Thursday, September 8, 2011

Death Penalty III

Part I
Part II

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.


  1. *applauds*

    I think this is the best description of how to personally live by religion while maintaining that necessary separation...and done in a way that shows that is actually something required not just by law but by Christian teaching!

    I was in a group discussion about this in class yesterday, and we all had trouble with this. I'm heavily against mixing the two, obviously, and so I let my fellow student know it bothered me that she broke the rules and asked clients to pray with her at her government job. She understood that, but none of us could figure out how to both live authentically by our faiths and allow others not to have that forced on them. If only I'd read this first. :) Can I paraphrase you for next time?

    I find it incredibly creepy and messed up that people who have been convicted of child molestation or similar crimes are allowed to watch kid shows...I feel like that goes far beyond freedom and right into training them for their next crime. I don't know about the legal considerations of this, but maybe prisons should start using those parental control things to block out content that they know is being used badly. It's like letting people in rehab watch the early seasons of House all the time...yeah it's just a show and they should have their freedom, but that doesn't mean it's not triggering and that the people in charge shouldn't pay attention to what they're watching and use some discretion in what they allow.

  2. Thanks! :D

    Sure, go right ahead and paraphrase. Happy I could be of some help.

    I'm really uncomfortable with her asking people to pray with her at her job too, by the way. That's not good.

    Me too! I didn't know that until I was talking with this friend. I was like...really? They don't see anything wrong with letting them do that? Ew. Ew. Ew. There should be some sort of content control for people like that.

  3. Sorry I haven't (re)read this before now, but I was saving it. :)

    Really good stuff here. I enjoyed your examples and arguments and quotes from the church scholars/fathers.

    The part about the pedophiles watching kid shows jumped out to me as well! It seems they could have the TVs set to only a few stations so those perps couldn't watch shows about children. That's so wrong!

    Thanks for sharing these posts again. I'm enjoying the review!

  4. Susanne,

    It's very creepy. Very. I couldn't believe it when she told me. *shudder*


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