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The moral law, justice, and capital punishment
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Fred Hutchison, RenewAmerica analyst
May 24, 2012

Originally published August 5, 2004

In this essay, I shall consider the transcendent source of justice, the universal moral law on which justice is based, and capital punishment.

The transcendent source of justice

Heaven is designed by God to be a beautiful and harmonious moral order. That is what makes it a fit dwelling place for God and a place of joy and peace for the redeemed. Heaven is the place of ultimate justice because everyone and everything shall be in its rightful place. All shall live according to their design, and all shall receive the honor which is their due. None shall usurp the honor which is due to another or claim more than is their just due — for all shall be perfectly content.

The universal moral law was established in heaven before it was brought to earth. It is written upon every human heart. This higher law lies behind all our right-minded laws and views of justice. It is "transcendent" because it was created by God and was established in heaven — prior to being established on earth. John Montgomery called it "The Law Above the Law" in a book by the same title.

We do not invent the moral law on which justice is based. We discover the moral law and thereby find our way to justice. The moral law has an objective existence whether we discover it or not. Reason, moral conscience, the scriptural revelation, and divine grace can aid us in finding out what is right and wrong and what justice is. The moral conscience is the voice of the universal moral law written upon the heart. Therefore, justice is native to man. Injustice is an alien intrusion.

The human heart longs for the justice, order, harmony, and beauty of heaven because the design for it is inscribed upon the heart. Yet human nature is contradictory. It dreads the very moral law it longs for. Transgression of that law results in the torments of conscience. The law condemns us for our violations of the transcendent standard. We love it because it is the better part of us, and we hate it because it is an unavoidable part of us. We cannot escape its reproaches when we betray it. Therefore, the human heart is simultaneously striving for and fleeing from the sublime moral order of the heavens. This conflict is played out in the endless drama of cops, robbers, courts, punishment, and justice. It is playing out in the inner moral struggles of every person on earth.

The spirit and the troubled conscience

The Bible says that the moral law is written on the hearts of the gentiles who have not heard the law of Moses. (Romans 2:14,15) Specifically, it is written on the human spirit (pneuma). Human personhood is located in this spirit. Therefore, the moral conscience and who we are as persons are very closely linked.

The spiritual person survives the death of the body because physical death cannot destroy an "incorporeal" (non-material) being. The indestructible, inner spirit is designed primarily for life in heaven — where it will experience glory and bliss. The moral law written upon the heart of the spirit is partly responsible for the universal human desire for heaven — a desire of all people regardless of their religion, philosophy, ideology, or culture. The moral law and the desire for heaven is transcultural.

To the extent one's beliefs and actions contradict the moral law and the order of heaven, one's peace is disturbed. Ideas which contradict the law written within introduce an inner tension. Primitive tribes offer sacrifices to appease imaginary gods and thereby hope to quench the inner torment of the conscience.

"Civilized" men specialize in rationalization and denial to escape the anxiety of a troubled conscience. When this fails, they can adopt an ideology that enables them to shift the blame to a scapegoat. For example, America and Israel have become the twin scapegoats of many Liberals, Europeans, and Muslims. The terrorists who destroyed the Twin Towers took the scapegoating to the paranoid and hysterical extreme of believing that America was the cause of all their troubles. Elements of the blame-America left also use America as a scapegoat — but in a more subtle manner and without the advocacy of violence. All this deception comes from the vain effort of wicked men to flee from the universal moral law and from the One who decreed it — by shifting blame away from themselves. Blame shifting is deceptive and unjust, of course. But no more deluded than the scapegoat sacrifices which the pagans used to propitiate their strange gods.

The psyche and the perversion of justice

Man has a "psyche" — a word in the scriptures which is often translated as "soul." The psyche includes the mind, the affections, the will and many other faculties, and elements. The psyche is designed primarily for life on this earth. A concept of justice based entirely upon the worldly psyche is apt to clash with the transcendent moral order. For example, the Marxist belief in economic determinism results in a purely materialistic view of "social justice." The Mad Hatter "justice" of Marxism encourages covetousness, envy, bitterness, and class hatred — and denies the human right to private property. The covetousness, bitterness, and rationalization of theft engendered by Marxist theory are contrary to the moral law.

Moral relativism and situational ethics can be practiced when one denies the universal moral law and consults only the subjective and fluctuating feelings of the psyche. When judges decided that there is a right to privacy based on their feelings, it has led to odd judicial decisions.

For example, certain judges feel that there is a human need for an open-ended psychological self-actualization. It is open-ended because it has no limits and can go in any direction — even towards moral perversion. They assume that there must be an extensive right to privacy so that these open-ended experiments can be pursued without limit — and can be cloaked in secrecy. Therefore, laws against sodomy violate a right to privacy — whatever be the darkness and shame of this "privacy."

The judges converted a speculative and purely subjective ethic of pop psychology into rebel law and rogue justice. It is an anti-justice court that contradicts and defies the universal moral law. The earthly rogue court becomes the enemy of a higher court in heaven. It wages war on man because man is designed to live in the universal moral order. The judges brought forth these abominations because, in their swollen pride and presumption, they thought they could invent law by consulting the shifting feelings of the psyche — rather that discovering objective law through reason.

Unintended vindications of the moral law

Hollywood movies about criminals under sentence of death — like Dead Man Walking — are powerful dramas about the emotional suffering of a condemned man facing justice. The morally confused film makers thought to make a case against capital punishment by a dramatic depiction of the traumas involved.

Yes indeed, the building suspense of the process is traumatic and the punishment is terrible. It is good drama. But contrary to the expectations of the dramatists — it helps us to understand how terrible was the crime and how precious was the innocent life which was violently stolen. The punishment restores respect for the universal moral law — a respect that wavered when the crime was committed and we feared that the malefactor would get away with it. The punishment puts the fear of God in our hearts. In the midst of the hell of punishment, the triumph of heaven's justice secretly satisfies the conscience. We leave the scene of the execution sorrowful, melancholy, yet strangely calm and at peace. A profound book of accounts has been settled.

There is a strange feeling of satisfaction at the end of the war movie The Longest Day. The author of the book and the screen writer had intended the movie to be a statement about the futility of war. They failed. Their art triumphed over their ideology. They wonderfully vindicated and celebrated the D-Day invasion. After the movie, no trace of outrage at the futility of war remains. The same kind of thing occurred with Dead Man Walking. In the end, one feels no trace of moral outrage about the execution. The powerful movie had a life of its own — and it defeated the ideology of the film maker.

Honor to whom it is due

Plato's Republic speaks of justice as giving to each person what is due them. Oftentimes what is due is honor — or dishonor. Curiously, the Bible also speaks of giving what is due in terms of the honor due (Romans 13:7). It delights the heart to see men who are honorable receive honor. There is a feeling of infamy when a worthy man is denied his honor, or is dishonored. "This is unjust," we say. When we see an unworthy man receiving honor, we also call it unjust. But when he gets his comeuppance, we say "He got his just deserts." This kind of language is universal. Nowhere on this wide earth is this language of justice absent. The universal moral law is unconsciously confirmed by every human tongue. By this unwitting confession, every tongue occasionally gives honor to God, the creator of the moral law.

Restoring right order on the earth

Some men build protective shields and filters around their conscience so they can do as they please — and not hear the protests of conscience. They stop their ears to the cries of their victims. Therefore, life on earth becomes hellish when all men do what is right in their own eyes.

To keep us from destroying ourselves, God sends a law-giver like Moses. Some measure of the moral order of the New Jerusalem must be brought to earth to make life on earth bearable. The heavenly law can be established on earth to some degree because it is already written on the human heart. It is in accord with this moral code in our nature. When the king is just, the people rejoice. God has established "principalities and powers" to establish justice on the earth, or in the words of Pope Gregory VII, " to restore right order upon the earth." To this end, God has given authority to the civil rulers to establish order and justice — as we shall see in the section on "balancing the scales."

However, the justice of this world is only a shadow of the final justice at God's throne, and it only gives a hint of the beautiful moral order of the New Jerusalem. But that does not mean that justice is entirely an otherworldly matter, as the gnostic heretics thought. "Our Father which art in heaven, hallowed be Thy Name. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. The universal moral law is decreed for both heaven and earth. There is not one moral order for heaven and another for earth, as the Gnostics supposed.

However, we now see only a shadow of the divine justice on this earth as we examine our police, courts, and jails. We see unjust judges. We see many losing their fear of God, defying the moral law, and lusting for the deceptive treasures of earth.

Capital punishment during the millennial kingdom

"Thy kingdom come...on earth." Christ will return someday to establish the kingdom of the millennium (a thousand years). The universal moral law will be the established order throughout the earth. We do not have that now because we do not have rulers and judges who are sufficiently wise and just. Christ is the wise and just king who shall establish right order upon the earth. After the thousand years are ended, Christ and His elect will dwell in the New Jerusalem forever in perfect moral order. The unjust will be excluded from entry and will be cast out from the presence of God. Justice eternally triumphant.

When Christ returns to usher in the millennium, he will have a two-edged sword to defeat His enemies. During the millennium, Christ will rule the world "with a rod of iron." He will chasten the rebellious kings, nations, and peoples who defy Him. "Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron; thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter's vessel" (Psalms 2: 9). There will be capital punishment during the millennium!

A heavy iron rod is an instrument of death. Policemen have to be carefully trained to use a light wooden nightstick to temporarily disable without killing or maiming. A mace is an iron rod with a heavy blunt end. In the hands of a skillful warrior with strong arms, a mace can defeat a swordsman. It can kill a man wearing heavy armor. As Christ sits on David's throne in Jerusalem, he will hold the iron mace in His hand as a reminder to rebels, malefactors and pacifists. Neither tyrants nor moral cowards shall be exalted to power in that glorious kingdom. Control freaks, pacifists, and wimps need not apply for management positions.

Balancing the scales

God authorizes the earthly princes of this era to use capital punishment. "For rulers are not a terror to good works but to evil...For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain, for he is the minister of God, an avenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil" (Romans 13: 3, 4).

Like the mace, the sword is an instrument of death. The ruler "bears not the sword in vain." These words were written under Roman rule. The sword was the preferred means of execution by the Romans. Capital punishment is not in vain.

The statue of justice outside our courtrooms is a blindfolded woman with scales in the left hand and a sword in the right hand. The woman is Justitia, the Roman goddess of justice. The blindfold signifies that justice is without personal favoritism or bias. Justice is "disinterested" — that is to say, untainted by self-seeking personal interests.

The scales signifies two things. A balancing of the scales betokens equality. "Equal justice under the law" means the punishment for a crime committed by one person is the same as the punishment for the same crime committed by another person. The scales also signify that the punishment should fit the crime. Murder on one scale is balanced by execution in the other. Life for life. The scales must balance. This is just retribution. It has nothing to do with personal or collective vengeance. Only the morally confused who do not understand justice would call it vengeance. The blindfolded woman knows no vengeance. She only knows when the scales don't balance.

In Justitia's right hand is a sword — the Roman instrument for most executions. Justitia, with sword ready, is balancing the scales of a capital case. We the people do not execute the murderer. Justitia, embodied in the legal arm of the state, executes the murderer. It is heaven's justice, not the people's justice. God does not recognize "democratic justice," whatever that is. He only recognizes His own justice. If a man is raised to power by democratic means, he is still "the minister of God, an avenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil." If he neglects that duty, he is an unjust ruler.

Capital punishment — The lynchpin of justice

All crime is a crime against life and against the moral order. Murder is the ultimate crime against life and against order. Murder is as heavy as lead when placed in the balance. A light punishment leaves the scales askew. An unjustly lenient punishment for murder disturbs the entire moral order. When life is willfully destroyed and is not followed by a complete accounting for the loss of the life and the heavy injustice of the act — justice itself begins to look arbitrary and capricious. But the legal execution of the murderer brings the scales back into balance.

Capital punishment is the lynchpin of the justice system and the foundation of the moral order. Our policy toward capital punishment will influence our policy toward every other law and our attitude toward justice.

Capital punishment vindicates the law. The law has great moral authority in the eyes of men when it is backed up by a just punishment. When a punishment resonates with the moral law written on the heart, men proclaim that the punishment is just. The law was defied and despised, but now the law is vindicated. Capital punishment vindicates the law against murder. It says that the powers of justice will go the whole distance to the gallows to balance the scales.

Capital punishment vindicates the entire law — the statutory law and the universal moral law. This is partly because capital punishment engenders the fear of a just God. It is partly because it vindicates the law written upon the heart and teaches us that this law is true and just.

As Alan Keyes says, men do not refrain from murder because of the fear of capital punishment. They refrain because of the moral law which restrains them. When they hear about a murderer being executed, the moral law is vindicated before their eyes. This makes it harder for them to sweep aside the protests of conscience. The injustice of the evil acts they are contemplating will rise up before their face — protecting the innocent from their depredations. After they see Justitia use her sword, their guilt before her scales of justice may deter them from evil.

Our lives, our safety, our property, and our peace of mind will be safer when a murderer is executed. The traumatic balancing of the scales vindicates the entire moral law. God has woven all His laws into a harmonious interlocking order. Violate one of His laws, and you insult all of his laws. Vindicate one law, and you vindicate all.

The broken windows principle

In 1969, Philip Zimbardo, a university psychologist, organized an experiment. He abandoned a car in the Bronx and another car in affluent Palo Alto, California. He removed the license plates and left the hood open. The car in the Bronx was quickly stripped, and what was left was smashed in a few hours. The car in Palo Alto was left untouched for a week. In Palo Alto, Zimbardo took a sledgehammer and smashed the car in one spot. Within a few hours, the locals had smashed the entire car. For a week, the environment of order in Palo Alto had protected the car. The one smashed fender was like a tear in the fabric of order. It created an opening for the indulgence of violent impulses.

This experiment led to the "broken windows" theory of crime. When one broken window is left unfixed, soon all the windows are broken. The broken window sends the message that no one cares about this property, that no one is in charge here, and that crime has no consequences. It informs the heart that there is a tear in the moral order and the boundaries which restrain us are broken. New York City had an astonishing drop in crime after they enforced laws against littering, graffiti, vandalism, drunk and disorderly conduct, and aggressive panhandling. Remove the superficial messages of disorder from the environment and the criminal loses his nerve. Crime thrives in darkness, confusion, and disorder. It withers in light, reason, and order.

I have heard an anecdote about a crime-infested public park in Canada. Loud speakers were installed and classical music was played day and night. Most of the crime disappeared. Apparently, the structured harmonies of the music were compatible with the moral order of heaven. It must have awakened the slumbering moral law in the heart of the criminals. They avoided the park and sought social chaos elsewhere.

The restoration of the moral fabric

A broken window has a remarkable effect on other crimes because the moral order is unified like a woven fabric. Murder blows a gigantic hole in the moral fabric. Murder without proper justice allows all the strands sticking out in the empty hole in the fabric to unravel. Capital punishment restores the shattered order. It cannot restore the innocent life or heal the gaping hole in the hearts of the survivors of the victim. Only God and His grace can do that. But balancing the scales can tie up the loose ends of the dangling strands. It helps the bereaved survivors of the victim know that although we live in a disordered and tragic world, justice will prevail in the end. The death of their loved one will not be brushed aside or explained away. Justice does not sleep.

The execution of the murderer balances the scales and can help to restore the environment of moral sanity and safety — where life can flourish. Capital punishment awakens the sleeping moral conscience of the violent underworld and helps to deter the lawless from all kinds of crime.

It takes courage to fight for the moral law and for legal punishment. But when we each do our part in the struggle for justice, we can have a greater effect upon the hearts of men than we can imagine. Though they may seem to stop their ears, the message will penetrate to their hearts where the moral law is written.

A message from Stephen Stone, President, RenewAmerica

I first became acquainted with Fred Hutchison in December 2003, when he contacted me about an article he was interested in writing for RenewAmerica about Alan Keyes. From that auspicious moment until God took him a little more than six years later, we published over 200 of Fred's incomparable essays — usually on some vital aspect of the modern "culture war," written with wit and disarming logic from Fred's brilliant perspective of history, philosophy, science, and scripture.

It was obvious to me from the beginning that Fred was in a class by himself among American conservative writers, and I was honored to feature his insights at RA.

I greatly miss Fred, who died of a brain tumor on August 10, 2010. What a gentle — yet profoundly powerful — voice of reason and godly truth! I'm delighted to see his remarkable essays on the history of conservatism brought together in a masterfully-edited volume by Julie Klusty. Restoring History is a wonderful tribute to a truly great man.

The book is available at Amazon.com.

© Fred Hutchison

 

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They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. —Isaiah 40:31