The Last of Deuteronomy
You must not let his corpse remain on the stake overnight, but must bury him the same day. For an impaled body is an affront to God; you shall not defile the land that the Lord your God is giving you to possess. Deuteronomy 21:23
I have written before about my belief that the negative commandments in the Bible (and even elsewhere) are reactive rather than proactive. That is to say, God did not invent stealing just to prohibit it. Adultery is not a divine suggestion that is then immediately disallowed. Lying in court is not considered one of many options when you testify.
We human beings are the innovators of bad behavior. Whether you attribute disapproval to God (as the Bible does) or to the collective wisdom of society, laws are designed to rein in proclivities that are native to the boundary-pushing personalities of human beings. There are no Ten Commandments for polar bears.
I offer as evidence the crime of murder. There is probably no more basic standard of morality than outlawing the willful taking of human life. Yet, until Cain slays his brother Abel, there is no law against it. If the power of Cain’s (bad) example were strong enough, there would be no need for legislation. And yet, there it is, smack in the middle of the Ten Commandments, hundreds of Biblical years after the fratricide.
The horror of any or all murders is not a deterrent to subsequent murderers. Whether premeditated or in the midst of passion, the person who purposely takes another person’s life is not concerned with the legality of the act. And so, for understandable reasons, this crime (and any number of other society-disrupting sins) are considered capital transgressions. The perpetrator forfeits their own privilege of living if found guilty of eliminating the sanctity of another life.
I get it. When I think of what I would want if, God forbid, I lost a beloved family member or friend to the violence of an antagonist, I understand the blood lust lurking beneath my cultured and sophisticated surface. Hey, I might even be willing to exact the price myself. Maybe the law is designed to keep me from doing just that. (Though it is worth noting that a different section of the Bible allows for revenge killing in the case of manslaughter.)
The law steps in for the lust. If the proper proof is brought, the established procedures followed, the verdict incontrovertible, then and only then is the perpetrator treated to extreme sanction. And, unlike constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment, even in capital cases, there is a smorgasbord of methodologies in the Bible – stoning, burning, beheading, and hanging. Yikes!
And yet. It is very clear from the verse at the top of this column that even the capital penalty in its implementation is not considered a deterrent to the crime. Before the sun goes down, the body of the criminal must be removed from public display and properly buried. Anything less is an affront to God and, by extension, to those who seek to honor God. Even the legally justified willful taking of human life is repulsive. Those who seek to instill righteousness in a community understand that it is not accomplished by unrighteous behavior.
Capital punishment is no more a deterrent than Cain’s murder of Abel. If it were, the public display of an impaled body would have been called a warning, not an affront. It would have been called a preventative, not a defilement. It would have been framed as God’s will, not God’s embarrassment.
This past year, the federal government has returned to the practice of putting those convicted of certain crimes to death. It is different than convicting people of capital crimes. The point is made by the verdict. The practice is not without consequence, however.
Recently, one of the more noxious characters in public life (formerly part of the aforementioned federal government) spoke on a right-wing talk radio show and called for a scientist’s head to be displayed on a pike in front of the White House. The “crime” was advocating for measures to contain the pandemic afflicting the country and the world. Lots of (mostly uninformed) people have objected to masks and quarantines and contact tracing, but what got this yahoo banned from social media and condemned in the press was promoting (however sarcastically) this affront, this defilement.
We ought to give up on capital punishment completely. Other than the momentary satisfaction of seeing a reviled person die, the only impact seems to be the cultivation of the baser responses that diminish us in the eyes of God and each other.