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.