TRANSCRIPT: Pro-life convictions and for capital punishment?

March 19, 2014

Hello, this is Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and this is Questions and Ethics, the program where we take your questions and your dilemmas that you are facing and try to look at them from a kingdom perspective, from the perspective of the word of God.

I’m sitting here in our Washington offices with my colleague Matthew Hawkins, here at the ERLC. We’re at Leland House, the house that is named for that fiery and magnificent old revolutionary-era Baptist preacher, John Leland, who fought with James Madison and Thomas Jefferson for the First Amendment protections that we have today, so a guy who knew his way around some ethical dilemmas that some of us can hardly imagine. And we are here today thinking about some of the issues that you are sending in. And so what is the question we have today, Matt?

Dr. Moore, this question comes in via Twitter from Ron Fornier, and I’m glad he is asking this question. I witnessed this myself a few weeks ago on a Capitol Hill hearing on an abortion-funding related legislation. And the pro-choice legislator asked basically this same question of the pro-life witness on the stand. So here goes: How does one oppose abortion but yet support executions or support the death penalty?

Okay, well, that is a good question. I am glad that this person asked that. Matt, you are right. This does come up often when we are talking about the defense of the lives of the unborn. We are talking about being pro-life, and sometimes someone will say, “How can you be pro-life and also be for capital punishment?” Now, let me say at the outset, not all Christians are for capital punishment. There are many Christians who are opposed to the death penalty for various reasons. Some of them hold to what Cardinal Bernardin used to call a “seamless web,” a life ethic, “consistent ethic of life.” The Catholic bishops in this country would hold to that position that there should be no death penalty and no abortion.

I do believe that the death penalty is sometimes warranted. I don’t think that capital punishment is something that we ought to be celebrating with bloodlust, but I do think it is a different situation than the abortion of an unborn child, and here’s why: All of us who are Christians have to agree that the Bible, on the one hand, tells us that you shall not kill, literally you shall not murder, in the Ten Commandments that God has given. And the Bible also clearly reveals in some places that at least in some situations there is capital punishment.

Now, some people will come in and say well, yes, but that’s the Mosaic Law. The Mosaic Law has been fulfilled in its civil code in the Lord Jesus Christ. Those things are no longer binding on the church. And that is exactly right. That is exactly right. But I’m not talking about the Mosaic code. I am talking about what God has given in Genesis, chapter 9, for instance. This is a covenant with humanity generally, not just with the covenant people of Israel, but with humanity generally—part of a broader covenant here with the entire creation. And God says this in Genesis 9, verse 5: “And for your lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it and from man. From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.” That is given to all of humanity. In Romans 13, the Apostle Paul talks about the fact that governing authorities bear the sword. I think that is clearly language that talks about the lethal power of the state that bears the sword only against evil doers. Evil doers face the sword, not the innocent. God requires a reckoning for the lives of the innocent.

So here is what I think we ought to keep in mind when it comes to the issue of capital punishment and the death penalty: On the one hand, the state-carried-out killing of an individual who is responsible and guilty and rightly convicted is different from the snuffing out of the life of an innocent human being, regardless of how that is done. These are two different things. Capital punishment is not to be a vigilante act of one person or group of people in a lawless way, carrying out vengeance; scripture rules out vengeance. But the state is given a special responsibility by God following through very careful procedures to determine guilt and to then carry out that execution. When that is happening, what you are seeing, I think—and we can agree to disagree on whether or not capital punishment is something we ought to be carrying out right now in our context, but when capital punishment is carried out, it is not because life is cheapened. It is because life is to be seen in its dignity. The killing of an image bearer of God, Genesis, chapter 9, is something that brings with it catastrophic consequences. That’s one of the reasons why I would never favor capital punishment for marijuana possession. I would never favor capital punishment for people who violate a “three strikes and you’re out” sort of law. This is for those who are shedding innocent human blood.

And that also means that the state bears a special responsibility to make sure that those who are executed are in fact guilty. Now, there are some people who oppose capital punishment right now in our context, not because they oppose capital punishment theoretically, but because they oppose the way that capital punishment has been carried out in some states where the innocent are too often being executed or where there’s a racial bias in the way that those executions are being carried out. Those are different conversations. I think we need to make sure that when capital punishment is carried out that it is of the guilty, that it is just, it is fair, and it is rightly maintaining the fact that the shedding of human life is a serious, serious question.

That’s a very different question than the wanton killing of innocent human beings, whether in the womb or out.

What’s your question? What are you grappling with ethically right now? Maybe something that you read about in the Bible, and you are wondering about; maybe a conversation that you are having with a coworker; maybe just something that is going on in your family or going on in your life. Well, send me an email, [email protected], and we will try to answer it here on Questions and Ethics. And we will see you next time. Keep calm and walk the line.

Russell Moore

Russell Moore is a former President of the ERLC. He holds a Ph.D. in systematic theology from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. His latest book is The Courage to Stand: Facing Your Fear Without Losing Your Soul. His book, The Storm-Tossed Family: How the Cross Reshapes the Home, was named Christianity Today’s 2019 Book of the … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24