30 December 2006

Two Kingdoms, Two Swords

I just read a piece where the Vatican has denounced the execution of Saddam Hussein. The argument was simply that it was punishing one crime by committing another. One of the things I am particularly thankful for is the way that the Lutheran Symbols distinguish between the two kingdoms and the two swords. The papacy across the years has had a fatal tendency to confuse the two - and there was certainly a time when the Bishop of Rome claimed that both swords and kingdoms were his by virtue of being Christ's vicar upon earth. The Lutheran Church's clarity on this perennial and vexing question needs to be heeded more.

To the government God has given the sword, and its task with that sword is to punish evil doers. That is not by any stretch of the imagination to suggest that the government has never abused the sword entrusted to it. It has indeed, time and again. And when it does, the Church is perfectly right to call the government to repentance. But what the Church can never do is insist that the government govern by the sword of the Spirit entrusted to HER.

The Gospel rules in the Church, but natural law rules in the state. If we visit the scene of our Lord's crucifixion we will note the vital difference between the two swords, the two kingdoms. The "good thief" - the one who confessed Christ and asked for our Lord to remember Him in His kingdom - did indeed receive remission of sins, the promise of paradise given to him that very day from the lips of our dying Lord. But that forgiveness did not remove the sword of the Roman government, nor free him from his cross. That is no argument for death by torture - God forbid! - but it does show that the right of capital punishment is a state affair; the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ, an affair of the Church. God rules in both kingdoms, but by diverse means.

A review of AC XXVIII is helpful in sorting it all out: "So it does not interfere with civil government anymore than the art of singing interferes with civil government. For civil government deals with other things than the Gospel does. Civil rulers do not defend minds, but bodies and bodily things against obvious injuries. They restrain people with the sword and physical punishment in order to preserve civil justice and peace. Therefore the Church's authority and the State's authority must not be confused. The Church's authority has its own commission to teach the Gospel and administer the Sacraments. Let it not break into the office of another. Let it not transfer the kingdoms of this world to itself. Let it not abolish the law of civil rulers. Let it not abolish lawful obedience. Let it not interfere with judgments about civil ordinances or contracts. Let it not dictate laws to civil authorites about the form of society."


ptmccain said...

Good stuff.

OSC said...

They would certainly do better to lament Saddam's death a la Ezekiel 18 rather than to throw a blanket condemnation on the death penalty.

Past Elder said...

It amazes me that from the world's political left we never hear the shout of "separation of church and state" when a church leader articulates a position that agrees with the left, such as opposition to capital punishment or for that matter nuclear or environmental issues. The objection seems reserved only for positions that contradict the left, for example on abortion.

Seems to be a politically practical selective use of principle rather than dedication to the principle. And speaking of the principle, what our Constitution speaks of is not "separation of church and state", a phrase that nowhere occurs in our documents, but "establishment of religion", setting up an official state religion and church. Maybe we whose synodical ancestors of the "free churches", which arose to keep the pure faith against the state forced unions with heterodoxy in the state churches of the old countries, are in a good position to articulate what a state church is, what establishment of religion is, why it is bad for both church and state -- and why trotting out the phrase "separation of church and state" when a church leader states a position against a political position is not what that means.

David said...

You have articulated this point very well. It is tragic when a human life, any human life ends in violence, whether it be in crime or punishment.

In the case for Saddam, the tragedy is not necessarily in the carrying out of his death sentence, but in the realization that the sinful nature of humans has led to the need to dispense said justice.

Saddam lived by the same sword that ultimately claimed his life. His use of this sword was as you said, abusive and tyrannical. Although I am not a staunch supporter of capital punishment, I would have to agree that, in Saddam’s case, the government’s use of the sword entrusted to it was a fair and appropriate response to evil.

William Weedon said...

David, I'm quite sure of the government's right to exercise capital punishment; the Sacred Scriptures are utterly clear on the point. Nevertheless, I am not sure of how wisely the government always exercises that right. What always gnaws at me are the words Tolkein put into Gandalf's mouth:

"Deserves to die! I daresay he does. And many that die deserve to live. Can you give that to them? Then be not over eager to deal out death in the name of justice, for not even the very wise can foresee all ends." (Running on memory there, may not be exact)

Past Elder said...

Thank you for the clarity in making the distinction between the issue of capital punishment itself and its application in a given case.

As to the (RC) church's clear postition referenced in the Vatican statement, this was not the position taught to me in the pre Vatican II RC church. Capital punishment, and killing combatants in war, was not held to violate the Fifth Commandment, on the grounds that what it prohibits is the private judgement of one person taking another's life, whereas in capital punishment or war it is a society's deliberated judgement in defence of itself, which unlike a person it is entitled to do.

Another example that the current Church of Rome is not your grandfather's Church of Rome, so zu sagen, something we often miss, especially in modifying liturgy to follow suit with its novus ordo rewrite to suit its current identity.

Eric Phillips said...

In many ways, the RCC has improved its doctrines since Trent. In other ways, it has debased them. This is an example of the latter.

William Weedon said...

I agree, Eric. Past-elder's description of what he WAS taught in the RC prior to the Council is preciselly what Lutherans STILL teach. The Council brought so much good, but also so many things that are questionable.