In discussing pacifism and just war recently, the argument has come up several times that some violence is acceptable or morally just because the recipients of this violence (in this case, ISIS) have forfeited their right to life. This is a popular argument in favour of the death penalty, but I have difficulty figuring out where that logic comes from: what is a right to life, and where do we get the idea that it’s something that can be forfeited? There’s a lot to be said here, but I’ll limit myself to looking for a biblical and/or theological argument.
1. On Forfeiting the Right to Life
The first thing that comes to mind when I think of “forfeiting the right to life” is Genesis 9:
“But you must not eat meat that has its lifeblood still in it. And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each human being, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of another human being.
“Whoever sheds human blood,
by humans shall their blood be shed;
for in the image of God
has God made mankind.
As for you, be fruitful and increase in number; multiply on the earth and increase upon it.”
At first glance, this passage seems to imply that God sanctions humans to shed human blood in response to shedding human blood. This passage is traditionally taken to be the creation and sanction of the first form of government for this reason. I think that reading is difficult to follow, for a few reasons.
a) Cities of Refuge. The rest of the Pentateuch has several examples of God deliberately working against the vengeance/retaliation mentality that was prevalent among Israel and in the rest of the Ancient Near East. It used to be believed that the several passages that refer to taking “an eye for an eye” and “a tooth for a tooth” imply that it’s morally acceptable (and even a duty) to repay a wrongdoer in the same manner in which they’ve harmed another; this has been thoroughly debunked by looking at the social context of these laws, wherein it was considered acceptable to escalate in retaliation. “Eye for an eye” is a limitation on retaliation, not a sanctioning of it. Note also that God limits our right to just deserts in Deuteronomy: “Vengeance is mine, says the Lord.” But limitations on retaliation are more practically shown in the example of Cities of Refuge.
Cities of Refuge were designated in all of the tribal territories allotted to the tribes of Israel, and their sole function was to provide sanctuary that allowed someone to escape the practice of retaliation or vengeance. If God told Noah that humans who shed human blood will have their blood shed by humans, and he meant it in a prescriptive sense (i.e., if he said “humans who shed human blood should have their blood shed by humans”), then we’d have a strong case for retaliation as justice; why, then, would he command his people to construct a network of sanctuaries and an intricate system of appeal and protection, if retaliation is just?
b) Prescriptive vs. Descriptive. In light of the fact that God says a lot more about limiting retaliation than he does requiring it, it’s worth considering whether this passage in Genesis 9 is descriptive rather than prescriptive. Could it be that God is actually saying the opposite? That he will demand an account of everyone who sheds human blood because he recognizes that it creates a cycle of retaliation and endless violence?
There are several places in Scripture where interpreters are asking this kind of question. Several of Paul’s sayings, for example, are now thought to be quotations of his opponents that he challenges or strips down; this makes more sense of the troublesome verses in their context, and often leads to a clearer message for the letter as a whole. The confusion about such verses has to do with punctuation and a lack of context: the Greek text had no quotation marks, and thus we aren’t aware right away that this is a quotation; and we’re unfamiliar with the works or arguments that he’s quoting or making reference to. The other reason that we don’t pick up on quotations, or descriptive statements that appear to be prescriptive, is because we (and especially us Evangelicals) have been conditioned to read the Bible as straightforward and prescriptive, so that every text is a letter directly to me, telling me how to live. This leads to assumptions about the intent of the text, and in this case I’m not 100% sure that we’ve been reading it correctly. Given the repeated contrary messages to this in the rest of the Pentateuch, I’d say the chances are good that this is one of those verses we’ve missed the point of, and in the process reversed its intended meaning.
2. On Whether We Have a Right to Life in the First Place
While talk of “human rights” is commonplace today (and I’m generally supportive of the concept and its application), it’s a very recent idea. Despite the fact that this idea descends from the ancient codes of law found in the Bible and elsewhere, as well as the application of Christian theology and morality, the Bible itself has no real notion of “rights”, except perhaps the right of ownership and a few other rights implied in the Law. The rights that existed were not universal, and the right to life wasn’t one of them in any case.
On the contrary, the dominant notion in the Bible about human life is that it’s a gift, offered at God’s good pleasure and easily withdrawn. The value and sanctity of human life is provided by its status as a gift from God: it has sanctity because it belongs to God and reflects God (as the passage from Genesis 9 says pretty clearly). While we can see that God is a giver of good gifts, and that he is both generous and full of grace and mercy, it is clear that human life does not belong to humans. This is further emphasized in the New Testament, where it is stated explicitly and in many ways that the value of a Christian’s life is in its service to Christ and to others: we are to die to ourselves and embrace a new life in which Christ lives in us. Christians recognize that we have no right to life, but only live because of the grace of God in Jesus Christ, apart from whom we’re already dead. Christian theology has held, based on passages in Genesis, Psalms, Romans, and many other places in Scripture, that all human beings are fallen and under the penalty of death.
So how can we forfeit something that we’ve never had?
3. On Jesus’ Mercy and the Time and Place of Judgment
It’s always good to end with Jesus (and start there too). My ethics (hopefully) always come from Jesus, and my stance on pacifism comes directly from the way I see him interacting with his own enemies in the gospels, as well as his explicit statements about loving enemies and serving those who persecute you. So I was pleased to see that I’m not the only one who thinks this way when a student asked my friend and colleague Dr. V about how he can square his view of forfeiting the right to life with Jesus’ mercy and salvation. I appreciate Dr. V’s response, though I disagree with him on it.
Dr. V says (in the comments) that he sees the salvation that Jesus provides pertaining to the second death, i.e., the judgment of the living and the dead. I can certainly agree with this: one of the big changes that occurred between the OT and the NT eras was the view of an afterlife (the OT had very little notion of one, while by the NT time Jewish theology had developed a much stronger notion of a resurrection). You can actually see the turning point in Daniel, which speaks specifically of a resurrection, though not all Jews in Jesus’ day believed in an actual resurrection of the dead. The basic idea is that all of the dead will be raised to new life, but will also be judged and separated (by Jesus), good from evil. However, given the nature of this final judgment, I find it problematic to distinguish one form of salvation from another. Said differently, I don’t think that Jesus acts in two ways at the same time, demanding death in one place and giving life in another for presumably the same offences. Let’s unpack that a bit.
There’s been a recent resurgence of emphasis on the embodied nature of human existence. We long believed that “heaven” is a place on the clouds where disembodied souls spend eternity in the spiritual presence of God. Aside from the obvious gnostic problems this can create for our theology, it’s just not what Scripture describes. In the Old Testament, salvation is a physical salvation: God saved us from Egypt! God saved us from Babylon! Heaven is depicted as everyone having their own fig tree, and all of the nations coming to Jerusalem to worship God. It’s very physical. In the New Testament, in spite of the development of a notion of after-life, that after-life is (as noted above) a physical resurrection of the dead. Salvation is from sin (in its power over us as well as the consequences, both personal and social/corporate), and heaven is depicted as a city (the “new Jerusalem”) where all the world lives with and worships God. In both the OT and the NT, heaven is life on earth as God intended it, and salvation is God’s work to make that happen.
If the final judgment is to separate the good from the wicked, we must remember that these are living people in physical human bodies who will be expected to live together in the just ways that God intends for human society. If God has decreed to us that human beings can be the agents of God’s justice upon each other in this life and society by killing those whose sins warrant it, and everyone who is killed is resurrected to be judged by Jesus (who is also God), then Jesus has judged people twice. We would expect him to be somewhat consistent in his judgment, but this may not be the case. He might a) allow a sinner to live a long life and die of natural causes, only to resurrect them and consign them to death for their sins; b) authorize humans to kill someone for their sins, only to resurrect them and kill them again; or c) authorize humans to kill them, and then resurrect them to eternal life. Now surely Jesus has the ability and right to do all of these things, but the idea that God would demand us to perform his judgment duties by killing those who are deemed to have forfeited the right to life, and then either double-up on it or reverse it, seems a bit convoluted to me. It seems to pit Christ against God or Christ against us.
(Also, if God has decreed that retaliation and retribution are just, and we’ll all live in a physical world and real human society, presumably that sense of justice hasn’t changed (and there are no verses that I can think of suggesting that it has). Would we live in perfect society in the new world under the threat of righteous vengeance from our fellow citizens of heaven?)
My train of thought is unravelling a bit (it’s late), but the point is that in Jesus we see God revealed in his fullness. If Jesus tells his followers to reject the sword (and he does), we should question whether or not God has told us to pick it up. If Jesus dies for his enemies, who are certainly sinners and murderers, then we should question whether or not God has asked us to kill them for their crimes. And if Jesus will judge the living and the dead, then we should remember that God said “Vengeance is mine” and not try to add to it.
4. Okay, one more thought: Who Decides What Constitutes Forfeiting One’s Right to Life?
While not a biblical or theological objection, I can’t get past this one: who are we to say that certain people have forfeited their right to life? ISIS believes that everyone who is not of their particular brand of Islam has forfeited their right to life by rejecting God. Theologically speaking, their version is probably more accurate and certainly more straightforward (for if life is but a gift from God rather than a right…). They believe their killing is just and a service to God; we believe that using lethal force against them, whether as punishment or deterrent or in defence, is justified for the same reasons. We could go around and around this circle forever – and we already have been for far too long. So long as both sides justify their actions in reference to a different religion, there isn’t even any common ground on which to judge one side’s argument over the other. Even if we were to make the argument specifically about forfeiting the right to life by the killing of others, ISIS has more claim against Westerners in this regard than we do against ISIS: Westerners have been bombing them for decades. To say that their crimes forfeit their right to life places us on a very high horse indeed, and I hope we can get off of it in time to get out of this cycle of killing before we have another generation of it rise from the ashes of today’s conflicts.