While I appreciate many of N.T. Wright’s contributions to theology, there are some things he says that baffle me to no end. For example, on September 15 he wrote a short piece for the Washington Post titled “American Christians and the death penalty.” He claims that
you can’t reconcile being pro-life on abortion and pro-death on the death penalty. Almost all the early Christian Fathers were opposed to the death penalty, even though it was of course standard practice across the ancient world. As far as they were concerned, their stance went along with the traditional ancient Jewish and Christian belief in life as a gift from God, which is why (for instance) they refused to follow the ubiquitous pagan practice of ‘exposing’ baby girls (i.e. leaving them out for the wolves or for slave-traders to pick up).
This is the typical “seamless garment” argument which says a pro-life view demands that one be opposed to all killing of humans, including capital punishment. Wright thinks it is impossible to reconcile support for capital punishment with a pro-life ethic. Wright is a brilliant and well-informed man. Surely he is aware of the principled basis those who oppose abortion but support capital punishment appeal to as justification for their view. This justification was spelled out nicely by ZZim, a commenter on Wright’s article. ZZim responded to Wright’s assertion by saying, “Sure you can [reconcile being pro-life on abortion and support capital punishment], it’s easy. Unborn babies are innocent, therefore society should protect them. Vicious killers are guilty and society should be protected FROM them. There is not [sic] need for reconciliation, these are completely separate issues.” Exactly! I find it difficult to believe that Wright is unaware of this justification. Even if he disagrees with it, the fact remains that it can reconcile the two seemingly conflicting positions. Perhaps the problem is the way Wright is defining “pro-life.” If he defines this to mean we oppose any and all killing of human beings under all circumstances, then he’s right: it would be impossible to reconcile support of capital punishment with a pro-life ethic such as applied in the case of the unborn. But this is not how many pro-life advocates define pro-life. They are not against any and all killing of human beings. They see justification for killing under certain circumstances. What they are opposed to is the intentional killing of defenseless and innocent human beings. Perhaps their definition of pro-life is wrong and Wright’s is right, but that is something he must argue for. He can’t just assume pro-life means it is never justified to take any human life, and then declare all those who support capital punishment as being inconsistent. Their view is completely consistent with their own pro-life ethic.
For more reading on why the seamless garment argument does not work, see my post titled “The Seamless Garment Argument.” If you are interested in reading my assessment of capital punishment from a Biblical and rational perspective, see “Capital Punishment and the Christian Worldview.”