theology. If we listen carefully, our faith and our practice will be shaped in a powerful way by the gospel, and I believe we'll be able to live this faith faithfully.