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Chapter 6

SERMON VI. CAPITAL PUNISHMENT

Eversley. Quinquagesima Sunday, 1872.

Genesis ix. 1, 3, 4, 5, 6. "And God blessed Noah and his sons, and said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth. . . . Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you . . . But flesh with the life thereof, which is the blood thereof, shall ye not eat. And surely your blood of your lives will I require: at the hand of every beast will I require it, and at the hand of man; at the hand of every man's brother will I require the life of man. Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man."


This is God's blessing on mankind. This is our charter from God, who made and rules this earth. This is the end and duty of our mortal life:--to be fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth, and subdue it. But is that all? Is there no hint in this blessing of God of something more than our mortal life--something beyond our mortal life? Surely there is. Those words--"in the image of God made He man," must mean, if they mean anything, that man can, if he will but be a true man, share the eternal life of God. But I will not speak of that to-day, but rather of a question about his mortal life in this world, which is this:--What is the reason why man has a right over the lives of animals? why he may use them for his food? and at the same time, what is the reason why he has not the same right over the lives of his fellow-men? why he may not use them for food?

It is this--that "in the image of God made He man." Man is made in the image and likeness of God, therefore he is a sacred creature; a creature, not merely an animal, and the highest of all animals, only cunninger than all animals, more highly organised, more delicately formed than all animals; but something beyond an animal. He is in the likeness of God, therefore he is consecrated to God. He is the one creature on earth whom God, so far as we know, is trying to make like Himself. Therefore, whosoever kills a man, sins not only against that man, nor against society: he sins against God. And God will require that man's blood at the hand of him who slays him. But how? At the hand of every beast will He require it, and at the hand of every man.

What that first part of the law means I cannot tell. How God will require from the lion, or the crocodile, or the shark, who eats a human being, the blood of their victims, is more than I can say. But this I can say--that the feeling, not only of horror and pity, but of real rage and indignation, with which men see (what God grant you never may see) a wild beast kill a man, is a witness in man's conscience that the text is true somehow, though how we know not. I received a letter a few weeks since from an officer, a very remarkable person, in which he described his horror and indignation at seeing a friend of his struck down and eaten by a tiger, and how, when next day he stood over what had been but the day before a human being, he looked up to heaven, and kept repeating the words of the text, "in the image of God made He man," in rage and shame, and almost accusing God for allowing His image to be eaten by a brute beast. It shook, for the moment, his faith in God's justice and goodness. That man was young then, and has grown calmer and wiser now, and has regained a deeper and sounder faith in God. But the shock, he said, was dreadful to him. He felt that the matter was not merely painful and pitiable, but that it was a wrong and a crime; and on the faith of this very text, a wrong and a crime I believe it to be, and one which God knows how to avenge and to correct when man cannot. Somehow-- for He has ways of which we poor mortals do not dream--at the hand of every beast will He require the blood of man.

But more; at the hand of every man will He require it. And how? The text tells us, "Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made He man." Now, I do not doubt but that the all-seeing God, looking back on what had most probably happened on this earth already, and looking forward to what would happen, and happens, alas! too often now, meant to warn men against the awful crime of cannibalism, of eating their fellow-men as they would eat an animal. By so doing, they not only treated their fellow-men as beasts, but they behaved like beasts themselves. They denied that their victim was made in the likeness of God; they denied that they were made in the likeness of God; they willingly and deliberately put on the likeness of beasts, and as beasts they were to perish. Now, this is certain, that savages who eat men--and alas! there are thousands even now who do so--usually know in their hearts that they are doing wrong. As soon as their consciences are the least awakened, they are ashamed of their cannibalism; they lie about it, try to conceal it; and as soon as God's grace begins to work on them, it is the very first sin that they give up. And next, this is certain, that there is a curse upon it. No cannibal people, so far as I can find, have ever risen or prospered in the world; and the cannibal peoples now-a-days, and for the last three hundred years, have been dying out. By their own vices, diseases, and wars, they perish off the face of the earth, in the midst of comfort and plenty; and, in spite of all the efforts of missionaries, even their children and grand-children, after giving up the horrid crime, and becoming Christians, seem to have no power of living and increasing, but dwindle away, and perish off the earth. Yes, God's laws work in strange and subtle ways; so darkly, so slowly, that the ungodly and sinners often believe that there are no laws of God, and say--"Tush, how should God perceive it? Is there knowledge in the Most High?" But the laws work, nevertheless, whether men are aware of them or not. "The mills of God grind slowly," but sooner or later they grind the sinner to powder.

And now I will leave this hateful subject and go on to another, on which I am moved to speak once and for all, because it is much in men's minds just now--I mean what is vulgarly called "capital punishment," the punishing of murder by death. Now the text, which is the ancient covenant of God with man, speaks very clearly on this point. "Whosoever sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed." Man is made in the likeness of God. That is the ground of our law about murder, as it is the ground of all just and merciful law; that gives man his right to slay the murderer; that makes it his duty to slay the murderer. He has to be jealous of God's likeness, and to slay, in the name of God, the man who, by murder, outrages the likeness of God in himself and in his victim.

You all know that there is now-a-days a strong feeling among some persons about capital punishment; that there are those who will move heaven and earth to interfere with the course of justice, and beg off the worst of murderers, on any grounds, however unreasonable, fanciful, even unfair; simply because they have a dislike to human beings being hanged. I believe, from long consideration, that these persons' strange dislike proceeds from their not believing sufficiently that man is made in the image of God. And, alas! it proceeds, I fear, in some of them, from not believing in a God at all--believing, perhaps, in some mere maker of the world, but not in the living God which Scripture sets forth. For how else can they say, as I have known some say, that capital punishment is wrong, because "we have no right to usher a man into the presence of his Maker."

Into the presence of his Maker! Why, where else is every man, you and I, heathen and Christian, bad and good, save in the presence of his Maker already? Do we not live and move and have our being in God? Whither can we go from His spirit, or whither can we flee from His presence? If we ascend into heaven, He is there. If we go down to hell He is there also. And if the law puts a man to death, it does not usher him into the presence of his Maker, for he is there already. It simply says to him, "God has judged you on earth, not we. God will judge you in the next world, not we. All we know is, that you are not fit to live in this world. All our duty is to send you out of it. Where you will go in the other world is God's matter, not ours, and the Lord have mercy on your soul."

And this want of faith in a living God lies at the bottom of another objection. We are to keep murderers alive in order to convert and instruct and amend them. The answer is, We shall be most happy to amend anybody of any fault, however great: but the experience of ages is that murderers are past mending; that the fact of a man's murdering another is a plain proof that he has no moral sense, and has become simply a brute animal Our duty is to punish not to amend, and to say to the murderer, "If you can be amended; God will amend you, and so have mercy on your soul. God must amend you, if you are to be amended. If God cannot amend you, we cannot. If God will not amend you, certainly we cannot force Him to do so, if we kept you alive for a thousand years." That would seem reasonable, as well as reverent and faithful to God. But men now-a-days fancy that they love their fellow creatures far better than God loves them, and can deal far more wisely and lovingly with them than God is willing to deal. Of these objections I take little heed. I look on them as merely loose cant, which does not quite understand the meaning of its own words, and I trust to sound, hard, English common sense to put them aside.

But there is another objection to capital punishment, which we must deal with much more respectfully and tenderly; for it is made by certain good people, people whom we must honour, though we differ from them, for no set of people have done more (according to their numbers) for education, for active charity, and for benevolence, and for peace and good will among the nations of the earth. And they say, you must not take the life of a murderer, just because he is made in God's image. Well, I should have thought that God Himself was the best judge of that. That, if God truly said that man was made in His image, and said, moreover, as it were at the same moment, that, therefore, whoso sheds man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed--our duty was to trust God, to obey God, and to do our duty against the murderer, however painful to our feelings it might be. But I believe these good people make their mistake from forgetting this; that if the murderer be made in God's image and likeness, so is the man whom he murders; and so also is the jury who convict him, the judge who condemns him, and the nation (the society of men) for whom they act.

And this, my dear friends, brings us to the very root of the meaning of law. Man has sense to make laws (which animals cannot do), just because he is made in the likeness of God, and has the sense of right and wrong. Man has the right to enforce laws, to see right done and wrong punished, just because he is made in the likeness of God. The laws of a country, as far as they are just and righteous, are the copy of what the men of that country have found out about right and wrong, and about how much right they can get done, and how much wrong punished. So, just as the men of a country are (in spite of all their sins) made in the likeness of God, so the laws of a country (in spite of all their defects) are a copy of God's will, as to what men should or should not do. And that, and no other, is the true reason why the judge or magistrate has authority over either property, liberty, or life. He is God's servant, the servant of Christ, who is King of this land and of all lands, and of all governments, and all kings and rulers of the earth. He sits there in God's name, to see God's will done, as far as poor fallible human beings can get it done. And, because he is, not merely as a man, but, by his special authority, in the likeness of God, who has power over life and death, therefore he also, as far as his authority goes, has power over life and death. That is my opinion, and that was the opinion of St. Paul. For what does he say--and say not (remember always) of Christian magistrates in a Christian country, but actually of heathen Roman magistrates? "Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation." Thus spoke out the tenderest-hearted, most Christ-like human being, perhaps, who ever trod this earth, who, in his intense longing to save sinners, endured a life of misery and danger, and finished it by martyrdom. But there was no sentimentality, no soft indulgence in him. He knew right from wrong; common sense from cant; duty from public opinion; and divine charity from the mere cowardly dislike of witnessing pain, not so much because it pains the person punished, as because it pains the spectator. He knew that Christ was King of kings, and what Christ's kingdom was like. He had discovered the divine and wonderful order of men and angels. He saw that one part of that order was--"the soul that sinneth, it shall die."

But some say that capital punishment is inconsistent with the mild religion of Christ--the religion of mercy and love. "The mild religion of Christ!" Do these men know of Whom they talk? Do they know that, if the Bible be true, the God who said, "Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed," is the very same Being, the very same God, who was born of the Virgin Mary, crucified under Pontius Pilate--the very same Christ who took little children up in His arms and blessed them, the very same Word of God, too, of whom it is written, that out of His mouth goeth a two-edged sword, that He may smite the nations, and He shall rule them with a rod of iron, and He treadeth the wine press of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God? These are awful words, but, my dear friends, I can only ask you if you think them too awful to be true? Do you believe the Christian religion? Do you believe the Creeds? Do you believe the Bible? For if you do, then you believe that the Lord Christ, who was born of the Virgin Mary, and crucified under Pontius Pilate, is the Maker, the Master, the Ruler of this world, and of all worlds. By what laws He rules other worlds we know not, save that they are, because they must be--just and merciful laws. But of the laws by which He rules this world we do know, by experience, that His laws are of most terrible and unbending severity, as I have warned you again and again, and shall warn you, as long as there is a liar or an idler, a drunkard or an adulteress in this parish.

And if this be so--if Christ be a God of severity as well as a God of love, a God who punishes sinners as well as a God who forgives penitents- -what then? We are, He tells us, made in His likeness. Then, according to His likeness we must behave. We must copy His love, by helping the poor and afflicted, the weak and the oppressed. But we must copy His severity, by punishing whenever we have the power, without cowardice or indulgence, all wilful offenders; and, above all, the man who destroys God's image in himself, by murdering and destroying the mortal life of a man made in the image of God. And more; if we be made in the likeness of God and of Christ, we must remember, morning and night, and all day long, that most awful and most blessed fact. We must say to ourselves, again and again, "I am not a mere animal, and like a mere animal I must not behave; I dare not behave like a mere animal, for I was made in the likeness of God; and when I was baptised the Spirit of God took possession of me to restore me to God's likeness, and to call out and perfect God's likeness in me all my life long. Therefore, I am no mere animal; and never was intended to be. I am the temple of God; my body and soul belong to God, and not to my own fancies and passions and lusts, and whosoever defiles the temple of God, him will God destroy."

Therefore, this is our duty, this is our only hope or safety--to do our best to keep alive and strong the likeness of God in ourselves; to try to grow, not more and more mean, and brutal, and carnal, but more and more noble, and human, and spiritual; to crush down our base passions, our selfish inclinations, by the help of the Spirit of God, and to think of and to pray for, whatsoever is like Christ and like God; to pray for a noble love of what is good and noble, for a noble hate of what is bad; and whatsoever things are pure and lovely and of good report to think of these things. And to pray, too, for forgiveness from Christ, and for the sake of Christ, whenever we have yielded to our low passions, and defiled the likeness of God in us, and grieved His Spirit, lest at the last day it be said to us, if not in words yet in acts, which there will be no mistaking, no escaping,--"I made thee in My likeness in the beginning of the creation, I redeemed thee into My likeness on the cross, I baptised thee into My likeness by my Holy Spirit; and what hast thou hast done with My likeness? Thou hast cast it away, thou hast let it die out in thee, thou hast lived after the flesh and not after the spirit, and hast put on the likeness of the carnal man, the likeness of the brute. Thou hast copied the vanity of the peacock, the silliness of the ape, the cunning of the fox, the rapacity of the tiger, the sensuality of the swine; but thou hast not copied God, thy God, who died that thou mightest live, and be a man. Then, thou hast destroyed God's likeness, for thou hast destroyed it in thyself. Thou hast slain a man, for thou hast slain thy own manhood, and art thine own murderer, and thine own blood shall be required at thy hand. That which thou hast done to God's likeness in thee, shall be done to that which remains of thee in a second death."

And from that may Christ in His mercy deliver us all. Amen.


Charles Kingsley