By Alan Bean
I was driving home to Arlington from Cleveland, MS when I noticed that the Associated Baptist Press had used my theological reflections on the execution of Troy Davis as a modest counter weight to Albert Mohler, an evangelical theologian who claims that capital punishment is pro-life.
They called him “The Boy King” when he first ascended to the presidency of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, but that was back in 1989. Now Time Magazine is calling Dr. Mohler the “reigning intellectual in the evangelical movement”. So, whatever complaints his doubters may have had back in the day when The Boy King was ripping the scepter from the hands of an irenic Roy Lee Honeycutt, Mohler has made a name for himself in the decades since.
I was a graduate student at Southern Seminary when the fundamentalist horde stormed the gates and drove a long list of unregenerate professors into the academic wilderness (where men shall weep and gnash their teeth). Mohler had only recently received his doctorate from Southern and many questioned his readiness for the post. But the young scholar had already shown an aptitude for administration, serving as President Honeycutt’s assistant while still working on his doctorate. Many of my fellow students had known Mohler as a colleague who seemed comfortable with the moderate evangelicalism for which Southern Seminary was once infamous (at least in the eyes of the school’s detractors).
All of that changed. Mohler had always dreamed of becoming president of Southern Seminary, although I doubt eveb he thought the honor would come at the tender age of 33. I was told that the-man-who-would-be-king reoriented his theological compass virtually overnight the moment he discerned which way the political winds were blowing.
I don’t know the SBTS president well enough to evaluate that claim, but this much I know: he didn’t pick up his Calvinist brand of fundamentalism at his alma mater. Like Mohler, I earned an MDiv and PhD from the Louisville institution and I know the kind of instruction he was exposed to. Not a single professor was anywhere close to Mohler’s Old School evangelicalism when I arrived at The Beeches in 1975. The same was true when I returned for doctoral work in church history and theology in 1989. When Mohler took over in 1993, most of the school’s most respected professors had already yielded to the inevitable and jumped ship. This blog post, written by a student who arrived at Southern Seminary in 1986, will give you a sense of the emotional cataclysm that followed The Takeover.
Is Al Mohler a theological mercenary? At one time, perhaps; but he has been peddling his current brand of orthodoxy so long and with such enthusiasm that I doubt he can remember a time when he believed otherwise.
What does Dr. Mohler believe? Regardless of the issue, just ask yourself what sort of opinion would play to the fears and prejudices of the typical Southern Baptist preacher. That’s what Al Mohler believes.
Al believes the earth isn’t nearly as old as the fossil record suggests. Al rejects biological evolution. Al is remorselessly anti-gay. Al thinks Islam (and every other non-Christian religion) is demonic (yes, he uses the word). Naturally, he also believes that the Bible is literally true and logically consistent from cover-to-cover. If God said “an eye for an eye” (on three occasions, no less), that’s the truth, Ruth! All of this tremendously reassuring for millions of people.
As I mentioned in “Capital Punishment and the Character of God”, Jesus took the old “eye for an eye” theology off the table. The temptation to retributive violence must be overcome, Jesus said, because it is inconsistent with the character of God (check it out in Matthew 5:38-45 if you don’t believe me).
Jesus was lending his authority to the kind of restorative justice that crops up throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. Even the traditional “eye for an eye” teaching (ascribed to Moses in Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy) was an attempt to place limits on revenge killing. You can take an eye for an eye, but you can’t take a life. If your rival kills one of your sons, you may kill one of his boys–but not two. Think the Hatfields and the McCoys and you’ve got a feel for the context. The clan (a collection of extended families) generally carried out the retributive killing.
Did Moses receive the eye-for-an-eye mandate from the mouth of Yahweh, or did ancient Israel inherit this tit-for-tat teaching from the Babylonian Hammurabi (who pre-dated Moses by several hundred years)? I have no idea. But as Exodus makes clear, Moses was a murderer who would likely have been executed for his crime had he not scampered off to work as a shepherd for his Midian father-in-law.
Moses wasn’t the only Old Testament murderer to receive mercy from the hand of God. David intentionally sent Uriah the Hittite (the husband of David’s mistress, Bathsheba) to his death in battle. There follows the striking “thou art the man” scene (2 Samuel 12:7) in which the prophet Nathan tells David he will forfeit a son for his deed. But David himself does not die. In fact, his second son by Bathsheba, grows up to be the legendary king Solomon.
Paul the Apostle, back when he still wore the name “Saul”, may have participated in murderous outrages against the early Christian church. He certainly consented to the stoning of poor Stephen. And yet Saul does not die; he is commissioned as an apostle to the Gentiles.
In Genesis, God inquires as to the whereabouts of Cain’s brother Abel. “How should I know?” Cain says defensively, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” God tells the first murderer that the blood of his slain brother is crying out from the ground. Then God places his protective mark on Cain to protect him from the eye-for-an-eye doctrine.
These stories directly contradict the letter and the spirit of the old eye-for-an-eye formula. Albert Mohler doesn’t allow the Bible to contradict itself; but the Bible does it anyway. There isn’t just a Jesus-Moses gap in scripture, there is a Moses-as-murderer-Moses-as-lawgiver gap. In both the Old and New Testaments, the words for justice and righteousness are identical. To be just is to be righteous. To be righteous is to reflect the character of God. God is merciful; therefore we must be merciful.
Granted, this teaching doesn’t apply to atheists, agnostics, Hindus or Buddhists. Only those who follow Jesus as Savior and Lord fall under the authority of his word. If Jesus is the human face of God, violence loses its power to redeem.
Al Mohler can accept none of this, of course. He is popular because he tells his demographic what they want to hear–neither more nor less. If this is true, Southern Baptists have made some progress from April 19, 1961, the day Southern president Duke McCall threw the Southern Baptist Convention into turmoil by inviting Martin Luther King to the campus as a guest lecturer. Southern, I am told, lost $100,000 in funding in a single day. You know the SBC has made great strides on the race issue because Albert Mohler can now say nice things about MLK without fear of controversy.