Context counts and early church leaders on abortion

quote.jpgI was thinking of this today and wanted to rerun it.

One of the most important rules for Bible study is to never read (just) a Bible verse.  Countless errors occur when people pick and choose verses they like while ignoring the real meaning of the passage.  An individual verse can’t mean something different than it does in the broader passage.  I have accidentally quoted things out of context many times and am always glad to learn the correct way to interpret a passage.

The same goes for quoting other writers.  A theological liberal seminary student (read: false teacher) started posting comments on “pacifist wisdom.”  His first quote was from Athenagoras of Athens, circa 180 A.D. from A Plea For The Christians, and it followed some anti-capital punishment posts.  Perhaps this guy was a flaming pacifist, and perhaps the quotes from other writers will make his point, but this one missed the mark.

The portion that he quoted:

We cannot endure even to see a man put to death, though justly.

What I found interesting is that this quote doesn’t even make a pacifistic anti-capital punishment point.  Athenagoras notes that the death was just!  It gets worse when you look at the broader context, with the previous portion italicized:

For when they know that we cannot endure even to see a man put to death, though justly, who of them can accuse us of murder or cannibalism?

So the context wasn’t necessarily pacifism and definitely wasn’t only pacifism.  Read the whole passage in the link under the heading of “The Christians condemn and detest all cruelty” and see for yourself.  The Christians were accused of being murderers and cannibals, and the quote is from the section defending themselves against that charge.  Perhaps he should have been turning the other cheek, but it is obvious that he wrote that section to defend Christians against false charges.

Also, keep in mind the kind of death he was referring to.  Was it crucifixion, the cruelest form of execution ever devised?  Was it being killed by wild animals in the arena?  (Note the reference to gladiators and wild beasts.)  He and other church fathers might have been against those types of capital punishments – though that still wasn’t the context of the passage – but perhaps they would feel differently about lethal injection.

That’s nice, but what does the Bible say?  Even if the passage had been in context, it would have been much more meaningful if it would have referred to the how the early church interpreted scripture (I know it was pre-Canon, but most of the books were widely circulated and authoritative).  After all, just because you quote a few guys doesn’t mean their views meshed with scripture.

What I found really interesting was Athenagoras’ section on abortion:

And when we say that those women who use drugs to bring on abortion commit murder, and will have to give an account to God for the abortion, on what principle should we commit murder? For it does not belong to the same person to regard the very foetus in the womb as a created being, and therefore an object of God’s care, and when it has passed into life, to kill it . . .

Again, he is trying to defend themselves against charges of murder and cannibalism by pointing out how they think abortion is murder.

It seems to me that true pacifists would quote the anti-abortion part because that was so clear.  99% of all murders are abortions, so wouldn’t pacifists want to start there?  That is, unless they are the typical pro-abortion pacifists or those who say they are anti-abortion but do and say nothing about it – including voting.

Here are a few more quotes from early church leaders on abortion.  I’m sure the pacifists quote these left and right in their pro-life efforts:

You shall love your neighbor more than your own life. You shall not slay a child by abortion. You shall not kill that which has already been generated. (Epistle of Barnabas 19.5; second century)

Do not murder a child by abortion or kill a new-born infant. (The Didache 2.2; second century catechism for young Christian converts)

It does not matter whether you take away a life that is born, or destroy one that is coming to the birth. In both instances, the destruction is murder. (Tertullian, Apology, 9.4; second century)

Those who give abortifacients for the destruction of a child conceived in the womb are murderers themselves, along with those receiving the poisons. (Basil the Great, Canons, 188.2; fourth century)

Jerome called abortion “the murder of an unborn child” (Letter to Eustochium, 22.13; fourth century).

Augustine used the same phrase, warning against the terrible crime of “the murder of an unborn child” (On Marriage, 1.17.15; fourth century).

The early church fathers Origen, Cyprian and Chrysostom likewise condemned abortion as the killing of a child.

Quoting the Bible or anything else out of context is unproductive.

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49 thoughts on “Context counts and early church leaders on abortion”

  1. Hey Neil,

    First of all, everyone is welcome to come have a look at my blog where I’ve dealt with, and continue dealing with, a variety of issues from a pacifist perspective. Aside from the quotes – which I will strive to always provide complete sources for and happily defend from people like you who charge me of using them incorrectly – there are posts dealing with violence in scripture, especially in the OT, a long engagement with Joshua, and who knows what else coming in the future.

    Now, for your arguments with me, here are my responses:

    Of course it is good to be sure you use quotes with the context in mind. I did not abuse this rule, the argument of his whole letter (which I urge you to read) certainly justifies my usage of his quote. In essence, his letter is about the following: Christians are being persecuted by the empire. He writes as a Christian apologist to the emperor asking for the persecution to end. In that context he addresses the charges against Christians one by one. His basic response to them is that Christians are such good citizens in every respect that none of these charges can be true and in fact, they are more true of the accusers than the Christians. So please stop killing Christians.

    In this context he repeatedly makes this assertion: Christians are required to live to a higher standard than mere justice. The law of love is so strong, he says, that Christians cannot abide violence of ANY KIND, even just to see another person executed and even when that execution is just.

    You suggested that the fact that he acknowledges that an execution can be just undermines the pacifist position. On the contrary – he defines justice on the very first page of his letter as returning like for like – and immediately says that Christians are obligated to live to a far higher standard. Christians must return kindness for hatred. A Christian Pacifist may absolutely accept that violence could be technically just by such a definition (returning like for like) and still hold that said violence was prohibited to them.

    Given this argument Athenagoras certainly wouldn’t be in favor of lethal injection, or any form of violence since he believes, and says quite clearly, that returning like for like is prohibited to Christians.

    Anyone may follow the link to read the whole letter to see that I have read him correctly.

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  2. Aric, I’m surprised you would still insist that it was in context and Biblically supported.

    Then again, you say that God is a she and that we can’t know about “her,” and you probably think you have Biblical support for that.

    Again, nice dodge on the abortion topic. Here’s some pacifist wisdom: Pro-lifers are at least 99% pacifist while anti-capital punishment / pro-choicers are only 1% pacifist. And my quotes and verses to support that are in context :-).

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  3. Neil,

    I’m surprised you would fail to see how I clearly demonstrated the quote was in context and supported a pacifist argument.

    I’ll ignore your quip about God being female. Read Elizabeth Johnson, She Who Is. God is not gendered at all.

    As for your tired beating of the abortion issue – of course these figures considered abortion murder, it is. Pro-Lifers problem is that they oppose one form of murder while often favoring far more egregious forms like War and Capital Punishment.

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  4. Aric,

    I realize that God doesn’t have a gender. I also realize that the Bible refers to him exclusively as Father, not Mother. I was just pointing out your superfluous and transparent rebellion in calling God the Father a “she.”

    Your claim that capital punishment is more egregious than abortion says it all. One convicted murderer per week with 10+ yrs. of appeals vs. 20,000 completely innocent human beings. You do the comparison and the math.

    If you call capital punishment of justly convicted criminals “murder” then your problem is with God, not pro-lifers.

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  5. I know this is a serious matter but I love your splatches of humor.

    “This is a combo post.”
    Just made me think about getting something to eat real quick before I read the post.

    Forgive my indulgences Neil. 🙂

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  6. Neil,

    The Bible doesn’t exclusively refer to God as Father. It refers to God with about a million different metaphors including non-personal ones like rock, river, fire, wind etc… and it specifically refers to God as Mother at several points, notably in the prophets. But this is aside from the main issue of your post.

    You said: “One convicted murderer per week with 10+ yrs. of appeals vs. 20,000 completely innocent human beings. You do the comparison and the math. If you call capital punishment of justly convicted criminals “murder” then your problem is with God, not pro-lifers.”

    The issue isn’t quantity – every individual abortion is a travesty. But abortion isn’t societal premeditated murder with 10+ years of psychological torture before hand. The individual actions are on different levels of heinousness regardless of how many happen per week. That’s like saying the thousands of car accidents every week are more of a crisis than one school shooting. You’ve elevated the “issues” to ridiculous levels and missed the actual concrete situation of the actions.

    Sure by utilitarian standards Abortion ‘as an issue’ is more pressing, but these issues are not in competition. It’s not like we have to choose to be for one and against another. The point is that killing is wrong.

    And innocence is just a distraction. Murder is murder. The guilt of the victim doesn’t make the murderer less of a murderer, just as the many ways that the US provoked 9/11 doesn’t make the terrorists less guilty of terrorism.

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    1. Interesting.. that Jesus fellow has something to say about referring to God as Father… “When you pray, say… ‘Our Father, who art in heaven…'”

      I always love it when people who go to such lengths to womanize God, fail to miss that His Son gave us instructions on the matter.

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    2. Did you eat a big bowl of stupid for breakfast?

      I don’t even know where to start with someone who draws moral equivalency between killing a child in the womb, and killing a murderer convicted through due process. If nothing else, the latter is an act designed to protect society from someone who will not stop killing other people.

      If anything, it’s far, far more consistent of a position that the reverse. Those are the people whose thinking I cannot grasp…and yours really is no clearer.

      Never mind, also, that violence is a perfectly Christian response to someone who has initiated violence against you. Indeed, that is considered the only moral use of deadly force – to stop someone else from doing the same thing. This principle has been foundational to *every* Western philosophy or system of law for many, many, many centuries. The right of self-defense has always been seen as a natural right, going back at least as far as the ancient Israelites. It’s why we have Castle Doctrine laws today – to reaffirm this right and protect people from malicious civil action or criminal prosecution.

      Forget being polite this time…I’m going to shoot straight from the hip and ask….

      What the hell is wrong with you?

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  7. Executing a murderer after due process is not returning like for like.

    Sometimes society just has to send an individual on for God to deal with, and it is God who will ultimately decide whether that individual lives or dies.

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  8. “That’s like saying the thousands of car accidents every week are more of a crisis than one school shooting.”

    Aric, I think that illustration breaks down in two ways.

    First, to be comparable to abortion the car accidents would have to have been deliberately designed to crush skulls and rip off limbs until 20,000 passengers were dead.

    Second, the shooting at the school would have had to have resulted in one person being dead, and that person would have been a guilty murderer who had exhausted 10+ years of appeals.

    In that scenario, which is more apples/apples, I think the car accidents would be a little more likely to be considered a crisis.

    And I’m pretty sure the “pacifists” you are quoting agree would agree with me on the abortion topic.

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  9. SST

    “Executing a murderer after due process is not returning like for like.” It’s not? What is it then?

    “Sometimes society just has to send an individual on for God to deal with, and it is God who will ultimately decide whether that individual lives or dies.” Oh really? I’m very surprised by your position on this. So you say society gets to “play God”

    Marshall Art

    If you think we were attacked because of our rich lifestyle, jealousy, religious views, etc. then you are very out of touch with reality.

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    1. Mark, it’s called “justice.” This was given to us by God in Genesis. When one man takes a life, his life is to be taken because he has destroyed the image of God by killing another. Therefore the image that he bears is to be removed as well. The government has the charge of carrying out justice.

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    2. “What is it then?”

      Protecting society from someone who will not stop killing other people. Punishment for harming your fellow man. Whatever phrasing works for you.

      “Oh really? I’m very surprised by your position on this. So you say society gets to “play God””

      Are you proposing that we open up the jails and abolish the entire legal system because society has no moral standing to punish anyone for his crimes? If there is no authority to execute, why is there one to imprison or fine or otherwise punish in less severe ways?

      It’s amazing, this time we live in…where even the most fundamental and non-controversial ideas are now being questioned.

      “If you think we were attacked because of our rich lifestyle, jealousy, religious views, etc. then you are very out of touch with reality.”

      Oh, I see. If only we’d left the crazy Arabs alone and stop putting our troops over there to protect our friends and our oil interests, the terrorists wouldn’t bother us. Right?

      Tell that to the Barbary Pirates…the ones Thomas Jefferson was eventually forced into dealing with. (Google it. I’m not reciting the entire incident here.)

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  10. Aric, your points are very, very good. Considering Neil’s own views and background, I am having a very hard time understanding why he and others are having a problem with your viewpoint.

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  11. Mark,
    I was referring to the second death at judgement, not the death of the body.

    And planned human execution is certainly not the same as cold blooded murder.

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  12. “Considering Neil’s own views and background, I am having a very hard time understanding why he and others are having a problem with your viewpoint.”

    Mark, can you clarify for me? Do you think Aric’s equating 20,000 abortions with car accident victims was valid? Why not compare the condemned murderer to the car accident victims?

    I am continually astounded that someone would consider the following to be morally equivalent:

    1. A man rapes, tortures and murders a woman in cold blood.

    2. The gov’t finds the man guilty beyond a reasonable doubt (let’s say he even confesses and there were witnesses) and gives him the least painful possible lethal injection.

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  13. Neil,

    Actually, for the murder and the capital punishment to be morally equivalent the murderer would have had to have kept the victim captive for 10 + years, all the while knowing they would be killed, and knowing also that the whole of society was aware of their captivity and approved of it. Rarely if ever has such a psychopath existed.

    You also keep going back to numbers. Yes there are more abortions the executions. By a lot. We are agreed. Abortion is bad. Abortion being bad doesn’t make Capital Punishment good. And the moral quality of an act doesn’t depend on how common it is, but on the circumstances and effects of the act itself. The question is not “how many people are killed in this way” but what is the situation and how does that weigh in our moral calculations.

    The suffering caused by one execution is incalculably greater than the suffering caused by one abortion.

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  14. Neil,

    Actually, for the murder and the capital punishment to be morally equivalent the murderer would have had to have kept the victim captive for 10 + years, all the while knowing they would be killed, and knowing also that the whole of society was aware of their captivity and approved of it. Rarely if ever has such a psychopath existed.

    You also keep going back to numbers. Yes there are more abortions the executions. By a lot. We are agreed. Abortion is bad. Abortion being bad doesn’t make Capital Punishment good. And the moral quality of an act doesn’t depend on how common it is, but on the circumstances and effects of the act itself. The question is not “how many people are killed in this way” but what is the situation and how does that weigh in our moral calculations.

    The suffering caused by one execution is incalculably greater than the suffering caused by one abortion.

    Both are horrific.

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  15. Let us be clear what is going on: Aric is most emphatically not drawing a moral equivalence between capital punishment and the typical act of homicide: he thinks capital punishment is far worse.

    Actually, for the murder and the capital punishment to be morally equivalent the murderer would have had to have kept the victim captive for 10 + years, all the while knowing they would be killed, and knowing also that the whole of society was aware of their captivity and approved of it. Rarely if ever has such a psychopath existed.

    I could ask, with no small amount of cynicism, if Aric thinks that capital punishment would be more just if it were administered more swiftly, but the important thing to note is that, for Aric, one thing doesn’t enter into his equation is the simple idea of desert.

    By his logic, it is a greater atrocity for a government to imprison a convicted rapist for three years — even accounting for due process — than it is for a innocent man to be kidnapped for a few weeks. What’s worse, imprisoning a rapist is more traumatizing because the convict (sorry, victim) is aware that most of society knows and approves of his “captivity”.

    How absurd.

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  16. Hi Randy,

    Absolutely from the baby’s point of view. The baby doesn’t suffer existential agony and emotional trauma. The baby doesn’t suffer broken relationships, a complete loss of self-worth, humiliation, even self-hatred and abject fear. Both die, but one the prisoner suffers much much more in the process.

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  17. No, the baby just has her limbs ripped off and then her head crushed. Or she is burned to death with saline abortions. Or has her skull punctured and her brains sucked out.

    All without anesthetic or appeals, or course.

    Aric, unless you are going to try one of the above and report back to us then I suggest you stop speaking on behalf of the murdered babies.

    Yes, there are consequences to committing crimes. I’m going to do my monthly prison ministry visit tomorrow and I can attest to the deep regret many of them express. But the redeemed ones will acknowledge that they had a choice and are living with the consequences.

    “Abortion being bad doesn’t make Capital Punishment good. ”

    I don’t recall anyone making that claim. I just pointed out that a marginally consistent pacifist should be wildly pro-life.

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  18. Neil,

    Gore isn’t an argument by itself. I’m not arguing against Capital Punishment because it’s gory or because it causes physical pain (though of course we should seek to minimize THAT as well). I’m arguing against it because it is immoral. Aborting a child would be immoral even if we found a perfectly painless and goreless way to do it, wouldn’t it?

    You completely avoided my point about a form of suffering the baby cannot actually experience because it hasn’t had life-experience sufficient to do so.

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  19. Excellent points, Bubba.

    To recap, I wrote:

    I am continually astounded that someone would consider the following to be morally equivalent:

    1. A man rapes, tortures and murders a woman in cold blood.

    2. The gov’t finds the man guilty beyond a reasonable doubt (let’s say he even confesses and there were witnesses) and gives him the least painful possible lethal injection.

    The obvious response should be that of course #1 is worse than #2. Even death penalty opponents should concede that. To say they are morally equivalent is indeed absurd.

    But to say that #2 is worse than #1 and to say that the innocent victim would have to be captive, etc. for 10+ years just to be equivalent is to display a serious mental problem and/or utter rebellion against God and the natural order. And that is not hyperbole.

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  20. “You completely avoided my point about a form of suffering the baby cannot actually experience because it hasn’t had life-experience sufficient to do so.”

    Re-read your comment, Aric. You just made the point that gore or physical pain were irrelevant. Why should anything else be relevant?

    I didn’t ignore that point. If the prisoner feels real bad that is a consequence of his actions. If he wants to waive the appeals process, that is ok with me.

    And I wasn’t just using a “gore” argument. You specifically mentioned suffering. I wasn’t addressing the gore but the pain that would go with having a limb ripped off.

    “The suffering caused by one execution is incalculably greater than the suffering caused by one abortion.”

    Thus says Aric, who as best I can tell was never aborted. Once I again I’ll point out that the unborn are innocent while murderers are guilty. Some people think that actually makes a difference.

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  21. Neil,

    You keep rehashing the same tired assertions without actually making arguments. This is not an argument:

    “The obvious response should be that of course #1 is worse than #2. Even death penalty opponents should concede that. To say they are morally equivalent is indeed absurd.

    But to say that #2 is worse than #1 and to say that the innocent victim would have to be captive, etc. for 10+ years just to be equivalent is to display a serious mental problem and/or utter rebellion against God and the natural order.”

    You haven’t actually given any reasons and you never do. You’re good with a witty quip “Aric was never aborted” (genius observation, that), but you jump right back to things I’ve addressed over and over. I never expected that we might agree, but I had obviously foolish hopes that you would be willing to back off your ridiculous hyperbole and agree to disagree with a margin of respect.

    Suffice to say, I’m sufficiently convinced of the worthlessness of attempting to get you to see reason. You’re clearly thoroughly marinated in your own juice, so I will leave you to your happy hermetically sealed world.

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    1. I really don’t think Neil is the one who is rehashing tired arguments over and over. He’s answered all your questions. He’s pointed out to you – several times – that there is a world of difference between a child in the womb and a convicted criminal put to death by the state. He’s also dealt with your claim that numbers and gore and…whatever else…have nothing to do with it.

      Why do you keep going around and around with him? You’re like every other liberal I’ve seen on blog threads; your point gets destroyed so you move the goalposts; when third parties don’t find it convincing, you switch to splitting hairs.

      You’re as bad as those atheists who argue that morality is nothing but a social construct, but who are the first to get upset when they think they’ve been wronged. Actually…you’re worse. You claim to believe in God, but don’t seem to understand the concept of guilt. At all.

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  22. Aric, that sounds like it would be for the best. You’ve run your course of being a poster boy for liberal idiocy in general and theological liberal idiocy in particular. I really wish people like you would stop calling themselves Christians. It confuses the general public.

    Re. “tired assertions” – All my arguments are laid out on this blog over and over and over. Anyone is welcome to read and comment on them. A really, really simple example is pointing out that the unborn are innocent and murderers are guilty. But you seem incapable of grasping even that.

    Have a good life. (Really, I hope you do.)

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    1. Darn right. I honestly have no idea what drives people like this guy. (Actually, I do have an idea, but they’re going to laugh if I say his name.)

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  23. Aric said “You completely avoided my point about a form of suffering the baby cannot actually experience because it hasn’t had life-experience sufficient to do so.”

    So since the baby has had no life-experience of suffering, it can’t experience suffering? If that’s true, how could anyone ever experience suffering? The first time it occurs, they would have nothing to compare it to. Same for joy. Same for any other emotion.

    Sorry, that logic doesn’t flow.

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  24. Neil, not sure if you’ve ever seen this quote from John Wesley or not. Might make a nice addition to your list above:

    ‘Thursday, July 1.—……. I told him, ‘If red men will learn the Good Book, they may know as much as white men. But neither we nor you can understand that Book unless we are taught by Him that is above: and He will not teach you unless you avoid what you already know is not good.’ He answered, ‘I believe that. He will not teach us while our hearts are not white. And our men do what they know is not good: they kill their own children. And our women do what they know is not good: they kill the child before it is born. Therefore He that is above does not send us the Good Book.’”

    I blogged about this a while back here:
    http://galatiansc4v16.wordpress.com/2005/09/27/indians-in-1735-knew-abortion-was-wrong/

    tr

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  25. On the subject of the baby verses the murderer.

    No effort is made to spare the baby any pain and suffering and the baby has no idea why his world is suddently torn apart.

    The murderer on the other hand is executed as comfortably as liberal justice can manage, and knows exatly what is happening and why it is happening.

    In addition the murderer did have a choice. He chose to committ murder. That is something the baby and most likely the murder victim did not have.

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    1. Personally, I’ve never bought into the idea that convicted murderers should be made comfortable anyway. Never mind the aborted baby for a minute – were the murderer’s victims afforded such niceties?

      In real world experience, capital punishment is generally meted out not just to those who kill without reason, but those who do so repeatedly, brutally, and without apparent remorse.

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  26. Mark,

    If you think a few decades of blowing kisses to the Muslim world would have prevented 9/11, it is YOU who is having difficulty with reality.

    As to the topic, I like the way Dennis Prager defends capital punishment. It makes the most sense. Rather than show how barbaric we are, capital punishment shows just how much we value innocent life. We say, in advance of any crime being committed I might add, that for the crime of murder your life will be taken. By letting the murderer live, even in a prison for life, we state that the victim’s life has less value than the life of the murderer. This is not justice.

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  27. Marshall Art,
    You are exaxtly right.

    If there is inhumanity in our system, I think it is in letting murderers think they can avoid exectution and maybe even a life sentence. Then we execute some of hem, no wonder they are surprised.

    Both murderers and victims families deserve a switf and fair system, with cold blooded killers being removed permanently from society. I don’t have statistics, but I don know that there are a lot of people who would be alive today if their killer had not been released after a previous murder.

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  28. People will say that last post does not sound very question, but when you look at the old testement, God does not seem too concerned about the death of the earthly body.

    I trust that he knows what comes next and that ultimate justice will take place after the death of our earthly body.

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  29. I think I shoud go back to bed. that should be very Christian, not very question. And I do know how to spell testament.

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