The All in One Death Penalty Post

Various responses to various remarks herein. Then, I think I will have said my piece.

A reader sez:

No one wants the state to kill “as many people as it can.”

Actually, that is pretty much what people are arguing. Greg Krehbiel gives as his first rational for the DP the appeal to Genesis 9: “God commands it.” If “God commands it” than we are bound to be death penalty maximalists. The “command” (allegedly) is “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God He made man”. That “command” must be enforced as often as humanly possible (if “command” it be) and so we really are asking that the State kill as many citizens as the “command” permits and we are asking to limit that command only under extraordinary circumstances (as when God personally abrogates the death sentence for David).

In my view, all this depends, of course, on whether Gen 9:6 is a “command” or a “permission.” I would argue that like the permission of divorce, the death penalty is a concession to human weakness, not a positive good. Just as Jesus could point to more primal revelation and say “from the beginning it was not so”, so we can look further back than the Noahide covenant and see murderers (Cain and Lamech) whose lives are spared. And, of course, we have the example of capital offenders (like the woman taken in adultery) whose lives were spared by our Lord. Appeals to things like the textual problem of John 8 are frankly lame in my book. We know John 8 is inspired exactly the way we know the rest of Scripture is inspired: due to the infallible teaching of Holy Church. If somebody says, “We don’t know who wrote John 8, the only sensible reply is “We don’t know who wrote Hebrews or 2 Samuel either. So what?”

I would argue with Kevin’s claim that the Pope is calling for the “abolition” of the DP. I think a better way to conceive of the discussion is that the Pope is acknowledging that Caesar has a right to his sword, but that there is a wide spectrum of ways in which it can be applied ranging from “as often as humanly possible” to “only when the convicted poses an ongoing danger to innocent human life.” The Pope does not say the DP is immoral. He simply urges it be used as sparingly as possible. He can, so far as I can see, only do this if he regards Gen 9:6 as a concession, not a “command.” And if the weakness of human sin can be adequately defended against by other means (such as imprisonment) then it is to be prefered to killing people. The challenge is not, as maximalists assert, for death penalty minimalists to show when the Church previously opposed capital punishment. For, of course, the Church still does not “oppose” capital punishment. It does not say it is intrinsically immoral. Rather, the challenge is for maximalists to show a time when the Church taught that the death penalty was a “command” in the nature of a positive good that must be obeyed in every single case. This will be tough sledding since the Church’s history is honeycombed with examples of capital criminals receiving mercy at the urging of the Church. So it does come down to the question of “How often must this legitimate penalty be employed?” The Pope says, “As sparingly as possible, because it’s a concession to human weakness, not a positive good.” not “Never, because it’s intrinsically immoral.”

Attempts to cast the DP as a positive good and not as a concession seem to me to be attempts to baptize vengeance. I’ve already mentioned Buckley’s “we just wanted to kill him” remark (he was talking about Eichmann). But other attempts strike me as doing the same thing. Over on Amy’s blog, one reader relishes fixating our attention on “how you’d feel if you were a family member of a victim” and suggesting that only those who thirst for the blood of the murderer can have any real empathy with victims. But what he inadvertantly does is conclude that strong enough feelings of anguish and bitterness justify killing somebody. I find this hard to square with Christian moral teaching. Of course, I can point you to divorcees and cuckolds who feel every bit as anguished and bitter. So should we stone adulteresses to death too? Realizing the failure of this approach, some backpedal into the realm of “established jurisprudence” (“It’s not about victim’s lust for blood, but about the rule of Law!”). But, of course, established jurisprudence in most civilized countries has done away with the DP. At which point, DP supporters turn to “divine revelation” as superior to “mere Euro-weenie human wisdom” and again attempt to claim that Gen 9:6 is a positive good and not a concession. This “restless fertility of bewilderment” adds to my suspicion that the maximal DP position is incoherent and that the Pope’s position makes the most sense: acknowledge it’s not intrinsically immoral, but limit it as much as possible.

Another point: Greg keeps baffling me by speaking as though not executing a murderer is tantamount to not punishing them, and then further baffles me by saying this will somehow lead to a disbelief in Hell. Maybe it’s because I was suckled on the Twilight Zone, but I can think of nothing more awful than a life in a cell prefiguring an endless eternity of stifling boredom. I’ve believed in limiting the death penalty all my life. It has not persuaded me that a) sin goes unpunished nor that b) hell is unreal.

Finally, I reiterate my point that there is something crazily suicidal about urging a post-Christian state (which is not the same thing as a pre-Christian pagan state) to take up the sword and start killing people. Such a state tends to embrace “might makes right” ethics in ways that even pagans would have trembled at. As our culture becomes more anti-Christian, begging Caesar to kill people he deems dangerous to the State seems… well… stupid for Christians to do. Rather like signing our own death warrant.