While the Church as the State is an unscriptural and unworkable concept, the Church influencing the State is, of course, another matter entirely. The Christian influence on anyone is a matter of persuasion, not coercion. But what if the State actually governed an unbelieving society based on that one, singular Christian ethic of forgiveness? Let's say, theoretically, that the justice system operates on this basis: if the victim (or family of the victim in cases where the victim is dead) forgives the criminal, then the criminal goes free. No consequences for their actions. What happens when a murdering pedophile is set free because the parents of his victim forgive him. He's still a pedophile. He will rape and murder another child. People like that cannot change. They cannot stop. There is no 'rehabilitation' no 'fix'. I was talking to a friend the other day, whose uncle works in law enforcement. He's getting near to retirement, and works in a jail now, as a guard. He said that where they used to only need one bloc for the pedophiles, now they need two whole wings. And the men sit there, for the duration of their sentences, watching kids' shows. You know why? So they can be up on the current trends when they get out. So they can go right back to preying on children. But in this fictional world where mercy and forgiveness are given more weight than justice, these men would be free to perpetuate their horrors. Because their enemies forgave them. And that next child who's raped or murdered? Whose fault is that? Who shoulders the responsibility of knowing that they had him, and they let him go? My beta actually brought up chemical castration, but it's my understanding that even this is not a fool proof method. It does appear to reduce the sexual fantasies and drives, and give the patients greater control over their sexual urges in about 80% of the offenders while they're on the drugs. There are, of course, side effects, which I'm less concerned about than the fact that there's still that 20% on whom it doesn't appear to work. I'm not, however, throwing it out entirely. While I'd really, really like to have all pedophiles executed, whether they kill their victims or not, that's a personal bit of viciousness.
Forgiveness cannot mean removal of the consequences or removal of the State's responsibility to protect the innocent from the criminal. All Christians, when it comes down to it, do not hold that forgiveness means removal of all consequences for sin or evil, and, I think, most will acknowledge that fact. A church may forgive the embezzlement of funds by one of its members, but it cannot commute the restitution required by law. The Church can forgive the sin of adultery, but it will neither pay the child support of the adulterer or tell them they don't have to pay it. The Church can forgive the sin, but the consequence of that sin, in the world, remains. Consequences are not always abrogated by forgiveness. The Church cam affirm life, repentance and forgiveness, and at the same time permit the State to deal with the good order of the society within which the Church functions. The State might be influenced by the Church, but it is not the Church. It is only the Church, and it's members, that is held to the Gospel. No Christian who supports capital punishment believes the Church should execute the evildoer, or even its own sinners, heretics or apostates. (Though that has been the case in the past.) The Church exists for the redemption of the human being and as an agent of the Gospel of forgiveness, the giver of the sacraments, and the bearer of grace to the fallen race.
But we still have the question of the boundaries and relationships of the Church and the State when it comes to the death penalty?
The historic consensus of the great theologians (East and West) affirms the existence of the State as a God ordained power separate from the Church and its authority to exact capital punishment as an option for the good of society.
A quote I came across quite a few times in my search, from the anti-death penalty camp is from St. John Chrysostom is this: “in our case (as Christians) the wrong-doer must be made better, not by force, but by persuasion”. However, the entire quote is actually as follows:
“Christians above all men are not permitted forcibly to correct the failings of those who sin. Secular judges indeed, when they have captured malefactors under the law, show their authority to be great, and prevent them even against their will from following their own devices; but in our case the wrong-doer must be made better, not by force, but by persuasion.”
St. John Chrysostom is not denying the authority of the State or its responsibility to punish and restrain the criminal. He is instead saying that the Church does not use force to convert souls. St. Thomas Aquinas, in his commentary on 1 Corinthians 5 sums up the thoughts of the West: “if a man be dangerous and infectious to the community, on account of some sin, it is praiseworthy and advantageous that he be killed in order to safeguard the common good, since 'a little leaven corrupteth the whole lump'” (1 Corinthians 5:6).
“The state does not bear the sword for naught” St. Paul says, in Romans 13, and St. John Chrysostom comments, “For he bears not the sword in vain. You see how (God) has furnished him with arms, and set him on guard like a soldier for a terror to those that commit sin. For he is the minister of God to execute wrath, a revenger upon him that does evil.”
The State has its own realm of authority and does not need the Church to validate or direct its operations in order for it to be an agent of God's will for humanity. (However much we may look at it and doubt it at any given moment). However, it's also clear that the Church is called to be leaven and that there is no prohibition to the Church influencing the State's decisions in matters moral and ethical.
Part of the problem is that we've muddied our personal convictions, what we feel we need to do in personal relationships, and our understanding of how the State should function for the good of society. If we accept the essential separation of the Gospel's demands on the Church and the State, the issue becomes: 'Can I, as a Christian, personally participate in killing a human being?'
On another level, if we accept that civil authority is God ordained and human beings are invested with the powers of life and death, we have to ask: 'How does an individual who is finite and imperfect whether Christian or not, perfectly join justice and mercy within civil order?' And, extended from that, how can a justice system work when all of the offices, the points along the way, are occupied by these same imperfect beings?
It is undeniable that human beings are neither personally nor collectively omniscient, but does that mean that we cannot act, merely because we don't possess all of the knowledge that God does? If we take that as a legitimate boundary, then we have to ask, if God knew we could not know what only He knows, then why did He ordain civil authority for both believers and the unbelieving pagan societies and give those societies the power to judge and punish evil doers even unto death? If a person dies unjustly under the auspices of a flawed legal system (which is a main argument against the death penalty), is that an eternal issue?
The groundswell of anti-death penalty activism began in Europe on the heels of WWII and the horrors of the Nazi regime, and within the context of post Enlightenment Europe's decline of faith. Without a belief in the afterlife, humanistic and utilitarian philosophy has defined physical death as the ultimate evil and insult to human worth and dignity. The decline of Christianity and a belief in eternal life went hand in hand with the rise of opposition to the death penalty in Europe. Cardinal Dulles, a Jesuit theologian noted in a 2001 article, “many governments in Europe and elsewhere have eliminated the death penalty in the twentieth century, often against the protests of religious believers. While this change may be viewed as moral progress, it is probably due, in part, to the evaporation of the sense of sin, guilt, and retributive justice, all of which are essential to biblical religion and Catholic faith. The abolition of the death penalty in formerly Christian countries may owe more to secular humanism than to deeper penetration into the Gospel.” Christians have accepted the Godless categories of secular humanists and their re-framing of the death penalty as unjust, contrary to the dignity of the human being, and cruel and inhuman in the face of the biblical rationales for the validity of the use of the death penalty. It is clear from the Biblical witness that it can and should be applied even in the fallen order, it is applied precisely because of the dignity of human life, and cannot be defined as 'inhuman' because the creator of humanity not only commanded it but exacted it Himself.
If death is the end of the human being, then yes, it is to be avoided at any cost. However, for the Christian, death, in the end, is not the final affront to the dignity of our humanity, it is the loss of our humanity in eternity separated from its true source and definition in God. We cannot let the humanists define the categories of life and death for us.
To the Christian, ultimately retributive justice is about love, even under Mosaic Law which demanded capital punishment. Because we believe in objective love, the killer is killed because more than mere biology has been violated, something more than just a mass of chemicals has ceased to function, and our reaction to that is more than just vague evolutionary sentimentality and another mass of chemical interactions in my head. Objective love has been violated. At the core of our existence because we are created in the image of God who is love, we know that if we have no love, we have no life. Even a humanistic definition attempts to define society by love in some way. What is society? An amalgam of beings that economically join together in a community mutually respecting and affirming life for the well being of all: which is really a dim definition of 'love' at a primeval level. This is what makes murder and other heinous crimes inhuman even within a humanistic framework: The killer exhibits no love and kills someone who is loved by someone else thus not just violating the individual but also the community. From a Christian perspective, that community includes God.
It is on the basis of the Incarnation of God in Christ that we believe that the honor given to a material icon passes to the person whom the icon depicts. Materiality and the spiritual are not divorced. It is in, by, and through the material that we ultimately honor the spiritual. God ultimately honors the image of Himself in man by becoming man. This is the reality that Genesis 9:6 points us to. Murder is not merely the ending of a material existence. It is a sin against the entire man created in love by God in His image, thus, and this is the crux of the matter, the disregard for and destruction of the image passes to the one in whose image man is created. It is ultimately a rejection and desecration of God Himself. The murderer rejects the entirety of the cosmos both external and within himself. God ordains civil authority with the power to condemn and kill the ones who are so inhuman and anti-social that they do not live according to their own created image in respect and honor for the love of God and the love of man in others. The death penalty honors the image of God in both the perpetrator and the victim by holding the perpetrator responsible, as a human being in the image of God, for his actions.
So back to the earlier question: 'Why does God allow fallen, finite beings to make life and death decisions?'
God has no illusions of either the human potential for evil nor of the possibility of humanity to achieve a perfect justice system. The fallen human condition is bent toward sin and virtue is an uphill battle. Unrestrained, unpunished evil results in greater and greater evils. While we affirm the image of God in the human being is never lost, God is more realistic than most people about how deeply that image can be buried in evil. Thus, God requires the death penalty. No matter how meticulously crafted a justice system is, it will never rise about human failure. There will be injustice, both intentional and through ignorance and negligence. The hard truth is that innocent people will die, both from direct evil and as a consequence of the limitations of humanity in this fallen order. The Christian world view includes the tragedy of random injustice and does not cringe from the possibility of it occurring due to human error for the greater purpose of curtailing even greater evil and the stability and order of human society. In the end, we must come to terms with an imperfect world. Legal injustice is not the only affront to our sensibilities of 'what is fair'. The world is full of normal injustices like being a victim of random human evil, natural calamities, poverty or handicap by virtue of birth, and tragic accidents visited on the undeserving or innocent. Civil injustice is merely another sorrowful reality of the fallen order. Within the civil realm, unlike the natural realm, there are avenues for righting purposeful injustice. For the Christian, there is also a higher justice that will deal with the ones who abuse power or do evil in the end, no matter what happens here on earth.
Christians, because of our understanding of death and the consequences of the fall, should have a higher tolerance level for the fact that the world will never be perfect and that human beings are fallible. Christians have no illusions that imperfect and even evil men occupy places of God ordained authority and they make life and death decisions for members of society. The best we can hope for is that those in authority are sober, humble, and fearful of the great burden of the sword they are bearing. Though we know, all too well, that a very great many of them are not. I heard an estimate once that over 160 million innocent people have been killed by despotic rulers and governments. The call to abolish the death penalty for justly tried and guilty criminals is a separate issue, and the abolition of the death penalty won't keep evil men from killing or rising to power and committing genocide. The Christian call for justice notwithstanding, death, even an unjust death, is not the end of the story. The Cross of Christ, and the two crucified with Him, is a microcosm of the divine order. It is the ultimate witness that the power given from above is, in human hands, both just and unjust, but that gross injustice in the providential hand of God in a much grander scheme of the universe than we can imagine, is in the end redemptive in some way. It is with this understanding that the Saints could command us to submit to unchristian, imperfect and even unjust civil rule.
Now, what do I mean when I say that the Cross and the two crucified with Him is a microcosm of the divine order? One is justly condemned, another's punishment may have been disproportionate, and one was unjustly condemned. In the providence of God, one saves, another is saved, and the last exemplifies the unrepentant human even in the presence of the love of God. It would have been a perfect object lesson regarding capital punishment and forgiveness, but Jesus died and let the other two die with Him, one saved and the other damned. Perhaps we need to look at the Crucifixion scene in this way, and see God's view of civil authority, divine love and the fallen world fully explicated. And, again, lets recall that Jesus is the same as the God of the Old Testament. There was no divine happy pill between Testaments. Remember also that He will come again in the end to judge the living and the dead and to cast the evildoers into a lake of eternal fire as punishment if they are unrepentant. We tend to have this fluffy, 'Disney-fied' view of Biblical things, like angels, or Jesus, and I can only think that that comes from a vast majority of us never bothering to read the Bible, but relying on what we remember from Sunday school, which is a vastly sanitized version for our young minds.
Now, what about the idea that we can't execute a criminal because they must be provided with ample time to repent. The reality is that, except in the cases of 'crimes of passion', most murderers have long histories of criminal behavior. So, what about all the time they had before, to repent? Have they used it? Or have they been bent on feeding their own selfish, sinful urges? As Christians, we believe that the opportunity for repentance abounds every minute of every day, and that God is constantly at work in people's lives to bring them to repentance. It is always the 'right time' to repent. One of the ways God brings us to repentance is through temporal consequences for our sins. One such consequence for exceedingly gross evil is death by the State. The sentence of death on a killer is the first step to redemption because it is a clear statement that his sin is particularly depraved and a violation of all creation. It is also redemptive in that it provides the evildoer the only true motivation most sinners initially understand to repent: we are going to die and face eternal judgment for our sins. And here's another 'bonus' – while, as Christians, we try to keep ourselves mindful that we could die at any moment, and be in a repentant from of mind, walking in the Grace of God at all moments because of that fact, we still have no idea of the hour and day of our deaths. The criminal on death row does. They are perfectly aware of when, how, and why they are going to die. They have foreknowledge that the majority of us will never have. They have a better chance and motivation to repent than your average person who, say what they might, subconsciously believes that they will live for 70, 80 years. So the execution can be viewed as a mercy to the criminal. Unlike the natural order, at least the State gives you fair warning. A last meal and a chance to say goodbye to your loved ones before you are shuffled off this mortal coil.
If we are to make a decision for permitting a criminal to live, it must be made on some other basis than a vague hope that more time may be helpful to leading them to repentance. For some, this might be true, but for others, more time is just more opportunity to do evil. Just look at the prison systems and how being in prison fails to keep the people in the prisons from committing thefts, rapes, beatings, and more murders, even while in prison. God will judge those who might have committed more evil, just as He will judge those who may have repented if given more time. He knows the depths of the human heart, where we can only guess. And we should not second guess God who has established the role and responsibility of civil authority in this area. I read somewhere that capital punishment is a temporal judgment and exacts the first death in order to bring about the fear of the second judgment and second death. If a Christian believes in eternal life, this is ultimately humane. We can't push all matters of earthly order, consequences for sin, and judgment of evil onto God in eternity. Romans 13 and 1 Timothy 2 make it clear that God did not remove Himself from the civil affairs of the human race after the Cross, nor did He remove Himself from judging sinful people within the Church.
We are not given the luxury of deferring all judgment of human behavior to the last day in either civil or Church governance. We don't believe the God of the Old Testament is no longer concerned about civil law and order in the New Testament world. Civil authority is still God ordained and has its authority from God even under the Gospel. Death is still the blessed curse and a motivation to repent whether it comes from nature or the State. And the scriptures also make it clear that the fear of immanent death brings some to repentance and some to curse God and die in their sins, even when they are being killed justly along side God Himself.
Is the death penalty a deterrent? For some, yes. Realistically, for others, no. There will always be those who don't fear a particular consequence for breaking some law. There are some who are born 'flawed'. I'm thinking of those who are mentally ill – sociopaths, psychopaths, the like. People who will do what they will do, no matter what. Because they are sick, and they can't help themselves. They don't fear the consequences of their actions in a way that 'normal' people would. Not that that fear stops everyone from committing crimes, but it does stop the majority of them. The 'deterrent' aspect though, has never been the only reason that murderers are executed. It is only part of the reality – the consequence ultimately addresses the anti-social act of the criminal and it is addressed to his violation of humanity and social order.
Does the death penalty restrain the criminal? Very, very finally. But what about life in prison? Doesn't that restrain them as well? And without the added onus of having to execute them? Not so much. Again, we know for a fact that criminals in prison still find ways to commit more crimes. And that's assuming that they can even keep the criminals in prison. Let's look at Ted Bundy as an example: It is estimated that he killed 35 girls and women, though some speculate that the number may be higher. He was first arrested in 1975, and escaped twice! After his second, successful escape, he severely beat three women severely, murdered two more women, and raped and murdered his final victim, a twelve year old girl. There is no fool proof way to hold a killer and guarantee that they will not kill again. Whether it be a fellow inmate, a guard, or an innocent person. The only certain way to keep a murderer from killing again is to remove them in an extremely permanent fashion. Hence, the death penalty.
I think my point is really this: It is theologically permissible for a Christian to support the death penalty. But I'm not demanding that everyone agree with me. I'm not standing here declaring that I'm right and you're all wrong, and you must all change your minds to agree with me! I believe that I have grounds, theologically, for continuing to believe as I believed already (based on non-religious reasons). However, I'm not a theologian. I'm not a scholar, or even particularly well versed. All of the above is from my research – other people thought it all first. I know enough to know that I could be wrong, and I admit that. Some day, perhaps, my belief will change, and I'll be out in front of a prison protesting an execution. (This is so painfully unlikely I can't even begin to explain.) There are those out there who believe otherwise. And that's their choice. They believe that no one should be killed, no matter how heinous their crimes. Okay. I disagree. But it is, I believe, ultimately, a personal issue.