“Do Not Seek to Be More Righteous Than Your Creator”
Ah, finally, the 'death penalty' post I've been threatening you guys with for a while.
I'll get this out of the way first – I'm pro-death penalty. I've lived my entire life in one of the few states that both still has the death penalty on the books and still actually implements it. Perhaps it's because Florida somehow produces an inordinate number of nut jobs? Or maybe it's just the natural reaction to the fact that, as Dean Winchester says, 'Some freaky shit happens in Florida.' For the record, Florida has executed a total of 238 people (169 from 1924-1964 and 69 from 1976-present). So, growing up here, I'm comfortable with the idea that there are some crimes for which the ultimate punishment is necessary. Also, I suspect that my grandfather had something to do with it. My grandfather was a very 'law and order' kind of man. He'd served in the Navy in WWII. He was a police officer for most of his life and worked with the FBI and the CIA at different points in his career. Whenever the death penalty was discussed, it was supported by my family – so I grew up believing that there were some crimes for which you forfeited, not just your right to live in society, but your right to live. I hear about people crying about the 'inhumane' executions. Were the murderers 'humane' to their victims? Did they care about their pain and suffering or the lives of the families that were being left behind? If called upon, I can confidently say that I would be able to pass on a death sentence if I believed that a person was guilty. I dare say I'd even be able to 'throw the switch' without a twitch. As for the more personal, 'self defense' – I am willing to kill in the preservation of my own life or that of a loved one. I'm certainly not going to go looking for people to fight with, but if a situation came down to me or the guy attacking me? I choose to live. Every time, without question. I value my life more than the life of the person attacking me. So. With all that out of the way, on to the post!
The official teaching of the Catholic Church in regards to the death penalty is found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2267:
“Assuming that the guilty party's identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.
If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people's safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity with the dignity of the human person.
Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm – without definitively taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself – the cases in which execution of the offender is an absolute necessity 'are very rare, if not practically non-existent.”
The Catechism was revised under Pope John Paul II, and I feel that the last two paragraphs reflect his personal feelings on the matter. The Church, at least in my experience, has taken it to heart though, and being a Catholic in favor of the death penalty is looked at unfavorably, to say the least.
I would, for the sake of balance, like to post the official position of the Orthodox Church, but I don't believe that there is one. (Of course, if I'm wrong on that, someone please point me to it!) I've found statements both for and against it from Orthodox sources, so I'm assuming that it's left as a matter of personal conscience. As to the Protestant position, it appears to vary from denomination to denomination, and, I would assume, from church to church within the denominations. Likely it breaks down, even further, on the personal level. So I can't post a 'Protestant position' either.
Okay, so what is the argument here? It really boils down to life in prison versus execution, and which is, from a moral or ethical perspective, more humane and just. I'm not going to go into the monetary issue – which is more cost effective, life imprisonment or execution – because I don't think that anyone really only considers the cost of a persons life when coming to a decision on the death penalty. (That being said – bullets are cheap.)
As a Christian, it seems as though the answer to the question of the death penalty is simple: the Gospel is ultimately about mercy, forgiveness and the affirmation of life – thus the death penalty is antithetical to what God is and wants for humanity. It would seem, then, that life in prison is the only permissible answer. Well, there you go. Discussion over. Bye now. ;) Hah. You know better than that...
But I don't believe that it is that simple – God is not that simply or easily defined. God is love, yes, but He has been intimately involved with death since the beginning of humanity. One cannot deal with the nature of God without dealing with the nature of death – after all, if God defines all things - who God is defines what death is.
No one can deny that people do evil things, and that some of them do horrifically evil things. And I don't think you'll find anyone who would deny that everyone dies. A coherent theology of the fall is the key to understanding both evil and death and the relationship between the two. The scriptures teach us that death is a consequence of the Fall. Death, even a 'natural' one, is unnatural, in that understanding. It is foreign to our nature – we were not created to die. According to the Fathers of the Church, death and evil are interconnected. Death is the ultimate constraint on evil. Death has actually been called by the Fathers 'the blessed curse' and it was added to humanity to cut short the days of man so he can not continue to grown progressively more evil.
The Old Testament is full of stories of God and man dealing out death to the grossly immoral and ungodly. And I know people say, 'that was the Old Testament! Jesus is the New Testament, and He was all about peace, love and understanding!' Okay, even if that were true, which it's not – did God change? Take a Vicodin or something between Testaments? The answer is no, God did not change. There is but one God and He is the same in either Testament – in the beginning, in the past, now and in the future. So then, is Jesus different from God? For those of us who confess that Christ is God, is the second Person of the Trinity, the answer must be 'no'. God does not deal differently with people in the New Testament than He does in the Old. Take, for example, Acts 5. God immediately strikes Ananaias dead before the congregation for lying about his tithe. Then, when his wife Sapphira shows up, St. Peter asks her a loaded question which she answers wrongly. He then informs her of her husbands fate and that the same punishment is hers for participating in her husbands lie to God. And she is struck dead as well. God Himself did the executing, but St. Peter did not plead for clemency – and St. Luke records that great fear came upon the Church and all who heard of it. I'm guessing that thats Biblical language for 'public execution via Divine Retribution for lying to the Apostles and the Church was an effective deterrent.'
Let's go back to the Old Testament for a bit. Starting with Cain in Genesis 4, and the first killing. From my two posts on Cain, I've concluded that, based on what we know, and God's command in regards to the treatment of premeditated murders versus the treatment of manslaughter, that Cain was most likely not fully culpable for the crime he committed against his brother.
In Genesis 6, God smites all of humanity (baring Noah and his family) for their incredible wickedness. Following the Flood, and the cleansing of the earth, God requires the death of the person who commits murder. (Genesis 9)
“Whoever sheds man's blood, by man will his blood be shed, for in the Image of God He made man.” (Genesis 9:6) This rationale for the death penalty is the same rationale used by some Christians against the death penalty – that we can't execute a person because they are created in the image of God. But it seems to me that God is saying He requires the death of the murderer because he has violated the image of God in his fellow man and also within himself. While I'm not going to reference them all, the death penalty is part and parcel of the Mosaic law, so the base laid down to Noah was continued through the Jewish nation and Moses.
It's inarguable that in both Testaments people received 'clemency' from God – David, St. Paul, the woman taken in adultery, and Cain (depending on your opinion of his crime) for example. Jesus, in His ministry, did the same things as God did. He showed mercy on some sinners. While Jesus never 'personally killed' anyone during His ministry, in His parables on judgment He likens God to an angry king who kills the evil vineyard keepers. While our theology affirms that God desires the death of no man and the salvation of all, it also affirms that all death is in the hands of God as an event within the providential Love of God – even if He deems to kill them personally or permits them to be killed while still unrepentant.
I want to at least attempt to discuss the relationship between the Church and civil authority. Since we do have a separation of Church and State – in the sense that the Church is not the State and that the State is the entity charged with keeping order and punishing criminals, it seems germane.
I think that most people would agree that the human being somehow innately understands the necessity and value of societal order and justice that supersedes the individuals desires. Social order reflects a sort of collective consciousness that rises above any single individual's level of perfection in an imperfect world. We know from history that one individual with unchecked power doesn't really work well as a system of government. 'Absolute power corrupts absolutely' is a cliché for a reason.
According to Scripture all 'governmental systems' and civil authorities are established by God and are a necessary concession for the good order of the world because of the Fall. But our 'systems', even if ordained by God, are run by fallen humans. I doubt this fact is lost on anyone.
In his commentary on Romans 13, St. John Chrysostom has this to say about how we should regard civil authority and evil politicians:
“For do not tell me of some one who makes ill use of (the institutions of government) but look to the good order that is in the institution itself, and you will see the great wisdom of Him who enacted this law from the first...whether in punishing, or in honoring, the state is a Minister, in avenging virtue's cause, in driving vice away, as God wills.”
'Systems' of government and societal order are a collective hedge against individual human anarchy which tends toward evil, and it also provides more or less for some definition of 'the common welfare' of the members of society. And, of course, we know that while some systems might be better than others, no system, if occupied by evil people, will keep people from doing evil things.
Every Christian anti-death penalty argument I've seen calls for society to 'forgive our enemies' because Christ calls on us to forgive our enemies. And I would acknowledge that I, as an individual, am called to forgive my personal enemies – which is HARD and I work at it daily, but I don't see that that extends to the State.
The call of the Gospel is ultimately to persons, not institutions. One must have belief in the Gospel to live it, not merely be following laws. While we obey laws because they are laws and there are consequences if we break them and we are caught (think, on the mild end of the spectrum, speed limits), our faith cannot work that way. A person can, theoretically, be forced to obey all the strictures of a faith, down to the last 't', but that doesn't give them faith. It doesn't make them a believer, and in the case of faith and religion, at least, it's the belief, the inner desires and thoughts that count. After all, God's Kingdom is not of this world.
All that being said, it is appropriate for the State to legislate against evil for the very same reason Noah was commanded to institute the death penalty – we are created in the Image of God. The God ordained order of the State, at some level, reflects the image of God in that it exists for the 'good of society' which calls for defining good and evil through civil law.
In the Old Testament, God dealt with human beings on a revelatory moral and religious level through Judaism and the Law. Even if one views Judaism as only a shadow of the Gospel, it was still God ordained, and carries some merit. The first layer of Godly order laid down into the moral chaos of the fallen world? Judaism was a revelation to the world of universally applicable moral and ethical precepts, and it included the death penalty. These aspects of the Law (I believe) which included capital punishment apart from the fullness of knowledge and belief in the Gospel are still a functional way to order a non-Gospel based human society. We in the modern world may (and do) disagree with the Law over who (and for what and how) should be put to death, but from Genesis to Revelation the overarching principles of law and order that include justice, fear of consequence, punishment and restraint that deal with evil are universally recognized to be necessary for civil order.
As far as I can see, nowhere in the New Testament is the State held to the standards of the Gospel in how it orders our society. Since inception the Church has existed and functioned within many diverse political systems – some good, some bad, some out and out evil. We don't find the New Testament writers confusing the roles of the Church and the State in the lives of people, most likely because in the times of the New Testament the State was either indifferent or actively hostile to the Church.
The Apostles held up no political system as 'the one true party' and Christians are constrained to pray for all civil leaders, godly or not. Jesus Himself told Pilate as he was condemning Him that he had no power except that which was given him from God. In Romans 13, St. Paul (who was persecuted under both Jewish and Roman law) teaches us that the State has the God ordained responsibility to punish the evil doer and even to exact capital punishment if deemed necessary. St. Paul, in spite of the injustices he personally suffered, doesn't even deal with the possibility of civil law being unjustly administered. He doesn't seem to have an issue with the possibility of the State being in error or unjust at times. Both he and Christ personally stood above the civil order and the injustice they suffered and in so doing personally transformed the world around them without legislating 'Christian values' through governmental systems.
The ancients understood that their moral and religious frameworks were not easily divorced from civil concerns, and throughout Church history it has always been considered, by most Christian expressions, a possibility to have a Christian State. Israel's history is the story of the 'Christian State' imperfectly administered by kings who would bring either blessings or curses upon the people depending on their actions. It was never a utopia, but it was an integration of Church and State. In light of this history the 'prophet/king' relationship and the wielding of power in their respective spheres is quite natural and has yielded, at times, good outcomes for the citizenry. However, it is also clear from Church history that religious coercion by the State does not generally yield good results.
The Church as State is untenable and cannot be justified scripturally or pragmatically. For an example we can look at John Calvin's Geneva to see how his theology of Church and State worked out in practice and what you see can best be described as a 'Christian Taliban'. The failure of Church as State doesn't mean, however, that the State can't or shouldn't align itself with the Gospel. However, it must be understood that there are boundaries between the roles of the Church and the State and not all of the Gospel's demands on the Church and the individual Christian can be integrated into a civil order. The mission of the Church in the world does not cancel God's divine order that the evildoer is restrained by means of the State. I'm not going to go into detail, but one only needs to look at the history of the Church as a State to know that it doesn't work. Theocracy is a bad idea – we loose something in the process. Men use the 'divine right' of their leadership to take advantage. Not all of them, no, but enough, and yes, that happens in secular states too (the corruption), but it's much harder to see and fight when 'God said I could do this'. Look at any of the cults in the world to see this in miniature. Or heck, lets take a brief sidetrack look at Saudi Arabia. Wonderful place. Very religious. Because they don't have a choice. It's a nice, dry place where girls can burn to death because they're not wearing their abaya. Because they're trying to flee a *burning building*! (takes a deep breath) We don't need to look very hard or very far to find historical or modern proof that theocracies don't work.