In Theonomy debate points: context, presuppositions, and the police state, Dr. Joel McDurmon outlines the need for a legal merciless, and the refusal of having the State pretend to be a father of the nation.
An Evil Mercy
The lex talionis in-and-of itself is a tool of mercy in regard to all parties. It is the greatest mercy possible to the victims because the crime is punished fully and restitution is paid fully where applicable. It is mercy even to the criminal because it prevents the state from imposing punishments beyond what fits the crime (which has been almost always the case historically, and is quite often the case even today). It is mercy to society in that crime is punished justly, and thus deterred, and yet not punished too much to impose a tyranny upon the innocent.
In the scenario of a crime or tort, the lex talionis is the most merciful solution possible. And thus, when applying biblical law here, there is no danger of being “cruel” or imbalanced when we apply the principles as strictly as possible. Instead, we are by definition being cruel and imbalanced when we don’t follow that principle strictly. In such a scenario, to add “mercy” beyond that for which God calls in His standards is to pretend we can be more merciful than God, and yet in the process render injustice.
In fact, when it comes to legal judgments in regard to civil government, mercy is exactly what God says not to do. He specifically says to avoid and reject “mercy” or “pity” in such judgments: “Your eye shall not pity” the offender when sentencing and carrying out sentence (Deut. 7:16; 13:8; 19:13; 19:21; 25:12).
The Professor then adds,
The Jewish people would have never survived the trajectory through the desert if God would have been a strict judge, or would have been looking for principles, or if the Hebrew Scriptures were about principles.
Let us note that the vast majority of the Jewish people in fact did not survive that wilderness trek. The entire first generation with the sole exceptions of Joshua and Caleb died not having entered the Promised Land. This was not because they adhered to God’s law too strictly. It was precisely not because they mistakenly believed “the Hebrew Scriptures were about principles.” Indeed, just the opposite. They died in the wilderness because they tempted God, disobeyed His precepts, and broke His covenant with them.
A Cruel Father
Some of you may have heard a very similar argument made by certain recent critics of Theonomy: we should no longer follow biblical standards of civil law strictly, but rather model civil government on parenting. Some children require different standards of punishment to render obedience. In other words, the model for civil government is the family, and the analogue to citizens is children.
The problems with this view are legion, and far more than I will take space for here. For starters, this confuses the biblical roles of family and state which are two separate covenantal institutions for a good reason. The family bears the rod under the judgment of parents. The state bears the sword under the judgment of juries, judges, and enforcing executives. They are separate institutions with separate (though sometimes overlapping) standards for governance. Under biblical laws, families are not allowed, for example, to execute offenders, and states are not allowed to mandate the intricacies of private life of citizens. Furthermore, as we have already seen, the state is forbidden by God’s law from showing “compassion” when executing civil justice. The state is an active agent of God’s wrath, not His compassion. To pretend that a “parenting” model supersedes here is not to improve upon God’s law, nor to apply it faithfully, but to break it. In short, parents are not civil authorities, and civil authorities are not parents.
Throughout history, whenever the state becomes a “parental” state, a tyranny ensues. When the state arrogates to itself the alleged affections of parents, and demands of citizens the loyalty and affections due from children, the conditions for tyranny are ripe. Think “nanny state,” and you get the picture. Further, a “father” state becomes a breadwinner and bread-giver to its “children.” As a parental state, it not only takes control of welfare, it becomes the dispenser of property and inheritance. Again, you get the picture. A parental state is a total welfare state.
This view has many problems, as I said, but one of the most important for our purpose here is that it throws the discussion of civil punishments off the rails of God’s revealed objective standards and into the relativistic arena of human autonomy. If the state assumes the position of reading every particular case and dispensing justice to custom-fit every individual “child” in any given case, it opens the can of worms that is relativism. Favoritism and partiality, for individuals or for a variety of favored classes, will follow shortly; and indeed, in every society that departs from God’s law, including our own, this is precisely what has followed. When you remind yourself that such partiality is being allowed to the agency of wrath and the sword, you can only understand that a police state, warfare state, surveillance state, etc., is on the horizon.
The Law must be strict, to limit the State
The State is not to be a father, and so then become biased and relativistic… and, soon enough, tyrannical.