As part of the series Studies in Peace and Scripture, the subtitle to Christopher Marshall's book holds the key to understanding his purpose and goal. Marshall, who teaches New Testament studies at the Tyndale Graduate School of Theology in Auckland, New Zealand, wishes to challenge many of the conventional assumptions about justice and punishment within the Christian tradition, especially views regarding capital punishment. Within this frame of reference, Marshall raises issues of scriptural interpretation as well as the theological questions concerning the nature of God and Jesus. It is his contention that prior opinions about scripture, God, and Jesus are foundational for establishing views of justice and punishment. Marshall's basic argument can be stated fairly straightforwardly. Any interpretation of scripture and any view of God or Jesus that leads to an acceptance of capital punishment are fundamentally wrong. Given, as Marshall notes, the increasing public support for the death penalty, especially in the United States, such a conclusion is not likely to gain easy acceptance. Thus the task he has set for himself is a daunting one. Yet he faces it with zeal and dedication.
The essential distinction that Marshall wishes to develop, which guides his critique of capital punishment, is the contrast between restorative and retributive justice. His claim is that God's justice and consequently the use of punishment is restorative rather than retributive. Thus if punishment is to participate in God's justice then restoration must illuminate its exercise. Retribution, if it is to have any validity, must always be subsumed under the more appropriate category of restoration. Rejecting what he sees as the superficial separation of Christian personal ethics from social policy, Marshall is also aware of the complex relationship between Christian values and social policy, particularly as reflected in judgments about the death penalty. He wants to avoid the assertion that the state must be Christian while allowing for an element of Christian influence on public policy. On a more basic level, Marshall refuses to accept any connection between Christian ethics, God's justice, and capital punishment. Those who hold that Christianity supports the death penalty are simply incorrect. Marshall then turns to an examination of Paul and Jesus to establish his views on God's justice and capital punishment.
Saving a discussion of Romans 13 for later in the book, Marshall examines Paul's vision of divine justice in chapter two. He contends that even though Paul speaks of punishment and retribution, the main focus of Paul's view on God's justice is restorative, that the substance of justice is relational and covenantal rather than retributive. God does punish, but even here the emphasis is on restoration. This view is critical for understanding Marshall's analysis of the crucifixion. He rejects the assertion that the cross of Christ is a penal substitute that assumes the punishment for a guilty humanity. Instead the cross is the expression of God's will that humankind be restored to a relationship to God that challenges the status quo. So rather than affirming capital punishment, the cross stands as an alternative to the demand for retribution. Marshall's explanation of the cross follows directly from his view that "Jesus sees no place for vindictiveness or retaliation as a response to crime" (77). The community that Jesus envisions is one of restitution and reconciliation.
Chapter three analyzes some of the theories regarding the purpose and function of punishment. Marshall travels familiar ground in discussing the concepts of rehabilitation, deterrence, and retribution. Examining the debate surrounding each theory, he offers his own critique of each, which leads him to ask whether it is possible to speak of a restorative form of punishment, a punishment that looks to the needs of victims as well as attempting to create healing for individuals and society. Marshall is not being načve here, nor is he trying to explain away criminal actions. He wants us to reconsider our beliefs about the purpose of punishment.
In chapter four, Marshall distinguishes between human and divine forms of punishment. In terms of the former, he readily concedes that the New Testament accepts some form of punishment in which the state or civil authorities act as God's agents. Yet this activity is always within limits and, for the Christian, falls under the influence of Jesus' stipulations against vengeance. More telling is Marshall's claim that restoration is also the goal of divine punishment. Realizing that he is walking something of a tightrope here, Marshall tries to blunt the seemingly retributive edge of God's punishments and argue that God's opposition to human wickedness, while real and determined, is not vindictive. Even in judgment, God's love outweighs a final demand for retribution.
For contemporary purposes, the most important section of the book is chapter five's discussion of capital punishment. Marshall knows that his thesis rises or falls with his analysis of the death penalty. Through an array of hermeneutical, theological, and philosophical points, Marshall first examines capital punishment in the Old Testament and early Judaism. He stands in contrast to popular notions that the Old Testament readily sanctions the death penalty. Marshall does not ignore the presence of the death penalty in the Old Testament, but he also shows that safeguards existed to prevent wrong accusations commenting that if Jewish law were strictly applied today there would probably be fewer executions. He emphasizes the distinction between the theory and practice of capital punishment as well as noting diverse legal interpretations of crime and punishment in the Old Testament. Marshall's own words best express his conclusions regarding the Old Testament, "the trend over time was for the death penalty in the Bible to be viewed more as an indication of the seriousness of sin than as a desirable or obligatory literal penalty" (213). This conclusion carries over into Marshall's discussion of the death penalty in the New Testament. Given his earlier depiction of Paul and Jesus, Marshall does not find sufficient support for the death penalty in the New Testament. Although he notes that there is no direct opposition to the death penalty in the New Testament, the key issue is the strength of biblical support for capital punishment., which he finds lacking.
Marshall's critique of efforts to use the bible to justify the death penalty returns the reader to an encounter with Jesus and Paul. Citing the biblical evidence that supporters of capital punishment employ, he attempts to undercut their arguments. According the Marshall, Jesus never mentions capital punishment, seeks to transform the law, and does not focus on a life-for-life mentality. Jesus death is an argument against the death penalty. For Marshall, capital punishment contradicts the essential focus of Jesus' life and message, which revolves around love, mercy, and restoration. Marshall's use of Paul also emphasizes this point. Romans 13: 1-7 is not the justification of capital punishment that its supporters claim. The state may be an agent of God and the sword may be a harbinger of death, "but is it going much too far to read into this reference to the sword an enduring divine authorization for the use of the death penalty by civil authorities" (234). For Marshall, Paul is not interested in developing a theory of the state with the specific goal of establishing the validity of capital punishment. Rather Paul is acknowledging the function of the state within the context of power and coercion. However, this acknowledgment is not sufficient to justify the use of the death penalty.
Marshall reiterates his contention that God's justice aims at restoration in his concluding discussion of forgiveness. Since love is the basic moral quality of God and Jesus, forgiveness must become part of our considerations about punishment. Marshall realizes that forgiveness is not necessarily easy or simplistic. There are complex connections between victims, criminals, society, and the courts. Still, if a New Testament vision applies to punishment, we cannot ignore the role of forgiveness in thinking about how society deals with crime. Marshall has tried to offer us a glimpse of what that might look like.