Struggle With the Death Penalty

When my high school government class held a series of debates against another class, I charged in at full steam.  The teachers had agreed not to interfere, but they let me know in private that if I wanted to offer some “assistance” to other debate teams from my class, I could.  I did just that, helping each team research concepts for their issue (social security reform, abortion, education spending, etc), showing them how to lay out key points in an argument, and sharing ideas for the short video each team was asked to produce to support their view.

Our crowning achievement came in the midst of the death penalty debate.  At first it went badly; we found that it is almost impossible to make a strong argument for the death penalty as a deterrent. We found that putting a person through the entire death row process was actually more expensive than giving a person life without parole.  We found constitutional arguments impossible so long as our government allows some states to use the death penalty and some some to ban it.  But then we hit upon an idea that became our crown jewel.

By splicing together violent scenes and the closing arguments from the movie A Time to Kill, we created a tale of indescribable evil with vivid imagery and gut-wrenching descriptions.  After the video played, the class listened silently as our debate team made a simple but powerful distinction.  Some crime is just crime.  But some crime is pure evil, and locking up the perpetrator is not enough.

***

The recent executions of Troy Davis and Lawrence Russell Brewer are perfect examples of why the death penalty question is so difficult.  One might argue that in the case of Davis, the death penalty was wielded as a sort of, “strongest penalty we have,” in a murder case that was full of questions and changes and doubts.  Meanwhile, the case of Lawrence Russell Brewer’s hate crime murder was so heinous and disturbing that the penalty was given as a sort of, “least we can do,” in the face of enormous evil.

I hope these two cases cause you to think carefully about your stance on the death penalty.  I’ll talk about where I stand in a moment, but I confess I do not stand there strongly.  This issue is a tough one for Christians because Scripture does not seem to give a clear and certain prescription for this issue in our current context.  So first I want to give you a road map for settling your own mind with a series of questions that deserve investigation.

First, a pragmatic question.  Does the death penalty prevent crime?  Given that we cannot change our system of appeals (a good thing, I think), does the death penalty as it works now have a significant reductive influence on crime in those areas where it is legal?  Too often people answer this question with thought experiments or hypotheticals.   What does the data seem to show?

Second, what are some of the various reasons a governing entity might make use of capital punishment?  Which of those reasons seem valid and which do not?  For instance, let us say for a moment that the data shows the death penalty does not reduce crime.  If, “crime prevention,” is the key reason a government uses the death penalty, suddenly that reason is invalid, is it not?  At the same time, let us say that, “sending a message that unrepentant evil will not be allowed to survive,” is an important reason.  This may still be valid.  Understanding why you are doing something is a big key to evaluating whether it is right or wrong, foolish or wise.

Third, what are some of the things God says about capital punishment?  Try as I might, I cannot find anything to suggest he is inherently against it.  Jewish law was full of capital punishment specifically commanded by God, and nowhere does he condemn it in the New Testament.

And yet, it is also clear that God wants us to carry the gospel to all people, that he does not desire than any should perish, and that we are to love and turn the other cheek to our enemies, banishing evil hatred from our hearts.  These qualities seem to compete directly with the emotions that are encouraged in capital punishment cases: vengeance, closure, peace through punishment, hope for pain and even hell as the lot of the criminal.

Once you have worked through these questions, I encourage you to take what you understand to be the most God-honoring position possible.  But be wise, this one is tricky and wiser people than you and I have disagreed on it for ages.

I said I would share my perspective, so here it is. As a Christian, I do not want to see anyone die without hearing the gospel.  And having heard it, I want them to hear it again and again until they submit to it.  My hope is that men given life without parole will hear and respond to the gospel, and will then use their position within the prison system to reach out to other prisoners.  The vast majority of the time, then, I believe incarceration is the healthiest and best method of punishment we have.

But I also believe capital punishment is a tool given to earthly authorities to be wielded with wisdom.  As Augustine said, “Since the agent of authority is but a sword in the hand [of God], it is in no way contrary to the commandment `Thou shalt not kill’ for the representative of the state’s authority to put criminals to death.” So I am in favor of the death penalty for cases in which the crime displays an extreme rejection of social compacts.

In other words, the person’s crime is a loud and clear, “Screw you!” to society and all it stands for.  The case of Lawrence Russell Brewer is one good example, in which he beat and dragged a man to death primarily out of hatred for the man’s race.  Timothy McVeigh, the Unabomber, and the Nazis involved in the Holocaust might be others.  I affirm the right of the state to take a clear stand against evil that rises to special prominence because it willfully rejects the very principles that allow us to live in peace.  But I think those moments should be few and far between; in fact, they should be much more rare than they are currently.

Your perspective may be different than mine, and that is fine.  I cannot claim perfect Scriptural authority on this issue.  But I beg you to wrestle with it.  As I discovered in high school, capital punishment is an issue fraught with complexity, competing statistics, and high emotion.  It is more complex than crime deterrence, and it is tied more closely to our human ethics than most other issues.

How we understand the role of punishment and justice in our society says a lot about how we view other things as well.  And how we as Christians approach issues like these with both love and justice says a lot about the God we serve.  May we all display wisdom in our pursuit.

About Ben Bartlett

Ben Bartlett lives in Louisville, Ky., with his wife and two terrific kids. His degree is in Political Theory and Constitutional Democracy from Michigan State University, and he has a bunch of education from a bunch of other places with nothing official to show for it. He has taught high school speech and debate, worked for a congressman in Washington DC, and worked in the health and energy industries. He is interested in how pop culture, history, politics, and theology interact with the inner and community lives of individuals... which is weird because he now works as a business analyst. Few things make him happier than reading, discussing, and recommending books.

  • http://www.alienman.blogspot.com Brad Williams

    Ben,

    In thinking through the death penalty “Biblically”, I am struck by how it seems that the foundation for capital punishment rests in man being made in the image of God. That is, in the case of murder, it seems that the death penalty is given because the murder is an assault on the image of God.

    If this is the reason for the death penalty for murder, then any other benefit would be secondary. By that, I mean if the death penalty serves as a deterrent then that would be good, but not the foundation for doing it. Capital punishment in the Bible seems to me to be reserved for those sins that are “high handed” against God. That is, in one way or another, God takes capital crimes as a direct assault against His law, which also reveals His character.

    I believe that capital punishment serves as a reminder that God is sovereign, and that He appoints the governments of the world to uphold His law. Now, this makes it difficult for me to argue (in the best sense) for capital punishment in the secular realm because any argument I make will be secondary reasons by nature, and therefore it weakens my resolve to make them. I wonder if that isn’t why you may be experiencing the same type of dilemma? What do you think?

  • Jeff Cavanaugh

    I pretty much agree with Brad. I take two biblical passages as fundamental in establishing capital punishment. First, Genesis 9:5-6 establishes that because man is made in God’s image, killing a human is such a heinous offense that it deserves death. Second, Romans 13 makes it clear that this principle hasn’t been abrogated under the new covenant, and establishes “secular” governmental authorities as the ones tasked with carrying out capital punishment where it is warranted. Civil rulers are given “the sword,” the power of execution, in order to act as God’s agents to bring his temporal wrath on murderers. So, in light of these two texts, I understand capital punishment to be justified on grounds of retribution – that is, the just punishment that an offense deserves – alone, without considering other grounds. If it does have a deterrent effect, well and good, but deterrence isn’t necessary for capital punishment to be just.

    Now, that’s what I believe as to the theory of capital punishment. But as far as its actual employment in the US, I’ve become deeply concerned about the propriety of our using the death penalty and I’m almost to the point of wanting a moratorium on executions for the forseeable future. The Troy Davis case is just the latest in a long, long line of suspect convictions that, upon further examination, prove to be suspect at best and obviously wrong at worst. The success of groups like The Innocence Project at overturning wrongful convictions (of mostly black males, mostly in the South) using DNA evidence indicates that our justice system is seriously flawed and needs serious reform. When capital punishment is in the picture, the stakes are too high for systemic problems like this to be ignored, and the present likelihood of wrongful executions may be too high for us to continue employing the death penalty at all.

    Of course, no justice system will ever be perfect; there will always be the possibility of wrongful convictions and executions. But I think that, given where we seem to be as a nation, we should seriously consider abolishing or suspending the death penalty unless and until the justice system is thoroughly reformed.

  • http://www.alienman.blogspot.com Brad Williams

    Jeff,

    I appreciate your comment, and I thank you for adding the Bible references that I was apparently too lazy to add.

    I’d like to ask you a question that bothers me. The Biblical structure for the death penalty required only the witness of two or more persons. At their testimony, the accused could be condemned. It seems to me that if we discontinue the practice of capital punishment because of our modern racial and class bias, then we would also undermine the integrity of the system that God introduced in the Scripture. In those days, God only required the sworn testimony of a couple of faithful witnesses, now we normally require much more than that, and yet we still believe the system is insufficient. How do we square these things?

  • Ben Bartlett

    Hey guys,

    I think you both hit it right on the head. As I said in the article, I DO affirm the right of secular government to make use of capital punishment. I think God very clearly gives that power to the state. But I think many times we make the mistake of believing the rights of the state and the beliefs of the individual should be in perfect alignment, and I’m not convinced that’s the case. And I think it should be the desire of Christians that even the greatest sinner should have opportunity to hear and respond to the gospel in repentance. So I tend to believe these things:

    1. The state has the right to enact capital punishment.
    2. That right should be used not as retribution or to satisfy a desire for vengence, but to make a statement about the intolerability of challenging our common social contracts.
    3. It should only be used in situations of extreme clarity.
    3. The individual Christian should desire that every opportunity be given to even the worst sinner to repent and be saved. I do NOT think the Christian should be glib or gleeful or overly affirming of the death penalty as an automatic response to crime (consider the case of Christ and the adulterous woman, for example).

    So Brad, I do agree with you generally, but keep in mind that there the death penalty is given in the OT for more crimes than just murder. We live in a very different time and place now, and I think our beliefs about use of capital punishment have to interact with the fact that we have a secular government and a plethora of religious perspectives. That’s why I tend to say the death penalty should be used for extreme violations of social contracts on the basis of the government’s role of protecting the general welfare.

    Jeff, you raise a great point about the disturbing trends we see in use of capital punishment. That’s why, again, I tend to distinguish between unrepentant people going to war against the very fabric of our society vs. people committing crimes. There are times for the death penalty, yes… but nowhere near as much as we see it being used now, I think.

    Thanks again for the good thoughts, guys.

  • Ben Bartlett

    Regarding your follow-up, Brad, I think there are a LOT of areas where we don’t maintain the system God set up for the monotheistic state of Israel in the OT. We simply don’t live in that time anymore, and I don’t think the system of law, especially the technicalities of what crime receives what punishment, exist for us anymore. After all, the OT never speaks of drugs… does that mean they should be legalized?

    The central realities for the Christian in regard to government and citizenship are these: First, that Christ calls us to a law that is higher than even the OT law. Second, we are to submit to the authorities. And third, that if there is a conflict between the two, we choose to submit to God before the authorities.

    With capital punishment, the story of Christ and the adulterous woman clearly displays the fact that as citizens of the state Christians are not REQUIRED to push for enactment of OT law. Christ himself did not push for the death penalty in a situation in which he could have done just that! Instead I think we are called to proclaim the Kingdom of God with love and mercy and grace.

    That said, I also do not think we can argue that the state does not have the right to protect its definition of citizenship through use of capital punishment, because that right is so clearly given to the state in the OT.

    That’s how I get to this view… the individual Christian focuses on proclaiming the gospel. The state should rarely and wisely exercise its right to capital punishment. And we should pray for God’s help for those Christians thrust into the difficult situation of acting both as a Christian and as the executer of secular laws (i.e. governors asked to sign off on death penalties).

  • http://www.alienman.blogspot.com Brad Williams

    Ben,

    I didn’t mean to imply that we should maintain systems set up for monotheistic state of Israel in the OT. (That’s a mouthful!) I only wanted to point out that God deemed it just to execute persons on the witness of two people. Now we have a multitude of witnesses like DNA, video surveillance and tracking numbers on weapons, ballistics data, and forensics labs. Yet, we still get very nervous with all of this data that we might execute the “wrong guy”.

    God tells us that it is sufficient to settle a matter upon the testimony of two or three witnesses. This is even in the NT, although not connected with the death penalty except in Heb. 10:28. (See Matt. 18:16; 2 Cor. 13:1; 1 Tim. 5:19). Is it just to establish guilt on the testimony of two or three witnesses? If it is, it seems to me that the current system is working fine because we go far beyond that requirement!

    Therein lies the problem: in this age we are counting more on technology to solve the problem than human eye witnesses. I’m not saying that this is right or wrong, I’m saying that there is something to be thought about there. That is, if we still convicted men and women of capital crimes based on the witness of two or three people, how would that fundamentally change society and capital punishment itself?

    I do not think that we have the luxury of saying that ruling on the eyewitness of two or three people is unjust, or that it is even insufficient. Why, do you think, is that not enough evidence to convict today? Why, despite the fact that we have far more checks on a case than the Bible requires, do we feel less certain of justice, perhaps, than we used to when less evidence was required for a guilty verdict?

  • http://www.alienman.blogspot.com Brad Williams

    And while you are solving all that, we can figure out what this all has to do with race. ;) You may have to write another article.

  • Jeff Cavanaugh

    Ben,

    I think we differ somewhat on the grounds of the state’s right/responsibility to wield the death penalty, unless we mean different things by retribution. I do think retribution – the just punishment that the crime deserves – is an appropriate motive, and is sufficient in itself to justify capital punishment without reference to protecting a social contract. The juxtaposition of Genesis 9 and Romans 13 leads me to say that God has given government the task of protecting his image by protecting human life, and this entails punishing those who take life wrongly. It is true that government has a responsibility to promote the general welfare, but in my view that isn’t the only or even the primary motive for capital punishment.

    I largely agree with your perspective on how individual Christians should view situations where the death penalty is in view. We should certainly pray for the repentance and faith of everyone, including murderers on death row. I don’t think it’s inconsistent, though, for a Christian as a citizen of the state tasked with wielding the sword to endorse – humbly, sorrowfully, never gleefully – the execution of a just punishment. At least, I don’t think it’s any bigger of a conflict than those we are thrust into every day by our dual citizenships here and in heaven.

    Brad, Ben’s right on the whole two witnesses thing. That was a stipulation of OT law given to Israel for specific purposes at that place and point in time. I take the Genesis text to be a fundamental creation ordinance that predates Israel and sets up fundamental principles that endure as long as this world does. So, today, we get our justification for capital punishment from the OT, but not every detail about how it is employed.

  • Jeff Cavanaugh

    Brad, the Law also forbids bearing false witness against one’s neighbor. In requiring two witnesses, the Law also expected those witnesses to be faithful to all the terms of the covenant Israel made with God. And the testimony of two witnesses never would have been accepted in OT courts if the two were buddies known to have a grudge against the defendant, had been badgered and cajoled by police and prosecutors into giving testimony that was a lot more certain than they really felt, and the defendant had had a dodgy confession beaten out of him that didn’t match up with any of the facts of the case. In other words, the formal requirement of two witnesses wouldn’t have contravened obvious principles of justice.

    In the modern state, there’s no expectation of honesty or covenant faithfulness before God. Swearing to tell the whole truth and nothing but is a poor imitation. If we lived in a similar society as OT Israel and could be certain of the honesty and reliability of two witnesses, I might be OK with assigning the death penalty based on their testimony. But that’s an impossibility today.

  • http://www.alienman.blogspot.com Brad Williams

    Jeff,

    Perhaps your comment came as my second was coming in and you didn’t get my response. I believe it is irrelevant that the two or three witnesses clause was given for theocratic Israel. For one, the NT utilizes the same standard. Secondly, the question is not whether God ordained it, but whether it was just. Do you think it was just of God to have guilt established on the testimony of two or three persons? If it is just, then why do we shrink from that standard now?

    I think there is a great point to be made here. The reason we shrink from this standard is because we know that people will be mistaken from time to time, and even worse, we know that people will lie. Therefore, the likelihood of an innocent person being executed by mistake or bias is much greater under the OT system.

    In order to solve this problem, we have pushed the burden of “testimony” more and more away from people and onto forensic science. In doing so, however, we are still dealing with the problem of uncertainty. Why?

    In the OT days, if you lived next door to a man who was a notorious liar, he was a far greater danger to you then than he is now. Hence, the likelihood of his community putting up with him was far less than it is now. Why? Because a liar will get you killed. An irresponsible man can bring you to ruin. Now, we have made a system that we fall back on that may actually allow liars to proliferate because we are trusting the system and not testimonies to save us from them. Isn’t that odd?

    And what does this do to the idea of man as judge? Back in the day, “Joe Smith” had to take the stand, point at the accused and say, “I saw you do it, mister. And you are going to hang today because I have testified to it.” Scary place? Does this make our personal responsibility for our words go up or down?

    This article and discussion has made me think about a lot of things, and I’ve probably spammed up this comment section too much by putting my thoughts out there. But I’ll close with this: I think that we live in a world that would generally say that they believe men are basically good. But they don’t really believe that. They don’t believe it because they would flip out if we went back to a “two or three witnesses” system because they know better than to trust people like that. That’s an interesting discussion to get into with someone who thinks that people are basically good, isn’t it?

  • http://www.alienman.blogspot.com Brad Williams

    Jeff,

    We posted at the same time. Sorry. I was not responding to your most recent comment.

  • Ben Bartlett

    Hey Jeff,

    Thanks for the distinction. By, “retribution,” I merely meant it wouldn’t be right for the state to execute simply because we’re angry about something. That’s not to say they cannot, just that it ought to be based in something higher than anger.

    One area this is especially evident is that of justice between races. I believe there are still serious systemic racism problems in this country, but there was a time when they were far worse. And in that time, a black man raping a white woman would incite far more anger at the governmental level than a white man raping a black woman. As a result, the “retribution” of the government would be far more harsh for the first rather than the second. My point is that the government should not be guided merely by emotions of the majority, but by a principle that is as just and consistent for all as possible.

    I can appreciate your perspective on my little social contract idea. I confess it is not rooted in any strong Scriptural perspective. It’s just my view that the death penalty has become a national sore point because it seems to be (is?) used disproportionately, and I’m looking for a standard that all citizens can agree on. There seems to me to be some sort of separation between, say, the DC sniper or the Oklahoma City bomber on one hand, and a bipolar man of questionable mental capacity killing his girlfriend in a fit of anger on the other. All of the above are horrific, to be sure, but to me the intentional destruction of the social contract separates them. I’d like to see SOME way of distinguishing rather than the approach we have in place today. But like I say, I don’t stand too strongly on that perspective, it’s more of an idea than anything else.


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