More from Moltmann on Capital Punishment: To Kill a Human is to Murder God

Noah's Thanksoffering (c.1803) by Joseph Anton Koch. image source: Wikipedia
Noah’s Thanksoffering (c.1803) by Joseph Anton Koch. image source: Wikipedia
I’ve just started reading The Power of the Powerless, by Jürgen Moltmann. Like The Gospel of Liberation (which I have highly recommended here before), it is a collection of sermons, making it an extremely accessible (and I was able to get a used copy shipped to my house for just $4!). The first sermon in the book, “Surviving with Noah”, contains a pointed reflection on the prohibition against killing found in God’s covenant with Noah (Genesis 9:5-6), which I am posting here as something of an appendix to my previous post on Moltmann and the death penalty. As Moltmann reminds us here, the taking of human life is absolutely prohibited because it is always an act of destruction against the image of God. While the death penalty may possibly be justified in extreme circumstances for the protection of life, it should not be considered to be a general exception to the prohibition against killing. 

In the conditions of wickedness and Flood under which they are living, God has to protect men and women. He has to protect them especially from themselves and from their fellow human beings. Almost all animals have the instinct to preserve their own species. They do not kill and devour beings like themselves. Only human beings lack this protective instinct. Killing their own species is a typical and almost exclusively human act. That is why there has to be an apodictic divine command to protect human beings from themselves:

For your lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning; of every beast I will require it, and of man I will require the life of man, for he is your brother. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for God made man in his own image (9.5f).

The blood is a person’s life, so it belongs to God. But the person is not merely God’s property; he is also God’s image, his representative and his glory on earth. That is why God has to ‘require’ any human blood that is shed.

Human beings are forbidden to shed human blood: that is the absolute prohibition. Anyone who kills another person is committing fraticide. The wickedness that once upon a time led to the Flood began with the murder of Abel by his brother Cain. Significantly enough, it was fraticide that started the deadly history of the struggle for supremacy. The murderer was Abel’s brother, not his sister. It was the man who succumbed to this temptation, not the woman. It was the struggle for domination that historically speaking the suppression of woman began. ‘Men make history’, we have been told ever since – and that is just what history looks like. That is why the divine commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ is directed there in the first instance to the man. God will expiate the murder of every single person ‘as if he were his brother’. We must not immediately generalize this specific reference to the man. It is we men who belong to the race of Cain, not women.

But anyone who kills another human being murders God too. The murder of a human being destroys God’s image and God’s child, so murder is the thing that is absolutely forbidden. The murderer robs God of his image on earth. The murderer violates God’s love for his beloved child. That is why he comes into conflict with God himself. God himself is struck to the heart when one human being kills another. He therefore has to ‘require’ the blood himself. Because he is faithful to his image and his covenant, God has to expiate the murder. The blood that has been shed ‘cries out to high heaven’. But in what way does God protect his earthly image? We find the answer in the classic principle: 

Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed (9.6).

Is this a proverb, or a legal maxim, or a prophetic warning? The sentence sounds very like the saying of Jesus: 

For all who take the sword will perish by the word (Matt. 26.52). 

Some interpreters think the Old Testament statement justifies the death penalty for murder, and provides the foundation for it. But up to now no one has ever imagined that Jesus’ saying is a justification for the death penalty – on the contrary. For when Jesus was taken prisoner in Gethsemane he linked this statement of a general truth with his demand to Peter: ‘Put your sword back into its place.’ For Jesus this statement means the renunciation of violence. Can we possibly suppose that in the covenant with Noah the maxim really means anything different? God alone is the avenger: ‘I will require…’ he says. Nothing whatsoever is said about transferring this right to human beings. ‘Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.’ That is the description of a fact and the inescapable result of an act. If the shedding of human blood is really absolutely forbidden to human beings – forbidden in the name of God – then the death penalty becomes proposterous too. Bloodshed does not prevent bloodshed. It simply breeds it. The divine protection of the human life that is imperilled by other human beings can, in history, take the form of the death penalty, as a kind of emergency measure of self-defence. But the divine protection is itself really called into question by any such measure. The person who is endangered is not safeguarded by the death penalty – on the contrary. God’s right to the life of human beings remains, and so does his right to ‘require’ the life of which he has been robbed. This is what the story makes unequivocally plain.

The Power of the Powerless, 8-10

For another great excerpt from this book check out this post from Dannielle Shroyer.

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