Right from the start I will say this: I consider stoning to be a form of torture and that therefore its practice should be outlawed. Having said that, and having gone on record as a strong supporter of Gary North’s view of things in general, here is my take on North’s apparent endorsement of stoning (at least in the past).
In the 1986 edition of his book The Sinai Strategy (TSS) North included a subchapter with the heading “In Defense of Stoning”. However, in his later, 2006 edition, that subsection was removed completely (not just “toned down”). Here are his arguments from the 1986 edition in brief:
- Stoning is cheap: “the implements of execution are available at virtually no cost”.
- It is communal: “no one citizen can regard himself as ‘the executioner’”
- By the same token, the community cannot hide behind an outsourced executioner. The “whole community is responsible for preventing criminal behaviour”.
- It is personal: “The condemned man has a right to confront his executioners face to face”.
- It is symbolic of the promise in Genesis 3:15 that the serpent’s head will be crushed.
(See North, G.: The Sinai Strategy, Tyler, Texas, 1986, pages 122-23)
What I have not found is a definitive synopsis of exactly under which circumstances (meaning for which crimes) North says that the death penalty is required for and, secondly, for which this has to be stoning. I have found, in another book of his, that he is definitely in favour of the death penalty for murderers:
“In cases of murder, the State becomes the delegated representative of God. The deceased obviously cannot initiate the covenant lawsuit. The State therefore initiates it on behalf of both the deceased and God. No restitution payment is possible to the deceased; thus, God must judge the criminal directly in His court. The State is required to deliver the criminal’s soul immediately into the hands of God, who is the primary victim and also the legal representative of the deceased victim. The State must not allow a murderer to escape immediate entry into God’s court – physical execution – by the payment of a fine: “Moreover ye shall take no satisfaction for the life of a murderer, which is guilty of death: but he shall be surely put to death” (Num. 35:31).” (North, G.: Tools of Dominion [ToD], Tyler, Texas, 1990, page 300).
In that same book, ToD, North also argues in favour of stoning, or at least defends the practice in Old Testament times. With regard to the fourth argument (stoning is “personal”), he adds in this book this interesting observation:
“Public stoning would allow a condemned man to confront the witnesses and his executioners. The idea of a private execution where the condemned person cannot have a final word to those who have condemned him is anything but liberalminded. It was long considered a basic legal privilege in the West for a condemned person to have this final opportunity to speak his mind. The sign of the intolerance of the “liberal” French Revolutionaries was their unwillingness to allow King Louis XVI to speak to the crowd at his execution. The judges had ordered drummers to begin drumming the moment he began to speak, which they did. Leo Gershoy, The French Revolution and Napoleon (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1933), p. 238.”(ToD, page 45, Fn 41.)
Because of the exclusion of its discussion in his 2006 edition of the Sinai Strategy, I suspect North has rather gone off the stoning doctrine. However, even in the 1986 version I find that North seems to want to narrow down capital punishment to murderers. I have not found any evidence that North is in favour of the death penalty (of any kind) for “gays”, “loose women” and so on. The one exception, apart from murderers, is “rebellious sons”, with which he means adult sons living with their parents, not minors: “If it is mandatory that a man bring his incorrigible adult son before the elders for gluttony, drunkenness, and verbal rebellion, how much more ready will a society be to execute repeatedly violent individuals or members of a professional criminal class!” (ToD, p. 410.) The word “drunkenness” points to adults. Also, a footnote in my Bible at the relevant place (Deut. 21:18-21) says that “there is no biblical or archaeological evidence that this punishment was ever carried out, but the point was that disobedience and rebellion were not to be tolerated in the home or allowed to continue unchecked.” North adds the point: “Those who are appalled by this law are not sufficiently appalled by professional criminal behavior.” (ToD, p. 411)
North certainly does not favour the death penalty for each and every “crime” that was considered punishable by death only in Old Testament times. Take the case of “stick gathering at Sabbath” (to feed hearth fires e.g.) – punishable by death among the Hebrews. Even in the older version of TSS, North refers to Paul, in that the apostle “has lodged this sovereignty with the individual conscience rather than with church government or civil government.” (TSS, 1986, page 92).
North adds at this point that a strict enforcement of the Sabbath (everyone rests on the same day) would throw us back into the agricultural age. Making steel, for example, would be prohibitively expensive if the steel-melting furnaces were to be shut down once a week – which they would have to if everyone rested on that day. What trumps everything else, says North, is God’s commandment to man to subdue the earth (his line of theology is called “dominionism”). When the Bible says everyone should “rest” one day out of every seven, North continues, that doesn’t have to be the same day for everyone, and churches should provide for worshippers every day of the week. He also criticises that there has been no serious discussion among theologians as to what exactly constitutes “rest”.
As “subduing the earth” is more valuable than everything else, keeping people alive is highly important, even if they have committed a crime. For those, there should instead be restitution.
Going back to the death penalty, North argues in favour of it (irrespective of the method) not only because, according to him, restitution is impossible in the case of murder, but also on the basis of imperfect knowledge:
“Society itself must not become brutal. By adhering to biblical law, a society can specify which crimes are capital and which involve paying restitution. But for those crimes that are specified as capital, the biblical commonwealth can reduce their likelihood even in an imperfect penal system which does not operate in terms of perfect knowledge. It raises the stakes so high that risk-taking criminals prefer to commit other sorts of crimes. The imperfection of the legal system is offset by the risk of permanent loss to the murderer.” (TSS, 1986, p. 122; 2006, p. 154, his emphasis)
So, to recap: North was, and still is definitely in favour of the death penalty, and this definitely for murderers and “rebellious sons” as described in Deuteronomy 21:18-21. He advocates it as he believes it is an effective deterrent, and believes it will make society less brutal. He has in the past apparently advocated stoning as a method of execution. It is unclear whether he still favours it, and likely that he doesn’t.
My own take on capital punishment is the following:
Precisely because we have increased our dominion over the earth we are now in a position to preserve the life even of murderers while keeping them safely locked away from the rest of society at relatively low cost. Agricultural societies in Old Testament times did not have this luxury. However, I recognise that murderers are often treated today with what seems to be undue leniency. And this can become a problem for society, in that the risk in connection with committing murder and other violent crime is reduced.
What also seems wrong is that prisoners do not need to do anything for their upkeep. The victims (or, in the case of murder, their relatives and friends) thus pays twice: Apart from suffering the crime, they also pay taxes to keep the person in prison and thus for the most part out of the productive process. Should a convicted criminal be forced to work? Well, maybe. In a Hoppean society, private security insurances would try to extract at least the indemnity from the culprit, and possibly his upkeep for as long as he is imprisoned as well. Would there be a chance of total redemption for murderers? I don’t know, I suppose it depends on the individual cases and the individual culprits.
Another thought about stoning: Even “civilized” countries exercised a variant of stoning up until the end of World War 2. I’m talking about the firing squad. The “stones” here are much smaller, sharper and faster. Therefore they kill more “humanely”, but the features “cheap”, “communal” (within the military community) and “personal” remained. Only the bit about crushing the head didn’t.
Now the UK has signed up to the Human Rights Act which prohibits capital punishment in all circumstances, even in war. I wonder how strictly that will be adhered to in a real war. I don’t mean the wars we have conducted since WW2, where our side has been so crushingly superior that we could afford a bit of indiscipline from time to time.
Anyway, I think that the issue of “North is (or was) for stoning” is a distraction from the much more overarching point which is that his writings offer a plausible explanation for the fact that libertarianism has been going nowhere for quite some time now. Yes, libertarianism “gains traction” from time to time, especially when the opposite side messes up badly (e.g. 1945, 1989, 2008), but it is far beyond living memory now that it has ever been “dominant” in any shape or form, anywhere. Discussing the example of Marxism, North offers a reason for this lamentable circumstance in that Marxists “have a philosophy which is a kind of perverse mirror image of Christian orthodoxy. They are dangerous, not because they are acting consistently with their ultimate philosophy of chaos, but because they limit the function of chaos to one area alone: the revolutionary transformation of bourgeois culture.” (ToD, p. 988)
In all other areas, the Marxists seek order and even have “the trappings of Augustinianism”: “They believe in linear history (officially, anyway – their system is at bottom cyclical, however). They believe in law. They believe in destiny. They believe in historical meaning. They believe in historical stages, though not ethically determined stages such as we find in Deuteronomy. They believe in science. They believe in literature, propaganda, and the power of the written word. They believe in higher education.” (ibid.)
North wrote the above passage in the late 1980s (ToD was published in 1990), so at that point he still sees the main threat as coming from the Soviet Union. This has changed of course, and North acknowledges that today. The main (“Neo-Marxist”) threat is now coming from our own universities, who have planted their “produce” (their graduates) in all relevant strata of society. However, we can see that the “beliefs” listed above are falling apart. Their core belief in chaos is seeping into all other areas of their creed. They don’t believe in science any more, instead they are conjuring up some pseudo sciences to suit their current ideological and teleological flavour of the decade. They believe in “education” but only in the sense of indoctrination. They do still believe in destiny, but in one very different from the one their intellectual forbears believed in – one that involves significantly fewer humans than exist today. Their “at bottom cyclical” belief system is working its way through and is beginning to show.
But the thing is: They have a belief system. And that (I repeat myself) is the one thing that makes and keeps them strong, despite their setbacks of 1945, 1989, 2008. If libertarians ever want a hope of a chance to win back the upper hand, they will need a belief system that can win people over. And that involves a belief system that believes in winning.