Review: Blue on Blue by Charles Campisi

Blue on Blue: An Insider’s Story of Good Cops Catching Bad Cops is Charles Campisi’s account of his service over multiple decades in the New York City Police Department (NYPD). As chief of the department’s Internal Affairs Bureau (IAB), “the police who police the police,” it’s less a riveting narrative and more an organized collection of stories about catching crooked cops, peppered with Campisi’s opinions about all kinds of things related to police work and its public perception. The book will challenge both the dogmatic cop hater and the dogmatic cop apologist, describing more corruption in the police – but also police working harder to stamp out that corruption – than some on either side may expect.

Some of the stings to catch crooked cops are impressively elaborate. Some of the stories of criminal mistakes are downright (and occasionally darkly) hilarious. Overall, this is a very “pro-cop” book, contrasting the overwhelming majority of under-appreciated honest cops with the inevitable “bad apples” that Campisi spent his career expelling. Campisi takes ample opportunity to correct misconceptions, misunderstandings, and misrepresentations of police work by those who don’t understand it from the outside (important things for informed cop critics to recognize). For example, sometimes a corruption story would hit the press, and they would be accused of hiding it if wasn’t for the media exposure, even though IAB had already spent hundreds of hours behind the scenes gathering evidence against the perpetrators. Campisi also presents compelling evidence that the modern NYPD is cleaner, more professional, more fair, and more effective than earlier periods in its admittedly troubled history.

On the flip side, Campisi clearly demonstrates the temptations of power and the constant vigilance required to minimize corruption (important things for informed cop supporters to recognize). The NYPD should be commended for specifically addressing these challenges – for example, forcing regular officers into two-year IAB stints to overcome the cultural perception of internal affairs as less-worthy “rats”. Yet the challenges remain formidable, and some of Campisi’s details suggest his opinions may be a little optimistic. The chance involved in some of the stings, and the difficulty of proving previous crimes, makes one wonder how many other incidents slip through. Campisi doesn’t think there’s a solid “blue wall of silence,” giving copious examples of good cops exposing bad cops, but he also shows the heavy cultural incentives cops have to overlook abuses. Even with the infamous travesty of Louima and the broken broom handle, while cops eventually exposed Volpe, they initially were silent, with union reps backing them up, making one wonder how often other things stay hidden.

The Louima story reveals another major shortcoming with the book: its treatment, or rather lack of treatment, on racial issues. “In a perfect world,” it wouldn’t matter that Louima was black and Volpe was white; Campisi understands that “in this world,” it does, but he doesn’t seem to understand why – as if the incident itself is independent from the world in which it occurred. He is astonished that Volpe did what he did and unable to explain it, seemingly oblivious even to the possibility that a dehumanizing attitude toward black people could have played any role in allowing it. Campisi also only sees positives to the city’s “stop, question, and frisk” policy, as if its large effects on innocent minorities are acceptable collateral damage in the war on crime, and not counterproductive to it, and he predicts ominously that its severe reduction will lead to increased crime. But crime has only decreased to new record lows in the two years since. Campisi’s remarks still include some useful facts and perspective, but for better coverage of NYPD’s relationship with minorities, see Corey Pegue’s highly riveting Once A Cop. (Campisi also cautions against having too much “community” in “community policing,” saying “muggers and armed robbers are never going to show up at a Community Council meeting to discuss their problems.” While there’s an overall point to be made, the violence-reducing gang-member call-ins described in David Kennedy’s Don’t Shoot come pretty close to that!)

This brings me to two striking threads common in books on the NYPD. The first is the remarkable contrast between New York City’s current and past crime levels. Major categories like homicides have now dropped almost 90% from their peaks (so have “officer-involved shootings”). Visceral descriptions of NYC’s lawlessness of, say, the late 70’s, always give me hope that if they could turn things around from there, it’s never too late for my city of St. Louis, either. The second, however, is that NYC has an apparent advantage in its sheer size. NYPD has a force of over thirty-six thousand officers! Their IAB has more officers than some city’s entire forces, and they can afford to set up elaborate stings and throw resources in various directions. And positive changes can have positive effects on millions of people. Both threads are demonstrated in dramatic fashion throughout this book.

Many people have polarizing attitudes toward police officers, though most of us want the same things: safe streets, low crime, and a fair application of justice for all. Maybe Campisi’s book can be a resource towards that end. While there may be major disagreements about how systemic “bad cops” are, perhaps we can all agree on the importance of stopping their bad activities, from the injustices they inflict on their victims to the ways they ruin the good names of other officers. Perhaps people from opposite sides can join in hearty cheers when Campisi expresses indignation that “too often” the PBA union “seem to forget that every cop’s most basic sworn duty is not only to enforce the law, but also to obey it.” If nothing else, perhaps this book can at least help people who like to express their opinions on these important matters to be just a little more informed.

Refugee camp in Kenya (UNHCR)
informal essays

The Heart of God Toward the Foreigner

Many Christians in the United States disagree about how to treat refugees. Many “welcomers” want to bring in as many as possible, and misread opponents as letting fear overrule clear Biblical imperatives to love our neighbors. Many “hesitaters” want to tread more carefully, and misread opponents as letting naivety and oversimplified interpretations overrule practical wisdom and discretion about genuine limits and concerns. This is my attempt to encourage understanding, first by considering the welcomers’ charge of a Biblical imperative for welcoming refugees as national policy, and second by considering the hesitaters’ charge that terrorism and specific issues related to Islam justify significant constraints on such a policy.

Have you ever studied what the Bible says about immigrants and refugees? When I do, it excites me! The overall theology of “welcoming the stranger” is not simply about wanting to be nice and help some people; it’s a core indicator of the heart of God, in contrast to the natural heart of man, and it runs through the entire Bible! While a study of Biblical principles will not give us the ultimate answers of practical application, we cannot arrive at those answers without a starting foundation.

Foreigners In The Old Testament

The Bible doesn’t use words like “immigrant” and “refugee” the way we do. But the Old Testament has a Hebrew word, ger (Strong’s H1616), which is often translated alien or sojourner, meaning a “temporary dweller” or “newcomer” with “no inherited rights.” It generally seems to indicate a person who has left another place to dwell with people of a different origin, which sounds similar to what we would call an “immigrant.” It also seems to indicate immigrants without access to land or wealth, which would have much in common with “refugees,” who are fleeing any previous land with only whatever they can carry with them.

God gave the Israelites numerous commands about how to treat the sojourners living among them.

You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt (Exodus 22:21 ESV)

Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt. (Exodus 23:9 NIV)

God seemed aware that such foreigners, having no land, wealth, or inheritance, along with their visible differences from the native population, were at risk of being oppressed, just as the Israelites had been in Egypt. God often identified them with other needy people such as orphans and widows, and he promised blessing if Israel obeyed his commands to provide for them:

At the end of every three years, bring all the tithes of that year’s produce and store it in your towns, so that the Levites (who have no allotment or inheritance of their own) and the foreigners, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns may come and eat and be satisfied, and so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. (Deuteronomy 14:28-29 ESV)

Notice how God did not merely forbid active injustice against the needy but made explicit rules to help with their provision. Ruth was such a sojourner who famously participated in one such practice:

And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, nor shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 23:22 ESV)

In fact, God even elevated the sojourner as being deserving of the same rights and love as the native Israelite:

You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 19:34 ESV)

God felt so strongly about the treatment of sojourners that he not only promised blessing to those who used their tithe to feed them with other disadvantaged groups (see Deuteronomy 14:29 above), but he also promised a curse on those who would unjustly treat them:

Cursed be anyone who perverts the justice due to the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. (Deuteronomy 27:19 ESV)

Note that all of these passages refer to treatment of foreigners already living with the Israelites. On the one hand, it could be argued that while they clearly describe a concern for foreigners already living in a nation, they say nothing about an obligation to invite more foreigners who are not already present. On the other hand, it could also be argued that there doesn’t seem to be anything about restricting foreigners, either. The text does seem to assume the dwelling foreigners are a relative minority, but it doesn’t seem too concerned about how they’re arriving at all, only about how to treat them once they’ve arrived.

On that point, at least, the text seems clear. God knew that sojourners among the Israelites were needy people at risk of oppression, and he made numerous commands to prevent injustice against them.

When Israel later disobeyed God’s commands, and God spoke warning and judgment through the prophets, he made it clear that oppression of the sojourner was part of the disobedience that had brought the promised curses upon them:

For if you truly amend your ways and your deeds, if you truly execute justice one with another, if you do not oppress the sojourner, the fatherless, or the widow… then I will let you dwell in this place (Jeremiah 7:5-7 ESV)

The people of the land have practiced extortion and committed robbery. They have oppressed the poor and needy, and have extorted from the sojourner without justice. (Ezekiel 22:29 ESV)

Thus says the Lord of hosts, Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another, do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart… But they refused to pay attention and turned a stubborn shoulder and stopped their ears that they might not hear… Therefore great anger came from the Lord of hosts..and I scattered them with a whirlwind among all the nations… (Zechariah 7)

This all set the stage for Jesus to come and take things up a notch…

Foreigners In The New Testament

25 And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” 27 And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself. 28 And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”

29 But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:25-29 ESV)

Jesus answers the lawyer’s question with the famous story of the Good Samaritan. Sometimes I think this story is so familiar to us, yet so removed from the original context, that we miss how radical it was!

The Samaritans were the descendants of some Israelites who had remained in the land during the exile, intermarrying with Gentile immigrants and incorporating pagan practices into their worship. When Jews returned from the exile, the differences between the groups led to much conflict over who truly belonged to the land and who was worshipping God in the right way – both groups claimed to be following the original Pentateuch and worshipping at the original location.

Both Jewish and Samaritan religious leaders taught that it was wrong to have any contact with the opposite group, and neither was to enter each other’s territories or even to speak to one another. During the New Testament period, although the tensions went unrecognized by Roman authorities, Josephus reports numerous violent confrontations between Jews and Samaritans throughout the first half of the first century. (Wikipedia)

In this context, Jesus tells the story of the “Good Samaritan.” (Note how when Jesus asked who was a neighbor to the man, the lawyer couldn’t even bring himself to say, “the Samaritan,” but simply “The one who showed him mercy.”)

It would have been radical enough if the assaulted man was a Samaritan who was being helped by a Jew! But to make the Samaritan the one that was the helper? The one that had the wrong religious beliefs? The one that belonged to a group that committed violence against his group? Now that’s really radical!

In one fell swoop, Jesus not only challenged the Jew to love the negatively-viewed outsider as much as his local neighbors, he also challenged the Jew to have a more positive view of that outsider!

And yet this should have come as no surprise! The quote from the law to “love your neighbor as yourself” comes from Leviticus 19, the same chapter where we saw the commands to love the sojourner as yourself (v.34)! The heart of God has always been to love both your “neighbor” and the “foreigner” as yourself.

On the one hand, Jesus was only telling a provocative story to explicitly make a connection that had been there all along! On the other hand, Jesus was making the connection even stronger and more radical! Unlike some of the original sojourners, who were living among the Israelites and entering into covenant with them, the Samaritans were completely separated, following a corrupted religion, and even fighting violently with the Jews! And yet Jesus was still calling the lawyer to love them as himself.

The Heart of Evangelism

After all, Jesus loved the Samaritan. He wanted them to follow him just as much as the Jews, and he went out of his way to spend time with them. (Recall Jesus’s declaration to the Samaritan woman at the well about the true worship that “the Father is seeking,” John 4).

In fact, God’s heart towards loving foreigners has always been inseparable from his heart to save them. While sojourners were apparently not required to”enter into the covenant with the LORD” (Deuteronomy 29:10-13), it seems clear that their positive treatment by the Israelite was intended to encourage this. When King Solomon dedicated the temple, he prayed:

When a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, comes from a far country for your name’s sake 42 (for they shall hear of your great name and your mighty hand, and of your outstretched arm), when he comes and prays toward this house, 43 hear in heaven your dwelling place and do according to all for which the foreigner calls to you, in order that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your people Israel, and that they may know that this house that I have built is called by your name. (1 Kings 8:41-43 ESV)

This was all a foreshadowing of Gentile inclusion in the Gospel – including Rahab’s and Ruth’s integration into the very line of Christ. While there was some initial wrestling with the details of this inclusion (did Gentiles need to be circumcised??), there was no doubt about its significance. Jesus “has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility” (Ephesians 2:14). He has given us the “ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:18), and we look forward to the time when we shall see “every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb” (Revelation 7)

If we truly believe that hell awaits the unsaved, and that God is not willing that any should perish (2 Peter 3:9), then we should especially rejoice at the opportunity for a nation with millions of Christians to welcome immigrants from “closed countries” to a land of religious freedom. Surely even just an increased chance that even one refugee might come to the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ (and I know many who have done just that!) is worth a great deal.

Our hearts naturally turn inward toward our own ethnic groups! The heart of God naturally turns outward toward all ethnic groups! Thus I think it is fair to say that diversity is the heart of God.

Diversity Is The Heart of God

We are still not ready to address practical questions about constraints, but I want to pause to address a challenge to the more general position. There is a growing belief in some corners of the Internet that the celebration of “diversity” is nothing more than a liberal utopia, that there are fundamental differences between different groups of people and it’s better for them all to live separately in their own places. Many of these proponents desire a total or almost total restriction of immigration.

I believe this is kind of “ethnic nationalism” is a false view that is contrary to the heart of God. In fact, I would even like to speculate that to entertain such a view is to reject the blessing of God and invite his curse. It is true that the natural inward inclinations of our sinful hearts can lead to conflicts between ethnic groups, but our sinful hearts also lead to conflicts within our ethnic groups! God desires to redeem us and bring us all together.

There are certainly legitimate national concerns relating to integration and sustainability. I believe the current European backlash against immigration partially reflects a negative heart towards foreigners, but I also believe that heart is partially a reaction to immigration-related concerns being dismissed and shamed rather than acknowledged. However, to condemn immigration as a whole seems foolhardy, even if there are no spiritual consequences and only the effects of natural economics.

Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple, was the son of a Syrian immigrant. Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, came to America when his family fled Jewish persecution in the Soviet Union. Interestingly, both companies were co-founded partnerships of native-born and first- or second-generation immigrants. The quintessential American story of arriving on new shores with nothing, and finding a way up through hard work and opportunity, is still being told today. In fact, more than 200 of the companies in the Fortune 500 were founded by first- or second-generation immigrants. (In addition to job-creating entrepreneurs, it can be argued that the mathematical reality is we’re going to need more immigrants to make up for our declining native birth rates and support Social Security for all the retiring natives.)

Diversity can make a country stronger. Is this part of the reason the great melting pot of America has been such a great nation? Considering that many of our ancestors were themselves immigrants, many fleeing persecution or famine or misfortune and seeking a better life, I cannot help but note the parallels to God’s reasoning for his original commands to the Israelites. Do not oppress the refugee, for you yourselves were refugees from Europe…

Due to the focus on seven specific countries, many are unaware that President Trump’s executive order attempted to shut down the entire refugee program (the actual text says, “The Secretary of State shall suspend the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) for 120 days.”) Seven countries were singled out for blocking all travelers, in addition to refugees, but refugees from all countries were suspended, without warning, and without evidence of any specific risks from any of those countries, for the first time since the program was established in 1980. As the program has undergone numerous changes since its inception, including security improvements, without a sudden, prolonged halt, the justification for halting the entire program seems unclear. In addition to the immediate effects on numerous families, many welcomers are concerned that this signals a shift in a more general anti-immigrant direction, especially given reports that the order was largely influenced by Steve Bannon, who is known to have more radical views on the subject.

But is all of this political discussion still a theological issue?

Individuals or Nations?

A common criticism of “welcomers” is that they are misinterpreting Biblical commands for individuals as commands for nations. It is important to consider this distinction. Many New Testament instructions are more naturally understood as applying to individuals under the New Covenant compared to the Old Testament theocracy. In addition, the United States political ideals of democracy and freedom have a more natural application for individual charity compared to government coercion, especially given freedom of religion and the rights of other citizens to choose not to participate in such charity. There are also arguments about the superiority of individual charity as it relates to the benefits of personal relationship along with accountability and practical effectiveness.

Indeed, there are some passages about welcoming outsiders that clearly suggest a personal duty:

Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. (Hebrews 13:2 ESV)

However, it could also be argued that the presence of passages regarding both individual and national action simply indicates the consistency of God’s heart towards the foreigner on both an individual and a national level, and that there is room, at least on some level, for both kinds of welcoming.

The issue of immigration, by definition, concerns national policy. We have seen that when Israel was a nation, welcoming foreigners was clearly God’s intent. We see that many Biblical characters took refuge in other nations that allowed their entrance (including David, 1 Sam. 21, and Jesus himself, Matt. 2, in yet another connection to the Israelite’s status as foreigners in Egypt). We also see some instances of cities or nations being condemned for refusing to allow or properly welcome foreigners (Sodom and Gomorrah, Gen. 19, and King Sihon of Heshbon, Deut. 2).

We see that Jesus confirmed and even expanded the idea of “loving the foreigner as yourself” to helping the foreigner when it is in your capacity to alleviate his hurting. While there is room for interpretation, it is interesting that even the quintessential passage about individual acts of charity has a reference to the “nations”:

Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. 34 Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, (Matthew 25:32-35)

James asks what good it is to see a brother without clothes or food and not provide for those needs (James 2:15-16) . Can we say we love a refugee family as much as we love ourselves if we have the ability to welcome them into our nation, yet refuse to do so?

But Does That Mean We Need To Bring Them Here?

Some “hesitaters” agree about the Biblical imperative to love and care for refugees, while arguing that this does not imply an imperative to welcome them into our country, especially if trumped by other concerns (pun not intended). Franklin Graham, leader of Samaritan’s Purse, has posted the following in response to discussion regarding Trump’s executive order:

As Christians we are clearly taught in the Bible to care for the poor and oppressed. At Samaritan’s Purse we have been working in the Middle East for over 30 years. We’ve provided things like food, heaters, blankets, coats, shelter plastic, and more for tens of thousands of refugees there and in other places around the world. We just opened a 55-bed field trauma hospital in northern Iraq where we’re treating Muslims who are being wounded by other Muslims in the fight over Mosul. As Christians we are commanded to help all, regardless of religious background or ethnicity, like the Good Samaritan Jesus shared about in the Bible. Our job is to show God’s love and compassion.

At the same time, he says:

Some people seem to have forgotten that the priority of the president of the United States is protecting the Constitution and the safety of Americans… We have to be sure that the philosophies of those entering our country are compatible with our Constitution… I believe the best way to help is to reach out and help these people in their own countries… We need to pray for political solutions that would bring peace and allow them to return to their homes as they desire.

I applaud Samaritan Purse’s work in this context, and I agree with some of Mr. Graham’s concerns. It does not make sense for every one of the currently estimated 65 million global refugees to migrate to countries like the United States, and it makes sense to assist many where they are, while pursuing justice through more comprehensive solutions. (As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “after you lift so many people out of the ditch you start to ask, maybe the whole road to Jericho needs to be repaved.”)

However, I would also ask the “hesitater” to consider that even intermittent charity in an impoverished refugee camp is hardly the life we would want for ourselves, and to consider the following scenario. What if we recognized a capacity to integrate a very small percentage of those refugees, and we were given a list of those considered most qualified for relocation to our country, whether due to a heightened vulnerability in their current location, or an existing family connection, or some other set of reasons, and we were asked us to consider accepting them, provided we reviewed their information and situation and felt comfortable with the result? I believe that, in fact, accurately describes the narrow policy scenario under discussion today.

Unavoidable Risks vs. Targeted Risks

At this point, the “hesitater” may respond with the following objection: But if we can’t be completely certain about their intentions, doesn’t the government have a responsibility to keep us safe?

If he is not afraid of being politically incorrect, he may also include a second, more specific, objection: Don’t we need to be concerned about radical Islamic terrorism? Or maybe even Islam in general?

Indeed, Mr. Graham’s posts specifically reference these concerns, which loom far greater than practical concerns about the logistical limits of relocation. What seems to be a debate between Biblical imperatives for welcoming refugees and the function of government, in my opinion, actually reflects a difference in risk perception.

There will be always be some risk in welcoming strangers, whether individually or nationally, so surely Jesus did not intend it to be a deciding factor against such action. Furthermore, loving the foreigner as ourselves means thinking not just about our own risk of harm but about the risk of harm to the crowds of peaceful refugees, both Muslim and non-Muslim, trying to flee war and terrorism themselves. Welcomers tend to perceive the risk of terrorism in this general “unavoidable” sense, built on a perception that the overwhelming majority of Muslims are peaceful and non-threatening.

However, it can also be argued that if we ignore warning signs to take care of ourselves, we will be unable to take care of others, even if we really want to. Hesitaters tend to perceive Islam, or some parts of it, in this specific “targeted” sense, built on a perception that a true adherence to the Koran does not tolerate freedom of religion or even democracy, and that an influx of Muslims means an increased risk not just of “random” terrorism but also an advancing of Sharia law, crime against non-Muslims – even a fundamental threat to Western civilization.

So it is not enough for the welcomer to pronounce a Biblical imperative for welcoming foreigners and argue for its practical application in modern America. It is not even enough to respond to the hesitater’s charge about a Biblical imperative of a government to protect its citizens – though this is necessary to consider as well. The welcomer must also consider the hesitater’s fundamental differences in perception about Islam. Where did these different perceptions come from? Are they based in rumor or truth? In the context of American freedom, I think we need to discuss what risks we expect our government to protect us from, how big those risks really are, and how this relates to Islam. I have opinions on these matters, but as this post is getting long I think I will save them for a second post.

Partial Conclusions

Potential constraints notwithstanding, I think a strong case can be made – on Biblical theological grounds, on general humanitarian grounds, even on fundamentally American grounds – for welcoming as many refugees as practically possible, as a matter of both national policy and individual connecting. (Truly, both aspects are intertwined and neither can succeed alone.)

Above all, we should strive not to lose sight of the fact that we are not talking about numbers and statistics but real people, created in the image of God, who have suffered unimaginable oppression, whose lives we have unique opportunities to enter into and spend time with, just as Jesus spent much of his time on this Earth. And yet it is more than simply the privileged helping the underprivileged. We all have so much to learn from each other, as we actively participate in tearing down walls of hostility and let God turn our hearts from our natural, sinful inward focuses to his outward love for all humanity.

May the Lord guide us into all wisdom and understanding as we endeavor to grow in faith, hope, and love. And the greatest of these is love.

(If you don’t want to miss the follow-up, sign up for an email notification at the bottom of the page.)

Some Works Cited

Pastor Kyle Rainbolt’s sermon on “The Outsiders” at St. Louis Trinity Church

A conservative blog post on immigration and the Bible

activism, informal essays

Children On The Battlefield

Brief – but jarring.

It was only a few seconds in one of the numerous firefight scenes in Star Wars: Rogue One. A little girl bawling in the middle of a battlefield, weapons firing all around her, then carried off to safety by one of the good guys.

It was jarring because the little girl felt so out of place. In our action movies, we’re not used to seeing children on the battlefields. And yet in those few seconds that little girl exposed one of the great lies of all of our cinematic glorifications of war.

Real wars have children in them.

From our fun sci-fi romps across galaxies to our grittiest, darkest looks at the horrors of historical battlefields, we shrug off the deaths of the bad guys, we mourn the losses of the good guys, we revel and recoil at the intensity of the blood and the limbs and all the other ugliness, but they’re usually adults, who sort of knew what they were getting into, whose sacrifices we can celebrate and honor…

Give us blood. Give us gore. Give us all the realistic R-rated violence we can handle.

Oh, but don’t give us children.

We don’t want to face that much reality. We want our movies to be an escape.

Not from a movie.
Not from a movie.

Nevermind the children of Aleppo who couldn’t escape from a reality we don’t even want to contemplate, as we gather for the holidays in the safety of our homes.

We should be thankful for those blessings. But if we only thank God that we have them without thinking about the people who don’t, it feels to me a little like Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the Publican (Luke 18:9-14)

Oh, God, I thank you, that I am not like those other folks….


I don’t have all the answers to the great political challenges of our time. But I do know that we won’t find them when we give in to our natural tendencies to fear, to dehumanize, to forget the others, the ones who aren’t like us, the ones we don’t know and can’t see…

and yet: the ones who are created in the image of God just like us, the ones who are loved by Jesus Christ just like us, the ones who will one day gather around the throne from every nation, tribe, people, and language.

I’ve met a few children who were able to escape the real war of Syria. Their father suffered a head injury from the fighting. The UN Refugee Agency recommended their family to the United States, which approved them and connected them to an institute that settled them in an apartment across from our church office.

Some of our church members visited them and got to know them. When they got a house through a Muslim connection, our church members helped them move, and we took up a donation to help them pay their first few bills. How cool is that, for this Muslim family, regardless of whatever impressions they may have had of Americans or Christians not wanting them here, to see the love of Christ demonstrated to them, after all the horrors they’ve experienced, a love that they might never have seen had they not arrived. Some of the family came to church yesterday! I will pray for the Holy Spirit’s continued work in their lives.


If you want to help refugees, there are several things you can do.

If you’re in St. Louis, you can sign up at to connect with a refugee family. It’s a partnership with Oasis International, a great local ministry you can donate to. Relevant recently posted an article with several options, including ways to directly help war victims still in Syria.

No one can worry about all the problems in the world all the time. We all must focus on our callings. But maybe we can at least remember the children on the battlefield. If it means anything to love our neighbors as ourselves, maybe, for at least a brief and jarring moment, we can think about what we would try to do if our own children were suffering so, or what we would want someone to do for us, and maybe some of us can go and do likewise.

informal essays

Can Bad Character Prevent Good Leadership? A Question For Evangelical Trump Supporters

Two months ago, Amy Gannett struck a chord with thousands of Christian Millennials with her blog post “How Evangelicals Are Losing An Entire Generation.” I’ve been thinking about that post again as I watch more and more evangelical pastors and leaders from the Baby Boomer generation joining the chorus to support Donald Trump for president.

Now Christians are going to have different opinions about politics, and we need to be able to talk humbly to each other about them. I don’t claim to speak for everyone in my generation – I know many who don’t agree, and some from other generations who do – but based on countless conversations, various polls, and relentless online streams, I think this election has exposed a major generation gap between Baby Boomers and Millennials – a gap that will persist regardless of who wins in November – a gap we need to be talking about.

This is not a criticism.

It’s a cry for help.

American Evangelical Millennials. We’ve grown up in a strange world. Bill Clinton’s sex scandal is the first major political event many of us remember. We all didn’t understand what sex was, but we got the impression that what Clinton did was bad and it was another symptom of how the country was getting worse and how everything would have been better if a Republican had been in office. Evangelical leaders like James Dobson called out Clinton’s adultery, and his lying about it, as evidence of his fundamental lack of character for such an important leadership position:

What has alarmed me throughout this episode has been the willingness of my fellow citizens to rationalize the President’s behavior even after they suspected, and later knew, that he was lying

As it turns out, character DOES matter. You can’t run a family, let alone a country, without it. How foolish to believe that a person who lacks honesty and moral integrity is qualified to lead a nation and the world! Nevertheless, our people continue to say that the President is doing a good job even if they don’t respect him personally. Those two positions are fundamentally incompatible. In the Book of James the question is posed, “Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring” (James 3:11 NIV). The answer is no…

I just don’t understand it. Why aren’t parents more concerned about what their children are hearing about the President’s behavior?

What have we taught our boys about respecting women? What have our little girls learned about men?

We are facing a profound moral crisis — not only because one man has disgraced us — but because our people no longer recognize the nature of evil.

Now we see those very same leaders turning around and defending a man who has committed adultery in multiple marriages, a man whose lies repeatedly try to rewrite the history of his past positions as if we have no memory, who claims he never said things when there is clear footage that he did, who attacked an opponent with baseless allegations from the National Enquirer and even lied about what that tabloid said about it, a man who lies so consistently, so brazenly, so unrepentantly that he makes Hillary Clinton look honest.

We are so confused.

Why does it seem like our evangelical leaders hold partisan politics more constant than what they say the Bible teaches about those politics?

This is something that matters deeply to us. Many of us have friends who have left the faith in large part due to disillusionment with the hypocritical joining of American Republicans and religion. We don’t want to run away with them. But we understand how they feel.

Our evangelical leaders criticized a Democrat’s moral failures, and when people said, it’s ok, the president is not a pastor, he’s doing a good job with the economy, our leaders said, No, character is fundamental to leadership, you can’t make good decisions without it. Now we have a Republican candidate with arguably far worse moral failures, and we’re saying, it’s ok, the president is not a pastor, he might be good for the economy?

Can bad character prevent good leadership? Or not?

This is more than just a rude guy saying some mean things. Doesn’t Proverbs say “a lying tongue” is one of God’s seven abominations (Prov. 6:17)? If “the Lord detests dishonest scales,” (Prov 11:1) should we be concerned about one who shortchanges his contractors? If safety comes from a “multitude of counselors,” (Prov. 11:14) should we be concerned about one who prides himself on his own instincts, gets bored when advisors try to prepare him for a debate and chides them when they to correct his delusion that he won it anyway? If “he who restrains his lips is wise,” (Prov. 10:19) should we concerned about one who recklessly spreads rumors about sex tapes of women after already doubling-down on criticizing their weight?

If Trump is the “wrecking ball” we need to overthrow the corrupt government, how do we know we won’t end up like the man who expelled an unclean spirit but didn’t replace it with anything good and ended up in a “last state” that was worse than the “first”? (Matt 12:43-45)

Are we really saying the character of the most powerful leader in the world does not matter a single iota regarding the powerful decisions they will make as long as they run with an (R) after their name and claim they’ll appoint some other leaders we’ll probably like?

Of course no one is perfect. But imperfect people with integrity can be good leaders. And imperfect people without integrity cannot.

Or at least that’s what every evangelical influence told us for years and years.

The teaching we thought we received from the leaders of the previous generation seems so fundamentally at odds with the positions they are taking now. And we don’t know how to process that. Are they wrong about this? Were we wrong about them? About ourselves? None of it makes sense to us.

We are so confused.

Ever since we’ve been old enough to vote – only three or four cycles, really – we’ve heard the admonitions about voting for the lesser of two evils. And we’ve watched as the lesser keeps getting less good. With both major candidates at record unfavorable ratings, there are multiple third parties polling at record levels this cycle (the Libertarians with their two former Republican governors have been flirting with double-digits). Could our evangelical leaders have tried to get behind a third-party bid, even with the resignation of switching back to (R) if it didn’t take off? We can’t help but wonder why we didn’t even try to snap out of the lesser-of-two-evils spiral.

To be honest, we’re not sure the (R) is the lesser evil this time around.

This may come as a surprise to some of you, but we’re just not that scared of Hillary Clinton. It’s not that we think she’d be good, either. But we’ve heard our leaders spend the last eight years warning Obama was going to cause the destruction of America, and now they sound like the boy who cried wolf as we look around thinking things aren’t so bad.

Yes, we’re heartbroken by abortion. We think Obamacare has made things worse for a lot of us. We’re not really expecting much Social Security from our government’s unsustainable fiscal path. But we’re not really convinced Trump has a plan or even an interest in changing any of those things. And we don’t all think Hillary and the Democrats are “100% wrong” – as I saw one pastor recently post – about everything. A lot of us kinda like the idea of welcoming more refugees; we think there might even be something Biblical about it that’s worth what we think is a negligible risk. Some of us even think it might be worth at least doing a little something about the risk of climate change.

Maybe that’s why Hillary’s potential to maybe nominate somebody to the Supreme Court who might get to take cases that might nudge some issues away from what we’d prefer… well, that doesn’t really scare us, either – or at least it’s not obvious to us that it’s definitely worse than the potential downsides of Trump directly managing everything in the executive branch. (When you consider life expectancy these days, what if no more justices die in the next four years? Should we throw away our integrity for an event that might not even happen?) Our hope hasn’t been in politicians for awhile… maybe it never was?

I know, I know. We have biases, too. Maybe we’re all young and naive. Maybe we’re not old enough to understand the way the world really works or what our country really needs. We need elders, mentors, leaders. Please forgive us when we’re stubborn, angry, quick to speak and slow to listen. But a lot of us are starting to think that we don’t know what to do.

I’m not just talking about who to vote for president this year. What I really mean is, a lot of us don’t know who to look up to anymore. Unlike some of our friends, we still believe in God. We still want to believe in the Bible, and we don’t really want to run to the liberal theology of some of our other friends, either. But we find ourselves increasingly apart from the leading figures of our parents’ generation.

Who do we follow? Dr. Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention, in my opinion, has been fantastic, on everything from civil rights and racism to refugees to abortion. I’m sure there are others. But I don’t want evangelicals to just split into pro-Trump and anti-Trump factions. I don’t want to say “we’re right” and go with the people I agree with. I hope we can have conversations about things like character in leadership.

I’ll leave with these profound words from Amy Gannett:

Over the last several months, I have lost respect for the Republican party, and I honestly thought that would be the biggest tragedy of this election. But the disappointing truth is this: I’m losing faith in Evangelicals.

And this is frightening. I am an Evangelical. I hold to Evangelical theology. I have attended not one, but two Evangelical schools…

Evangelical leaders are going to lose an entire generation of Christians in the wake of our current political and social climate. This is not an article asking millennials to leave Evangelicalism because I believe it can’t be saved, nor is this article saying that Evangelicalism is dead. It also is not a proposal of a useful way forward in this“dumpster fire” of an election. It is a plea for reform. It is a big ask of Evangelical leaders to reevaluate the stakes they have put in the ground and ask if there could be a better, more truly Evangelical way…

Because you’re losing us, and we don’t want to be lost.

informal essays

A Woman’s Right To Choose


“I believe in a woman’s right to choose what to do with her own body”

Whenever abortion debates flare up around the Internet, many pro-choicers express this sentiment, without fail and usually without explanation, as if that simple principle is a self-evident final answer. Over and over and over I see that refrain, uttered with a dogmatic conviction that reminds me of fundamentalists who repeatedly say, “The Bible says it and I believe it!” – without taking the time to consider whether or not such a reply actually provides an adequate answer.

I believe “a woman’s right to her own body” is an excellent general principle for building a set of ethics. I recognize that societies throughout history labelled women as the property of their husbands (at best), that men in more enlightened societies have placed and continue to place unjust control – emotional, physical, sexual, even vocational – over women, and that as a man I am likely woefully ignorant of much of this oppression. I generally support efforts to decrease the unjust control of a woman’s body by others and increase her control over her own life.

But a general principle is only helpful as long as you don’t run into a situation that puts it in conflict with itself. This can happen to pro-lifers, too: “Protect life!” sounds great until you have a pregnancy where the continuing development of the child may or may not kill the mother. Does the pithy slogan still lead to the same conclusion, or do you need to go deeper and embrace the terrible tension? I propose that the pro-choice position runs into a conflict with its general principle all the time, because half of abortions involve two women.

Consider the sixteen-week old fetus in the image above from WebMD. She and her mother each have a distinct body. All of her cells have the same unique DNA, and all of her mother’s cells have a different unique DNA. They each have their own head, brain, heart, liver, fingers with unique fingerprints. Their blood, which does not mix, may have different blood types. Two distinct bodies, one inside the other, connected by an umbilical cord.

Simply stating “a woman’s right to choose” does not help us decide which of the two women gets to choose what happens to the weaker one. If a woman’s right to her own body includes her offspring, then at one point her body was the right of her mother’s. By Week 16 her little body already had her own eggs in her own ovaries! When did that body stop belonging to her mother and start belonging to her? When was this “product of conception” no longer merely the property of her mother?

Most pro-lifers say it’s from the moment of conception, when cells with unique DNA begin to divide into a body. Some pro-choicers might say it’s when the child develops consciousness, or the ability to feel pain, or viability outside the womb. (I think each of those have weaknesses, but I commend folks who hold such views for trying to find a line rather than imply there isn’t one.) Only 14% of Americans think a woman’s right to her own body hasn’t started by the third trimester, when that body is filling out with fingernails and body fat and head hair and the ability to recognize words; I think most people feel there is no difference in personhood between a 34-week-old premie and a 34-week-old still in the womb. Only 27% think self-ownership hasn’t started by the second trimester, and I think that number would be lower if more were aware of how much development has occurred at that point.

Such development is starkly illustrated in the recent Planned Parenthood videos. A fetus cannot be a worthless blob of tissue while inside the womb and full of valuable, identifiable organs once removed. To deny her the right to live, you must either say she is just part of her mother’s body, which means the mother has two hearts and two brains for awhile, or she is a separate body without its own rights. You cannot liberate a woman from the property of men only to leave her as the property of her mother. The pro-life position, far from restricting women, actually proposes a fuller liberation!

I don’t think I am alone in saying this. Read Ann Voskamp on the virtues of being “pro-voice” for “both the human in utero and the human in a hard place”. (In fact you would do well if you leave to read her post and never finish mine.)

I think a lot of times pro-choicers feel like pro-lifers don’t seem to care too much about that woman “in a hard place.” Even if one accepts that a fetus is a separate body from her mother, pro-lifers often fail to acknowledge that the development of the fetus exacts a significant toll on the mother’s body. Nausea, vomiting, back pain, the literal rearrangement of internal organs, the possible tearing of the perineum upon delivery, the emotional side effects of all the hormones, the financial costs of doctor and hospital visits and childcare, the lifelong loss of wages due to workforce gaps…

Maybe you only hear pro-lifers get riled up about abortion without seeming to care about all the burdens of developing and raising a child. Maybe you see heaps of stigma and shame on women who have abortions and on single mothers who don’t. Maybe you see the demonization of Planned Parenthood without seeing any concern for the health and wellbeing of the underprivileged.

Personally, I want to stop Planned Parenthood from crushing the most underprivileged of all and extracting their organs, but I don’t want to destroy Planned Parenthood. I have no problem admitting they do a lot of good things that society needs more of. I love how my favorite local pro-life group, Thrive St. Louis, has begun competing with Planned Parenthood on a more holistic level.

I think I would even support much higher taxes to legitimately address more of the aforementioned costs of pregnancy and childbearing. If we are going to accuse Planned Parenthood of not putting life before money, perhaps we should be more willing to do so ourselves. I know we have TONS of underappreciated generous donors and foster and adoptive parents in our ranks. I know the government pays for some medical care for the poor. Is that good enough? Should we at least start talking about… I don’t know, paid maternity leave?

I love small government, but I’m no longer willing to sacrifice life on its altar. Would we see less resistance to banning second trimester abortions if it was accompanied by Cadillac care – or even Camry care – for those women and their children? When a large majority of Americans have already thought such abortions should be illegal for decades now? When most “progressive” European countries already ban abortions at that level?

I know. Pro-lifers have biases. If you categorically defend the pro-choice position with a simple “woman’s right to choose,” I wonder if you haven’t simply perceived these biases that seem to ignore all the other aspects of women’s health and wellbeing and formed your beliefs in reaction to that. Maybe not – maybe you have a well-reasoned position on the beginning of personhood. But if not, I encourage you to not rest behind a convenient slogan, but to wrestle with its inherent tension and enter the fray regarding the important question of when a woman’s right to her own body begins.

I know most abortions occur in the first trimester. I know I can’t post a picture of a four-week embryo to emotionally supplement quite as strong of a case about the number of distinct organs (though I assure you I heard my own son’s heartbeat four weeks from conception). I don’t expect to be able to totally change your mind in a single blog post. But I do encourage you to look at that picture, imagine a female fetus with her own eggs and ovaries, with a developing skull and brain that we currently allow doctors to crush so they can remove the rest of the body and sort out the heart and liver, all in the name of her mother’s right to own her, and consider how twenty years from now you would be saying that no one, not even that same mother, should control those same ovaries, or that same liver, for that matter.

Do you really, truly believe she shouldn’t have the right to that liver now?

Do you?

If not now, when?



Review: Making Sense of the Bible: Rediscovering the Power of Scripture Today

Making Sense of the Bible: Rediscovering the Power of Scripture Today
Making Sense of the Bible: Rediscovering the Power of Scripture Today by Adam Hamilton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book provides a solid mainline perspective on understanding the Bible. Hamilton summarizes the content and themes of the Bible and also addresses many good questions people have about it, offering reasonable answers to skeptics while simultaneously gently challenging the inflexible views of many evangelicals. As someone raised generally evangelically without a clear representation of the mainline perspective, I found it helpful in dispelling many false dichotomies that come with interpreting the Bible, and the way it made alternate viewpoints feel less threatening.

Hamilton challenges the popular evangelical idea that “if you can’t trust part of the Bible you can’t trust any of it” by noting that we don’t apply the same principle to trusted teachers and preachers we find fallible yet helpful. He also makes a strong argument that the evangelical definition of “inerrancy” has enough caveats to be almost meaningless (if modern variances or inconsistencies exist because only the original manuscripts were “God-breathed,” but none of the original manuscripts were preserved, than what was the point?). Supporting his “helpful but not necessarily infallible” view is a claim that the “God-breathed” phrase in Timothy, often invoked in defense of inerrancy, was also used to describe early church writings that have never been viewed in the same light. (I am interested in researching this further.)

Even as I appreciated the chance to become – if not totally convinced – at least more open-minded – about a less rigorous yet still solidly Christian understanding of Scripture, I occasionally found his evangelical challenges unconvincingly unimaginative. For example, he claims that the location of Jesus’ ascension is irreconcilably contradictory across the Gospels, which I did not find when I sympathetically reviewed the texts. I also found his attempts to reconcile an affirming stance on homosexuality with an inerrant interpretation surprisingly weak and clearly refutable; I remain convinced you cannot do that without also abandoning inerrancy. And while I am not necessarily opposed to the principle of using Jesus’ words to essentially override other parts of Scripture (while many evangelicals would never echo Hamilton’s language, in practice they are often similar), I’m not sure his approach to interpreting the Old Testament’s violent passages through Jesus is actually based on a comprehensive view of Jesus himself.

Overall, I found Hamilton’s book an excellent presentation of a viewpoint that I found to be much less hollow and inconsistent than I once suspected before I had actually read some of its stronger defenses. I think it would be helpful, both for the reputation of Christianity and for the saving of souls, if evangelicals were more familiar with the existence of this viewpoint, and in less agreement with their equally dogmatic secular opponents that one must either accept every evangelical interpretation or reject Christianity altogether.

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Review: No Shame in My Game: The Working Poor in the Inner City

No Shame in My Game: The Working Poor in the Inner City
No Shame in My Game: The Working Poor in the Inner City by Katherine S. Newman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book provides a detailed look into the lives of the urban working poor. Armed both with comprehensive data and numerous anecdotes, Katherine Newman dispels many myths and stereotypes about those who strongly desire to follow the American work ethic but don’t have the knowledge or connections to move up from where they are. The book focuses on fast-food workers in Harlem, examining in detail their ambitions, skills, work ethic, and challenges. It repeatedly drove home its core point that despite low pay, stressful working conditions, rude customers, and the pressures of school and children that all make a fast-food job barely more attractive than welfare, the deep desire to earn a living is so prevalent among the poor that local restaurants are continually flooded with applications, and many of the few who make it press on despite little chance of advancement. At the same time, the book is nuanced and well-rounded in its treatment of the variety of attitudes, viewpoints, and experiences among poor workers, their employers, and their friends and families. It is hardly the end of the debate for how to improve the lot of America’s urban poor (the solutions offered are generally unconvincing), but for anyone who has ever expressed an opinion on that plight without really knowing anyone living it, this book is a great place to start.

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Review: Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator

Trust Me, I'm Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator
Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator by Ryan Holiday
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book is an easy read with interesting stuff about the ways PR/companies/bloggers/media manipulate each other and the ways fake controversies and outrages end up as news due to the incentives of bloggers to get as many views and clicks as possible without taking time to check and verify. I was already familiar with a lot of the ideas, but the stories and examples were intriguing, as well as many of the details and Holiday’s realizations and regrets about the dark side of the business. At times it can feel repetitive, oversimplified, and exaggerated, but there’s plenty of meat to make it worth your time if you’re interested in blogging, the trustworthiness of the news you read, or anything along those lines.

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Review: When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor . . . and Yourself

When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor . . . and Yourself
When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor . . . and Yourself by Steve Corbett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The beginning of the book concisely explains the theology of why Christians should be helping the poor, tying it to general themes of God’s redemption of the world and highlighting the ignoring of the poor as one of the oft overlooked but undeniably major reasons Israel went into exile. The rest of the book expounds upon how to help the poor. Right-leaning readers may like its insistence on overcoming incentives of dependency; left-leaning readers may like its insistence on overcoming superiority complexes of assuming we know best how to help less privileged peoples when we really don’t; all readers should like its combination of common sense, good theology, and personal humility with practical insight into poverty alleviation. I especially liked the suggestion to empower the materially poor by asking “what are your gifts?” instead of “what do you need?” I also liked the bits about savings associations. Overall, this is an imperative read for any Christian involved or interested in helping the poor.

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informal essays

What Does The Bible Say About The Death Penalty?

The death penalty has received much attention in 2014. A botched execution in Oklahoma earlier this year reinvigorated both sides of the debate. According to Gallup polls, support for capital punishment in the United States has fallen from around 80% in the 90’s to around 60% now. A new movement has seen its abolishment in a handful of states in the last few years, leaving 32 with legal (though often rare) executions.

One of those is my home state of Missouri, which earlier this month executed its tenth convicted criminal – a record for the state that tied it with the much larger state of Texas for the most deaths in 2014.

I decided I opposed the death penalty after reading Preston Sprinkle’s Fight last year. With this year’s renewed attention, I read articles by Christians supporting the death penalty and found much I disagreed with. I read articles opposing but I found they did not address the strongest objections from the other side. So I thought it worthwhile to review my position, to seek out the best arguments against it, to determine if and why I still oppose it, and to attempt a defense of that position.

Christians living in modern democracies face an inherent challenge in applying Biblical ethics to the death penalty and many other political issues. We cite Old Testament verses which often refer to punishment for laws directly given by God to God’s people before the fulfillment of Jesus Christ. We cite New Testament verses which often refer to punishment for laws set by ungodly governments to God’s people after the fulfillment of Jesus Christ. We try to apply both of these different government-citizen dynamics to a modern context with yet a third dynamic, with laws set partially by God’s people for ourselves and others. We actually have influence in giving the laws and setting the punishments for them, as opposed to just responding to them. The challenges of these unique political relationships exist on top of the standard Biblical interpretational challenges of time and cultural differences, language translations, etc.

Thus it should be no surprise that Christians who hold the Bible as the divinely inspired Word of God can come to different conclusions on political issues. Some cases remain clear – or at least parts of them – but in other cases there are no easy answers, as almost any passage that assumes one government-citizen dynamic has weaknesses in application to a different dynamic. We must caution our biases against too cleverly dismissing the context of an opposing passage as a result of these weaknesses when we might not apply the same rigorous skepticism to a supporting passage.

With that introduction, I am ready to address the question: Should Christians support or oppose their governments having the power to kill citizens who have been convicted of certain crimes?

Genesis 9:6

The most commonly cited verse in support of capital punishment is Genesis 9:6, in which God tells Noah after the flood,

Whoever sheds the blood of man,
by man shall his blood be shed,
for God made man in his own image.

This straightforward declaration of capital punishment was greatly expanded under the Mosaic covenant, but since the declaration precedes that, and since the reason given for the declaration transcends it (man made in God’s image), many Christians believe it still applies.

It could be debated whether this passage is prescriptive (giving a command to punish murder with death) or merely descriptive (observing that people who murder will tend to be killed by other people). It certainly could be more prescriptive (ex. “You shall shed his blood” rather than “by man shall his blood be shed”), but given the context of the surrounding verses as well as the coming expansion under the Mosaic covenant, I think a prescriptive reading makes more sense, and that’s why supporters believe it justifies the death penalty – at least for murder.

What is fascinating, though, is that in spite of how absolute this passage sounds, the Bible is full of stories where the rule is not applied. Going back to the very first murder, God accepted Cain’s plea for mercy from man’s retaliation for his killing of Abel (an interesting precedent*). A few verses later, Lamech boasts that he “killed a man for wounding me,” but there are no consequences mentioned for Lamech’s bloodshed (Genesis 4).

After the Noahic covenant, two of Jacob’s sons, Simeon and Levi, slaughter all the men in a nearby village for what one man did to their sister (Genesis 34). By man Simeon and Levi’s blood is not shed. Moses kills a man for beating a slave and has to flee Egypt. God not only spares his life but brings him back as a conquering hero. God apparently almost kills him, not for murder, but for failing to circumcise his son, and he is forbidden from the Promised Land, again not for murder, but for an act of disobedience.

The Mosaic covenant established the death penalty for murder and sundry other sins. Among these was prostitution, yet a couple of them are in the line of Christ. So is David, who committed adultery compounded with murder, yet he did not pay with his life.

Of course, the Bible also records the death penalty in action. Phinehas is commended for spearing an immoral couple apparently in the act of intercourse (Numbers 25). Ehud executes a wicked, obese king (Judges 3), and he is far from the only lethal judge.

In a moment pivotal to his loss of the kingdom, Saul spares the king of the Amalekites (1 Samuel 15). Samuel graphically “hacked Agag to pieces” after an explanation that is remarkably reminiscent of the Noahic retaliation principle: “As your sword has made women childless, so shall your mother be childless among women.” (If you were looking for a passage that not only supports capital punishment but offers explicit disapproval of failing to apply it, you couldn’t ask for a better example. On the other hand, this was disobedience of a direct command, not of a general death-penalty law.)

Regardless, we have repeated examples of the Noahic principle not being followed between creation and Noah, between Noah and the Mosaic law, and between the Mosaic law and Jesus Christ.

Yes, Jesus! Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! If the Noahic principle always had cracks in it, Jesus seems to force those cracks wide open while turning the whole thing upside down.

You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment

Wait a minute. Is Jesus expanding the scope here? It almost sounds like he is suggesting that anyone who even gets angry might deserve to die. But whose is doing the judging here? Jesus continues…

You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, do not resist the one who is evil…

Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you (Matthew 5)

That’s radical. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m pretty sure the persecution of first century Jews involved bloodshed. And Jesus is telling them not to seek retaliation, but to love and pray for their assailants? Some supporters counter that Jesus’ words are merely limiting personal vengeance, not the response of authorities. This may technically be true, but Jesus also seemed uninterested in personally appealing to authorities for that vengeance. Jesus did not add “Pray that the authorities will kill your enemies.” Or “Pray that your persecutors will be deterred from killing you.” Just love them. Wow.

John 8 famously tells of the woman caught in adultery, and is a favorite story of opponents. I’ve read more than one supporting article countering that Jesus was not sparing the death penalty here but was actually upholding the proper application of it because the Pharisees did not have the required number of witnesses. I’ve read a lot of theories about this story, but that claim feels like a stretch to me, considering that is not what Jesus said. One could perhaps argue Jesus was even elevating the death penalty standard higher than Moses – only to be applied by “him who is without sin”!

(Does this complete the Sermon on the Mount? It’s not just murderers, but all of us who deserve judgment, but we are not to give that judgment ourselves, we are simply to love and pray, because the only one who is to judge is God himself, the only one without sin? Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord? Or is that too much conflating of earthly and eternal consequences? Or, since the earliest manuscripts apparently do not contain the story of the adulteress, perhaps we should not make too much of it either way?)

When Jesus was arrested, he rebuked Peter for his swordsmanship: “All who take the sword will perish by the sword.” (Matthew 26:33) It’s a rather descriptive take on the Noahic principle, with an emphasis not on the giving of the judgment but on avoiding the giving and receiving ends altogether. On the cross, Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34) The only record of death for the brutal murderers of the Savior himself is that of Judas, whose remorse led to suicide.

Is it possible that the shedding of Jesus’ blood totally fulfilled the Law’s requirement for bloodshed for all murders for all time?

Maybe we need to unpack capital punishment’s second most popular passage.

Romans 13

Ok, some supporters say. For the sake of argument, let’s say Jesus’ love and forgiveness overrides all the Old Testament stuff. It doesn’t matter. Paul clinches it as an ongoing principle for governments in Romans 13.

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment… If you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.

This passage speaks very directly to the government’s use of the sword to execute God’s wrath on evildoers. It is such a strong support of using the death penalty that many opposing articles I see ignore it altogether. (Unfortunately, this leaves their happy depictions of Jesus’ love wide open for easy compartmentalization and dismissal.)

I think a straightforward reading of this passage (assuming that government “bears the sword” to kill criminals, and not, say, for sword-swallowing tricks) forces one to conclude that the death penalty cannot be categorically rejected as inherently impermissible. But let us be careful not to read this passage as stronger in its support than it is. It does not say, “If God appoints you as the government, you should bear the sword.” It does not even say, “Governments should bear the sword as the best way they could be governing.” It simply says that when governments use the sword, it is not in vain because they are ordained by God to execute his wrath on sin.

This makes a difference because the passage states that God appoints all authorities even though we know that all authorities do not honor God with their actions, especially the authorities over the first century church! God can still use wicked authorities for his purposes. He used the swords of the Babylonians and Assyrians to execute his wrath on the wayward Israelites. But that doesn’t mean God wants us to act like Babylonians or Assyrians.

I think of Jesus’ decree to “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.” (Matthew 22:21) Both Jesus and Paul speak of paying taxes to a government that almost certainly was spending some of it on very unholy things. God ordained all of that and wanted his people to submit to it, but does that mean if you became Caesar he would want you to spend your taxes that way?

What if the death penalty is, in some sense, “permissible”? But what if it’s not “beneficial”?

The Evangelism Mandate

I find it remarkable how many discussions about the death penalty end with no thought given to the salvation of the condemned. Surely no discussion is complete without weighing our commandment to make disciples of all men (Matthew 28).

Peter says God does not wish “that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9) Even the Old Testament prophets gave glimpses of this: “Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declared the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?” (Ezekiel 18:23) Now we are the “ministers of reconciliation” called to “go into all the world to preach the gospel” as Christ “draws all people” to himself. If a criminal is in custody but has not yet reached repentance, should we cut off any future opportunity? Many will never repent, but who are we to determine who might?

Maybe you think that sounds unrealistic; maybe you think the testimony of Jeffrey Dahmer is an unreliable outlier. But Paul knew this better than anyone. Stephen was martyred and did not declare, “Lord, make sure the authorities properly execute them,” but, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” (Acts 7:60) This echoing of Jesus’ words at his death suggests that Jesus’ words were not a one-time act of clemency related to the propitiation, but an ongoing principle for his followers.

Here’s what I find amazing. After Stephen’s prayer for forgiveness, Saul, who had “consented to his death,” was radically saved by Jesus not two chapters later. Yes, the self-proclaimed “chief of sinners” who must have been worthy of the death penalty himself, was not only forgiven but transformed into a powerful apostle responsible for writing over half the New Testament (continuing that tradition of ex-convict sacred authors Moses and David*). Should we not pray the same for every serial killer?

I searched for arguments against the salvation argument and found a good one:

capital punishment provides the murderer with incentive to repentance which the ordinary man does not have, that is a definite date on which he is to meet his God. It is as if God thus providentially granted him a special inducement to repentance out of consideration of the enormity of his crime . . . the law grants to the condemned an opportunity which he did not grant to his victim, the opportunity to prepare to meet his God.

Hmm. That sounds good, but that logic alone could be used to justify a lot of things, and I’m still thinking through how I feel about containing it within the context of capital punishment.

Flawed Execution

The many flaws of our capital punishment system seem to be agreed upon by supporters and opponents alike. We have a growing history of exonerations and wrongful executions. We have severe racial and economic disparities in executions for equivalent crimes (while some claim racial disparity in every step of the criminal justice system, capital punishment is one that is practically undisputed; even conservative supporting theologian Albert Mohler agrees). We have no clear evidence that the death penalty deters crime. Some even say the entire process costs more than life imprisonment.

Supporters say these problems need to be corrected as best we can; they do not mean the system must be rejected. This is valid in theory, but these calls tend to come at the end of articles with some handwaving that does not seem to appreciate the difficulties involved nor offer specific ideas for improvement (to be fair, perhaps they’re out there and I haven’t seen them).

Here’s my concern: trying to correct one flaw seems doomed to worsen another. Many supporters like to blame the lack of deterrence on the lengthy (and costly) appeals process, saying swifter executions would be more effective. There’s even a verse to back it up: “Because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed speedily, the heart of the children of man is fully set to do evil.” (Ecclesiastes 8:11) But since many people have been exonerated while waiting for execution, surely a hastier system would increase the number of false executions, and I could easily prooftext up some verses about how terrible that would be. A system run by fallen people is always going to be faulty; if it is not beneficial, perhaps we should simply remove it.

Some Objections

This leads to a common objection: the entire criminal justice system will never be perfect. If we must remove the death penalty because it cannot be purified, don’t we have to get rid of everything else too? A similar objection comes from appealing to Jesus’ words; if love and forgiveness means we don’t kill people, doesn’t it mean we can’t imprison them either?

To which I say: Absolutely not. We are to love our enemies, but the Bible says in at least three places that the Lord disciplines those he loves. (Prison ministry, anyone?) Cain was a vagabond; Simeon and Levi received a curse from their father; David’s infant son died. Sparing death does not mean sparing all consequences – just the most physically and spiritually irreversible consequences.

The rest of the justice system has clear benefits that persist in spite of the inevitable flaws. Someone truly dangerous to society is no more a threat serving a lifetime in prison than dead, but if his verdict proves faulty in the future (perhaps due to improved race relations or new technologies) at least the living man can be released. Nor does imprisonment limit the evangelism mandate.

Unlike what I’ve seen on the death penalty, there are plenty of good ideas out there for improving other aspects of our justice system (I’m pleased to see conservatives joining that conversation.) So, yes, I think one can consistently call for eliminating the death penalty while striving for the best we can get with the rest.

Some accuse opponents of downplaying the horrible crimes committed by many criminals on death row. I think this is a valid complaint, but I also think many supporters like to maximize the distance between these criminals’ sins and their own. We all deserve death, yet none of us are beyond the reach of God’s grace. Neither of these truths alone helps us decide whether or not it’s beneficial to manually hasten that death for some.

I also want to address a couple of minor verses that are said to support the death penalty. Some say Jesus clearly supported the death penalty because when he talked to the Pharisees he quoted “Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die” (Matthew 15). Some say Paul clearly supported the death penalty because when he was tried before Festus, he said, “If then I am a wrongdoer and have committed anything for which I deserve to die, I do not seek to escape death.” (Acts 25)

I think both of these passages are subject to the differences in the government-citizen dynamics I mentioned earlier. Jesus is referring not to Christians in government but to the Old Testament Law, and I don’t think supporters actually think Jesus wants us to keep the death penalty for parental cursing. Similarly, just because Paul said he was willing to die if he had done something deserving of death under the Roman laws for which he was undergoing a Roman trial, that doesn’t mean we should put people to death under our laws. I think the context is limited because Paul clearly does not think he deserves death in this context, but it seems likely to me that he did deserve death under the Noahic context, where he is the “chief of sinners” who “persecuted this Way to the death” (Acts 22),  yet neither God nor Paul seem to notice a lack of justice regarding that. (Perhaps you could argue that none of those verses mean Paul literally killed anyone and so was never deserving of death under the Noahic principle?)

I think I am starting to stake out a position where even if the death penalty is an option God gives us, it was never required absolutely, is no longer required at all, and Jesus’ love, Jesus’ evangelism mandate, and the inherent fallibility of our application all give us better reasons to reject it.

Some of the above ideas came from things I’ve read from Preston Sprinkle and Shane Claiborne (particularly the asterisked parentheticals); others are things I’ve put together myself. Some of it may be problematic. I’ve read a lot of robust theological pontificating about the critical justice of preserving the value of human life by killing those who take human life, and part of me is afraid I’ve become too biased in the other direction to fairly evaluate it, but I just don’t see how that vision of justice can be so categorically true when the Bible itself is so full of exceptions to it, even before Jesus seemed to turn everything around. I take responsibility for any theological errors or biases, and I welcome corrections or questions. Thanks for reading.