Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Death Penalty I: the Repostening

A year (and some change) ago I did a pair of posts supporting the idea that a Christian could be a proponent of the death penalty and not be hypocritical or have kicked themselves out of Christianity for it. They were very long, and a few people (more than I originally thought) read them all. I did a meme of 7 Special Posts and mentioned these. Sol suggested that I repost them and I thought it was a good idea. Which brings us to here and now. I'm reposting those original posts, but I'm going to divide them into smaller chunks and do it as the mood and opportunity strikes.

Here we go:

“Do Not Seek to Be More Righteous Than Your Creator”

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.

Part II


  1. Agh, so much I wanted to say while reading. I hope I can remember all of it. So, in no sense-making order, here's everything I remember to post! :D

    1. Seriously, thank you for pointing out the silliness of the Old Testament vs New Testament as if the new rewrites and destroys the old. I'm fine with some level of re-interpretation, I even learned to understand and agree to an extent with the idea that the Torah is only for Jews and not Christians, but people who both claim that God is unchanging and the whole Bible is "true" and then say that part of it doesn't apply to today...that just really bugs me.

    2. Did you ever watch Boston Legal? There was an episode at one point where a woman killed the man who had murdered her daughter, so she was on trial. Allen (Alan? Whatever) was defending her (he's generally very liberal and is against the death penalty). He gives this speech to explain why he thinks he's right, saying that he hates the idea of a cold, government-sanctioned decision to end a person's life but sees the woman's reaction as good and moral. It seemed to say she was the only one who had a right to make that decision, and also that at the least she should be shown mercy because anyone could understand that need for justice/revenge, whether or not it's morally right. I think there's something to that argument. I don't know that I agree with it completely, but it makes sense.

    3. Just last week, I saw my first episode of Babylon 5, "Passing Through Gethsemane." In that episode, they explain that universe's answer to the death penalty issue. Their sentence is "death of personality"...completely destroying the person's old memories and giving them new ones, sticking them in a situation where they can help people, such as in a monastery. Afterwards, my friends discussed whether that was an adequate punishment and satisfied the need for "justice." As a general rule, I think that when we say "justice," we mean "revenge," and I'm not convinced that "need" should be met...and certainly not made into the responsibility of the government. When is it enough revenge? How far should the government go to satisfy the victim's pain? Should they go beyond the death penalty and torture the killer, making sure to measure out an equal amount of pain as his/her victims? Who measures that? So while I can see showing mercy and understanding if a victim takes revenge, I think it's a bit ridiculous to determine the morality of the death penalty based on doling out justice.

    4. I think I actually agree completely on the official Catholic stance here. I know that when I'm watching a TV show with a very dangerous person, or when I see one on the news, even though I am also technically against the death penalty, part of me hopes that the villain dies by some accident or necessity...that the police officer or victim is forced to stop them in some lethal fashion. I think that's because in those contexts, they strike me as powerful enough to be a threat even in prison, and I worry for the safety of myself and others. If there was no threat, if the danger had ended and there was a reliable way to keep the killer away from other people, I don't think I personally could sanction the death penalty, because of everything I said in the 2nd and 3rd parts.

  2. I'm glad you are reposting these. I'd forgotten how good they were until I read this one!

    I enjoyed Sanil's comments as well!

  3. sanil,

    1. It's one of those things that's bugged me. Not always, but for quite a long time as I got into actually reading and understanding the Bible. If God is unchanging, then He can't have changed! Which means that there has to be a connection, a carry through from the OT to the NT.

    2. I never watched it, no. Hmmm...I think it's a matter of opinion, really. I, personally, would much rather have the government make the decision as to who lives and dies in criminal cases, *because* that decision would be cold and logical. A person, especially the nearest and dearest of the victims, are doing it out of their emotions. How many lynch mobs, back in the day, do you think got the actual criminal? How many people killed an innocent person just because they *thought* they were guilty. There is, of course, always the possibility that the government, the police, will get the wrong person. But I think the chances of that person being convicted and sentenced to death are far less than if justice/revenge were left in the hands of the people who have been hurt.

    3. Ooohh...I don't remember ever seeing that episode. I'll have to look it up when I get a chance. I think that justice can boil down to revenge when it's left to the hands of the people closest to the victim. They're the ones, in my mind, most likely to want to visit the suffering of the victim on the criminal in equal measure. With the onus of punishment placed on the government, a body that is not emotionally involved, punishment is punishment. To my mind, taking 'revenge' out of the hands of the people to whom instinct says it most rightly belongs and handing it over to a neutral body helps change it from revenge to justice. The fate of the accused is taken out of the hands of people who are suffering and grieving and given to those who can look at the evidence, whatever may exist, and decide with clearer heads. I don't think it's perfect justice, but it's closer than if we'd left it to the hands of the ones left behind.

    4. The Catholic position does make a certain amount of sense. My problem with it is that there is no way to keep, 100% for certain, these people away from others. To entirely neutralize the threat of them until their deaths from natural causes. It's perhaps mostly effective, and getting more so all the time with better tech and training for the jailers, but it's not 100%.

  4. Susanne,

    I'm glad Sol suggested it!


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...