From the Book of Acts:
They dragged [Stephen] out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Acts 7:58 (NRSV) – July 1, 2013.)
This is the first appearance in the Christian story of the man who will become the early church’s greatest evangelist and the author of most of the New Testament. We are told that as he witnessed the martyrdom of the first deacon, “Saul approved of their killing him.” (Acts 8:1)
Saul would take the Gentile form of his name, Paul, when baptized and under that name would spread the Christian faith among non-Jews. One assumes that, from time to time, he might have told the story of witnessing Stephen being killed – it would make a powerful sermon illustration, don’t you think? He obviously told it to someone because eventually it got to Luke, who included it in his little history of the church.
This story of a public execution brought to mind a conversation I had with a parishioner just a few days ago. Texas recently executed its 500th death-penalty convict since resuming executions in 1980s; that news led us into a discussion of the death penalty. I am opposed to the death penalty on several grounds; my parishioner favors it. In the course of our conversation he put forth the argument that execution rids society of criminals who will kill again. He’s convinced that killers don’t change: “The leopard never changes his spots,” he said.
He certainly has the Bible (or at least the the Old Testament on his side. This old shibboleth comes from word of God spoken through the prophet Jeremiah! Lamenting the sinfulness of God’s People, the Lord asks: “Can Ethiopians change their skin or leopards their spots?”(Jer. 13:23, NRSV). Of course, the message of the prophet would suggest that the answer to that question is “Yes” else why call the people to repentance? And therein lies the theological and ethical issue I have with the death penalty. (I have legal, economic, and practical issues with it, as well.)
The death penalty denies the power of God in Christ to redeem, restore, and transform human existence. It precludes any possibility of repentance and amendment of life. When the capital punishment is imposed, the life of the convicted person is devalued and all possibility of change is ended. When the government undertakes capital punishment on behalf of the people (on my behalf), the people are implicated in that judgment and we are made to share in an ethic we may not accept (one which I do not accept). An ethic which says, as my congregant put it, that “leopards cannot change their spots.”
But that is not the Christian ethic (nor is it the ethic of the Old Testament in which that image is first spoken). The Christian ethic says that repentance is always possible. It is, in a very real sense, the whole message of Christ: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Matthew 3:2) The leopard can change its spots and the Christian hope is always that it will.
After all, Saul – who held the cloaks of the executioners and approved their killing of Stephen – changed his!
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.