On Forfeiting the Right to Life

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.

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3 thoughts on “On Forfeiting the Right to Life

  1. Hi Jeff,

    I have a few comments for you. (I set them out below in the order the topics come up in your post.)

    Re: Genesis 9:6 “Whoever sheds human blood, by human shall their blood be shed: for the image of God has God made mankind.”

    Some clarity on this biblical principle is needed. It seems odd or even contradictory until we account for the biblical notions of guilt and shedding blood with/ without God’s approval. Consider Genesis 9:6 plus my clarifications in brackets: “Whoever sheds human blood [whoever kills an innocent person, i.e., kills a human being without God’s permission], by human shall their blood be shed [the guilty person will be killed by others with God’s permission, i.e., God prescribes that other human agents kill the guilty person].” So in the case of killing an innocent person (a capital crime), it’s possible to forfeit one’s life (via capital punishment). Innocent life is so important—because made in the image of God—that whoever destroys it unjustly is justly destroyed.

    Re: Cities of refuge and God’s vengeance

    Cities of refuge were established for those who were guilty of manslaughter or accidental killings (i.e., killing innocents without malicious aforethought), not as, as you seem to suggest, a nullification of Genesis 9:6. So, yes, “eye for an eye” is a limitation on retaliation, to make punishments fit the crimes. But, no, it isn’t a ban on punishments that are fitting.

    This non-banning continues in the New Testament. Romans 13:4: “[The government] is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.” The sword is an instrument of death. The sword-bearer is God’s appointed agent of wrath.

    Re: Right to life vis-à-vis gift

    Here’s what I wrote in the comment section of my column, which is worth repeating here: “I believe that the right to life comes from the God who is revealed to us in Christ. We are made in God’s image and thus our lives have great worth. But we are not God, so we don’t have absolute worth. Also, the God of the Bible tells us that murder is wrong. From these points we can tease out the implication that we have a God-given right to life.” In other words, i.e., in terms of “gift”: we have the God-given the gift of life, a gift of great worth, which isn’t to be taken away via murder. Insofar as we and others are required to respect this gift by not impinging upon it unjustly (e.g., via murder), the use of “rights” language is most appropriate.

    Re: Second death

    Yes, I think that, as you say, your train of thought is unraveling. 🙂 Yes, I agree that heaven will be physical. Yes, Scripture tells us that God says “vengeance is mine.” Significantly, however, Scripture ALSO tells us that the government’s sword is “God’s servant” and God’s “agent of wrath” and that government’s role is to punish wrongdoers. Vengeance is God’s, yes, but God delegates. Moreover, Jesus also tells us to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. And Jesus clearly tells us that there is a second death that He metes out to those who haven’t followed Him as Lord. (For more on the second death and the sheep and the goats, see my December 13, 2013, column “Thinking about the sheep and the goats.”)

    Re: “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.”

    It seems to me that Jesus tells Peter (who was carrying a sword even after following Jesus for a few years!) to put his sword away so that Jesus would complete His special mission, i.e., so that Jesus’ special mission would be completed without force, i.e., so that He—an innocent who is also God—would willingly die on behalf of the rest of us for our sins to satisfy the requirements of God’s justice. The sword passage that you mention is a special case, in other words. Elsewhere Jesus tells his disciples to buy swords. Elsewhere Jesus commends—without reservation—the faith of a Roman Centurion, a commanding officer of 100 soldiers, i.e., 100 professional warriors/ killers, who use swords! (Jesus’ having such high regard for a soldier strongly suggests that there is such a thing as morally good soldiering and thus the moral appropriateness of sometimes, under appropriate circumstances, taking human life.) John the Baptist, whom Jesus holds in high regard, advises soldiers—professional warriors/ killers/ sword-bearers—not to quit their jobs but be content with their pay. David—a man after God’s (Jesus’) heart—used violent force to kill Goliath plus chopped off Goliath’s head with a sword. God in the Old Testament often used lethal force (e.g., the sword of war) to deal with evil aggressors. Ecclesiastes tells us, apparently prescriptively, that there is “a time to kill” and “a time for war” (which often involved swords). Writing under the influence of the Holy Spirit (who is one with Jesus), the apostle Paul in the New Testament says the state bears the sword—a lethal instrument—as an agent of God’s wrath (1 Peter 2:14 confirms the government’s role in punishing wrongdoers). And in Revelation, when Jesus returns, Jesus uses violent force to deal with—destroy/ kill—evil people. All this to say, that I think that when I question whether or not God has told us to pick up the sword (at least for some tasks such as protecting innocents from evil aggressors), it seems there are pretty good grounds for thinking so.

    Re: “Who are we to say that certain people have forfeited their right to life?”

    We are people who have been given the ability to think, read, etc. carefully, and we are called to live justly in accordance with God’s revelation. I respectfully recommend a re-read of my column “Just war and justly pro-life” and the comments.

    Re: Atrocities committed by ISIS

    Oh, right, I forgot, it’s the West’s fault! 🙂 No, seriously, we in the West have our shortcomings, to be sure (and I think one of those shortcomings includes assuming the West is always bad when in fact we’re not by a long shot). It seems to me that those persons immediately responsible for the ISIS atrocities are those persons actually doing the killing, i.e., those persons who have decided to dedicate their lives to emulating the historical Muhammad, a man who has brutally killed—and tells all true Muslims to kill—anyone who doesn’t accept him as God’s latest and greatest prophet. I’m of the view that the guilty murderers should be stopped in order to protect innocent men, women, and children, even if such protection might require the (careful) application of lethal force to the murderers. I’m also of the view that the murderous ideology that fuels ISIS should to be challenged (respectfully) in terms of evidence and reason—i.e., via knowledge of truth.

    For more information about Muhammad, the man whom ISIS purports to follow, I recommend Nabeel Qureshi’s book Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus (Zondervan 2014), plus I recommend the video debates and lectures by David Wood over at the website Answering Muslims (www.answeringmuslims.com). Wood’s debate with Shadid Lewis “Is Islam a threat to the West?” is important, as is Wood’s presentation “ISIS and the radicalization of young Muslims,” as is Wood’s 5-minute video clip on Muhammad’s view of women. See, too, my column on Islam.

    Thanks, Jeff, for taking time to challenge my ideas. I hope that our interaction helps our readers better understand the issues at hand and thereby discern truth. Cheers.

    • Hi Dr V., and sorry for the late response. My evenings and nights are somewhat occupied these days, and not by sleeping 🙂 As usual, I’ll try to respond point by point.

      1. Thanks for clarifying that reading, but it is precisely that reading that I’m dissatisfied with. It doesn’t seem to sit well with its immediate context, nor does it seem applicable outside of Israelite theocratic society (in which God actually does say who should die). Given that there are other possible readings, I merely argue that they should be explored; I’ve only begun that process myself, and may find that the more traditional reading you’ve clarified here is the best reading, but so far I find the alternative to be truer to both the immediate context and the ethic of Christ.

      2. On cities of refuge, you’re right that they were designed for accidental killings (though they were also for those wrongly accused of murder). I’m concerned with the implication, though, that revenge killings were justified in cases of actual (non-accidental) murder. I think that this was a societal norm that God acknowledged and subverted with the cities of refuge concept, and in so doing (if we read with a redemptive-movement hermeneutic) God set a redemptive direction for the way we understand justice: the concessions shown to those guilty of manslaughter or wrongly accused of murder not only preserved their lives (at least for a time) and stopped a cycle of violence, but also ensured that they received a fair trial (because retributive “justice” in that context didn’t always make it to court). I’m not sure that this concept refutes the reading of Genesis 9, but if we don’t assume the traditional reading of Genesis 9 (which comes before these texts) then I think we’ll read these texts differently. I still don’t know what I’ll find when I do, but I’m looking forward to it 🙂

      3. As far as rights language goes, I don’t think that gifts from God are something that we ever really own; God is always giving, and we are always receiving. If we have received a gift, we have a right to it; but if we are only always receiving it, it is not ours in the same sense. With every breath I am receiving my life from God, but I never get to stop breathing! I hope that analogy makes sense.

      I do take some issue with the notion, on the other hand, that we do not have absolute value because we are not God. The implications of the incarnation suggest otherwise: we are co-heirs with Christ, with all that that implies. The image of God in us is not symbolic or representative in the post-incarnation world. Though humans are not God, God has become human and invited humans into the inner life of God (the Trinity). I think that this implies that, while we are still not God, our dignity and value now equals God’s own – absolute in the sense of being the utmost. In the other sense of absolute value (i.e., value that is not instrumental but rather inherent), I think that we’ve always had absolute value: God didn’t create us (or anything else) as a means to an end, but rather as an end in ourselves. Our existence itself is good. That he does great things through us (so that we also have instrumental value) does not overshadow our absolute or inherent value.

      4. In regard to the second death, I think that small passage in Romans is relied on far too much. I’ve seen analysis that suggests that it’s another one of Paul’s quotations (which would make sense given that he opposes the state in just about every other passage in which he talks about it, e.g., his many discussions of the powers and principalities). But even assuming that the (again, traditional) reading of Romans is correct in affirming the state as God’s agent of justice, this is a very difficult thing to assume or confirm about any particular state or head of state at any particular time. If we are to say (as many have said) that anyone who holds office is ordained by God, then we must invoke Godwin’s law and point out that Hitler was thus God’s agent of justice. I’m not comfortable going back down that path, as such theology has been a source of much antisemitism throughout history. If we say that the state is supposed to be God’s agent of justice, but make allowance for fallen powers (a stance I’m much more comfortable with), then we have difficulty reading Paul’s statements in Romans as affirming the power of the Roman sword, as Paul repeatedly challenges corrupt Roman rule with the central claims that Jesus is Lord and that Christians are to oppose the Powers, whom Christ has already triumphed over (non-violently, I might add, in spite of having the power to do so by force). So all in all this is actually a very difficult passage, but its meaning has been assumed and rarely examined in spite of the frequency of its use to support just war theory and give legitimacy and authority to governments.

      5. On whether or not God condones violence: we’ve been back and forth on all of these points in other posts, so I’m happy to agree to disagree 🙂

      6. I’ve read it, and I’m not sure how it gets us out of the difficult situation of the non-universalizable application of criteria you seem to support. Despite the fact that I agree with you in overall worldview (we both, happily, believe that Jesus is Lord and that God has revealed himself to us through the Word, and that this self-revelation is foundational to not only our worldview but at least in some sense to reality itself), insisting that we’re right and they’re wrong is precisely what ISIS does to all who disagree with them. At least on a practical level, being right won’t help us avoid or de-escalate a war. We can’t condemn others who use the same logic as us on the grounds that their premises are wrong without expecting them to do the same to us (and we obviously disagree with ISIS on some core premises!), and it is precisely that they are doing it to us (because they believe that we have forfeited the right to life) that we make the same judgment on them! I see no way out of this so long as we insist that God calls us to take the lives of those who have somehow forfeited their right to it. Being right won’t make us win, and I don’t think that’s a victory to fight for.

      7. On the atrocities committed by ISIS: I agree with you that ISIS is responsible for what ISIS does, and ultimately that every individual member of ISIS is responsible for their own actions. However, I don’t think that we can shirk responsibility for ISIS entirely, because Western powers have set in motion the forces that led to ISIS’ formation.

      An example from history is apt: Osama Bin Laden was trained and armed by the CIA as part of a US intervention in Afghanistan during the Russian invasion of the 1980s. The US pulled all support from the Afghan fighters as soon as the Russians turned back, leaving Bin Laden and his fighters in a country in ruins. Western economic, domestic, and foreign policy continued to impoverish Afghanistan, and many other countries in the world. Al Qaeda didn’t attack the World Trade buildings at random: their strike was against economic imperialism. The US was left in the awkward position of fighting people they themselves had trained and armed in what was ultimately a justification of naked self-interest in a global market.

      Since then, the US has invaded Afghanistan (to kill Bin Laden) and Iraq (and killed Saddam Hussein), killing tens of thousands of Afghan and Iraqi people (soldiers and civilians), often without acknowledgement and often on false pretenses (e.g., WMDs), while continuing to support the state of Israel in their conflict against their Muslim neighbours and their occupation/blockade of Palestine. After they ostensibly pulled out of active military duty in these countries, they stayed behind with drones that continue to fire on the “enemies of freedom”, often killing civilians either by mistake or as “collateral damage.” American presence in Afghanistan, combined with their drug policies at home, drove poppy producers to the protection of the Taliban, fuelling their side of the war effort with international drug export money. US occupation of Iraq involved playing different Islamic groups off against each other in an effort to destabilize opposition, which led to Iraqis fighting Iraqis as Sunni and Shia Muslims struggle for control or survival in a dangerous climate. Considering that there has been no actual time in the past thirty years that there hasn’t been an American presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, either in the presence of CIA support of militant groups, blockades, or actual combat missions, and that the current governments of both nations were elected while they were under American control and can easily be seen by locals as American puppets, I think it’s reasonable to conclude that Western nations have had an active role in creating the climate in which groups like ISIS actually seem like a good idea to the people who join them. If that is the case, then it’s also reasonable to conclude that making further military intervention in those troubled nations will continue to fuel hatred of Westerners, Christians, and other outsiders, stoke nationalism, and set the conditions for the next ISIS-like group to emerge even if we can defeat ISIS today. Which is not to say that we shouldn’t oppose ISIS – far from it! It is only to say that we shouldn’t think that our violent actions today won’t have consequences tomorrow. I’d rather not take on guilt for death and destruction that might result from our actions today, if we have alternative actions today that might avoid that dark future.

      As always, Dr. V., it’s been a pleasure 🙂

      • Thanks for your thoughts, Jeff. I think that your view that humans have absolute value (“that our dignity and value equals God’s own”) might be driving your interpretations. I don’t see that absolute value when I read Scripture’s sword passages and final judgment passages. At any rate, we continue to disagree about much. Cheers.

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