Witch Burning and Ramblings on Theocracy

“If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. For he who said, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ also said, ‘Do not murder.’ If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.” – James 2:8-13

I caught a disturbing story out of Ghana the other day – which can be found here. The facts of the case are in dispute, with each side giving a story that is more beneficial to their cause. As such, we will give the benefit of the doubt to all parties, yet consider the worst possible set of conditions as a starting point for a discussion on theocracy.

Apparently, a 72-year-old Ghanaian woman was accused of being a witch by local Christians, and ended up burning to death. (The authorities claim she was doused in kerosene, the perpetrators claim it was anointing oil which accidentally caught fire. Again, we’ll give benefit of doubt, but assume worst case for the sake of theocratic argument.)

If true, the story is frightening indeed. However, despite our modern sensibilities, we must note that there is Biblical, old testament foundation for the prospect of putting a witch to death. (I do not support he practice – but we’ll get to that in a moment.) We read in Exodus 22:18 “You shall not permit a sorceress to live.” We also read in Leviticus 20:6 “If a person turns to mediums and necromancers, whoring after them, I will set my face against that person and will cut him off from among his people” and again in Leviticus 20:27 “A man or a woman who is a medium or a necromancer shall surely be put to death. They shall be stoned with stones; their blood shall be upon them.”

So, what shall we make of this? The old testament clearly provided the nation of Israel a command to exercise capital punishment against witches. Does such authority extend to Christians today? I argue the answer is emphatically “no” – but perhaps not for the reason you would think.

The immediate quip in response will be to reference Jesus and the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11) from which we get the famous quote “let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” But I don’t think this fits. First off, the whole situation was a set up, and Jesus knew it. If the woman was caught in adultery – in the very act – then where was the man? He was guilty of the same sin.

The pharisees were looking for a charge against Jesus to bring to the Romans. It’s a rather interesting turn. The Romans had given the Israelites some right to govern their own affairs, but had removed the right to carry out capital punishment. If Jesus had ordered such punishment, they could have charged Him before the Romans. (Interestingly, this is prophetic. Genesis 49:10 says “The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until he to whom it belongs shall come and the obedience of the nations shall be his” – widely taken to be a messianic reference. To the Sanhedrin of Jesus’ day, “the scepter” represented the ruling power, the power to exact capital punishment. It had been removed, and thus they would lamented that Messiah had not come to fulfill the prophesy – only because they did not recognize Him. But I digress. See Josh McDowell’s Evidence that Demands a Verdict for more.)

No, I do not consider in this that Jesus abrogated all practice of capital punishment by the Israelites under the Old Testament covenant. And yet, I still do not hold that we, children of the new covenant, hold the same authority in the current affairs of men.

The Levitical laws were given to the Israelites as part of their covenant. With what other nation has God established such a covenant? I don’t know of one. Is there a Christian nation that fits the bill? We don’t see any such thing in the Bible.

We see in 1 Peter 2:9-10 “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” Once we were not a people. We, the Christians, are not a nationality, not a nation, not a people group – but now we are the people of God, and we belong to a kingdom that is not of this world.

As for judgment, God has reserved it to Himself. “But the LORD sits enthroned forever; he has established his throne for justice and he judges the world with righteousness he judges the peoples with uprightness” (Psalm 9:7-8). That is not to say that we just let everything go. Matthew 18:15-18 discusses how to address a brother who sins; but punishment is left off at something akin to “shunning” – not death. When we do see New Testament capital punishment in the Church, it is God who carries it out, not the Christians (see Acts 5:3-10).

So, what does all of this have to do with theocracy? I’ve said a number of times before that arguments by left-wing or right-wing theocrats miss the boat, in that they do not include the whole boat. If you hold that it is the government’s purpose to enforce some semblance of Christian charity, then why do you not also hold that the government must also enforce prohibitions on sorcery (freedom of religion anyone?), fornication, homosexuality, or “sacrificing of children” (I’ll let you figure that one out)? Or if you hold that it is the government’s place to forbid homosexuality, then why do you not demand that the government also mandate charitable giving for the widow, the orphan, and the illegal alien? The law is not a set of “pick-and-choose” guidelines.

I take the view that this is not a Christian nation, and that no nation has explicit covenant with God as a nation in the same way that Israel had. Further, the power to exact judgment for failing to behave “appropriately” is limited to personal response of freedom of association. I cannot punish you for failing to be kind to the poor, for failing to defend the widow, for practicing sexual immorality – I can only choose not to associate or participate in your actions. I can choose to tell you about it – but I cannot choose to usurp authority over your life and force capitulation to a charitable or moral code. (Note that this does not abrogate a right of self-defense, or defense of others if your intent is to cause explicit harm. But refusing to show charity is not something I can act against in the same manner as attempted assault. I would have to become your judge to do so, something I am not.)

As for this 72-year-old woman who was burned to death, what a horrible ending. Where was love, compassion, or even restraint in the face of a person’s free choice of religious allegiance? I hope that it was all an accident, but I fear the worst.

And as for us, I say let us all lay down our temptation to theocracy. Let the battle for what is right and wrong be fought in the hearts and minds of the people, rather than using sway with the government to exact behaviors we deem appropriate. This is a slippery slope (as tales like that from Ghana show), and it is one that we need not tread down. We don’t need to punish “evildoers” – God will handle that on His own. We don’t need to force proper moral fiber through force. God is seeking those to worship Him in spirit and in truth (John 4:23) – not in compulsion. We have the truth of God’s word from which to make our case, we don’t need collective enforcement to win the day.

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