I’ve been talking about biblical violence on Twitter over the last day. So now I’m back to my blog and drawing on several articles I’ve written over the years all to the end of driving home a singular point: don’t sacrifice your conscience in defense of a particular reading/interpretation of the Bible. If you know something is wrong, don’t do violence to your conscience by pretending otherwise.
Yesterday on Twitter, one of the topics concerned the difficulty with the Torah mandate to pelt insubordinate children to death with rocks. This is wrong on multiple levels and we all know it. But don’t take my word for it. Just read this news article:
(Kabul, Afghanistan) Yesterday reports surfaced of a public stoning in the city of Saidu Sharif in the Swat Valley of eastern Afghanistan. Early reports identify two parents as presenting their thirteen year old son to public authorities for being “stubborn and rebellious”. Town elders gathered together and stoned the boy until he was dead. The Al Qaeda held district of Swat has become notorious in recent months for its enforcement of a strict Sharia law. (Associated Press)
What was your response to that story? Was it a shrug of the shoulders? Or was it a visceral response of moral condemnation? The latter, I hope. And that should tell you something. Your visceral response is telling you that that kind of action is wrong, intrinsically wrong. And to say that it is intrinsically wrong means that it is still wrong even if you swap out “Kabul, Afghanistan” with “Jerusalem” and “Yesterday” with “three thousand years ago”.
So what precisely is wrong? I’m going to address four issues: capital punishment, stoning, killing legal minors, and the parental role.
The first issue, the ethics of capital punishment itself, is the one about which reasonable people disagree. But at least some of you will agree with me on this one and so I’m speaking to you. So my point here is directed to folk who agree that there is something wrong, unethical, about state-sanctioned killing. A decade ago, I reviewed the film At the Death House Door which focuses on capital punishment at the Walls Prison in Huntsville Texas. The documentary focuses on Carroll Pickett, a hard-nosed Texas chaplain who used to be very much for the death penalty but has since changed his mind. This is how the review ends:
Even if you could ensure only guilty men die, Pickett now wants nothing to do with it. He now sees capital punishment as a wholly brutalizing practice. It’s that sick mentality that allows a nearby cafe to sell “murder burgers” and for the star attraction at the prison museum to be “Ole’ Sparky”, a retired electric chair. The daughter of a murdered woman summarizes the problem when, following the execution of her mother’s killer, she poignantly observes: “My mother’s dead. He’s dead. That’s just two dead people.” (Source)
If you agree with Pickett that capital punishment is a brutalizing practice, and if you agree with that daughter that it just gives you one more dead person, then you have a good reason to rethink the ethics of child stoning and the Torah punishments more generally.
Next, let’s talk not just about capital punishment generally but about the specific practice of capital punishment by stoning, the practice of hurling rocks at a person until they die. Even if you accept that capital punishment can be ethical in principle, I hope you will agree with me that stoning cannot be an ethical form of capital punishment. If you are not convinced, I will direct you to the stoning scene in the film The Stoning of Soraya M which I review here. I have the film set to the beginning of the stoning sequence. See if that doesn’t change your mind:
The third problem is with the stoning of children (i.e. legal minors). The Deuteronomy 21 passage may not be limited to legal minors, but it surely includes them. So why is it wrong to kill legal minors, in particular? Here I’ll quote from my article “Why it is wrong to execute minors”:
Prefrontal cortex. Interestingly, these intuitions are supported by the fact that the prefrontal cortex, the last part of the brain to reach maturity, affects a broad range of cognitive abilities including, among others, the ability of young people to anticipate the consequences of one’s behavior. (See this helpful discussion for a quick overview.) This is why, for example, teenagers are much more likely to engage in highly risky behavior than adults. (Take a few minutes to peruse the range of idiotic teen stunts memorialized on youtube.)
So consider a legal mandate that says all children who talk back to their parents are to be stoned. A twenty year old can anticipate more fully the consequences of their action than a fifteen year old can. And a fifteen year old can anticipate them more fully than a five or ten year old can. Given this fact, it is recognized that it is wrong to apply to minors the same punishments as one extends to adults, because their prefrontal cortex is not sufficiently developed to anticipate to the same degree the consequences of their actions.
Hormonal changes. According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP), the advent of puberty brings with it a range of emotional / behavioral issues in teenagers which are still considered part of normal teenage development. These include changing one’s appearance (e.g. dressing “goth”), withdrawing from various aspects of family life, increased argumentativeness with authority figures, and emotional ups and downs. One shivers to think of how many teenagers undergoing normal patterns of development would emerge as candidates for stoning under the Deuteronomy statute. (Source)
And the final offense is the indescribable sacrilege, the desecration, that this mandate wreaks on the sacred institution of parenthood itself. Parenthood is a beautiful, sacred institution and I had the privilege of entering into it eighteen years ago. Imagine if every time a man and woman became parents, they knew that should the child ever present an especial burden or challenge to their authority, they would always have the option of turning that child over to the village elders to be pelted to death with rocks. That suggestion offends me to my core. I hope it does for you as well.
A few years ago, I was reading through Eugene Merrill’s treatment of this topic in his commentary Deuteronomy: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture (B&H, 1994). After ]describing the steps under which the execution would take place in a matter-of-fact way, Merrill explains why it was necessary to pelt insubordinate youth to death with rocks:
“The severity of the punishment appears to outweigh the crime, but we must recognize that parental sovereignty was at stake. Were insubordination of children toward their parents to have been tolerated, there would have been but a short step toward the insubordination of all of the Lord’s servant people to him, the King of kings.”
Mr. Merrill is here defending honor killing. It’s the same logic by which a Muslim father will kill his daughter after she defies him by going out with her western boyfriend. In short, it’s the same twisted logic to which blood-spattered murderers appeal when they are led away in handcuffs.
Don’t be like Mr. Merrill. Don’t sacrifice your conscience in your reading of the Bible. Instead, recognize the gift of your God-given moral intuitions and let them offer chastening guides as you wrestle with the Biblical text.