Some Thoughts on Christianity and Capital Punishment
1. The conversations among Christians (and of Christians to the state) become confused because issues are not properly disentangled from each other:
* In a context of separation of church and state what does Christian ethics have to do with the secular state? Can Christians dictate to the secular state Christian ethics when the society is pluralistic?
*Has God given a “sword” (divine right to punish offenders with death and to wage just wars) to the state even if not to the church?
*How ought Christians to speak about Christian ethics in the “public square” when the public square (public space shared all people in a society) is secular and pluralistic?
2. Without properly separating these issues—public versus private ethics, government versus religious justice, etc.—conversations about capital punishment (and war) get bogged down and rarely go forward—even among Christians.
3. For example: Suppose I, as a Christian, conclude that there is a “trajectory” within God’s revelation (in Scripture) (“progressive revelation”) away from use of deadly force toward peace and mercy such that, in contrast to the Old Testament, the New Testament forbids Christians from practicing deadly force. What does that have to do with secular government? Can I shake my finger at secular government and insist it follow Christian ethics and abolish capital punishment because it is forbidden in the New Testament? Secular government doesn’t recognize the New Testament as any foundation for its own ethic of justice.
4. Martin Luther (and other Protestant Reformers) believed in a kind of separation of church and state in which God has established “two kingdoms”—the kingdom of God (God’s people, the church) and the kingdom of the world (government, orders and structures of society). According to him (and those who agreed with him which includes almost all the Reformers except the “radical Reformers”—Anabaptists) God commands the state to pick up the “sword” (use of deadly force) to hinder and punish evildoers and keep order in society. This continues until Christ returns. But God commands his people, within the church and among themselves, outside the “realm” of government, to practice mercy and forgiveness. So, according to this pervasive traditional Protestant ethic, a single individual Christian should support capital punishment by the state but practice only peace and mercy and forgiveness within the sphere of God’s people.
5. That traditional idea of “two kingdoms”—often unknown and misunderstood by opponents of capital punishment—complicates discussions about capital punishment when it is ignored. A Christian who argues against capital punishment needs to at least deal with the “two kingdoms” idea.
*Is the two kingdoms idea wrong? If so, why? And if so, how to avoid theocracy (where the church dictates its ethics to government and the public in general)?
*If a Christian who opposes capital punishment wishes to persuade government to abolish capital punishment, how should he or she go about when government itself assumes something like the two kingdoms theory?
6. Suppose that, as a Christian, I personally oppose capital punishment? Why? What are my reasons (beyond personally disliking it)? Suppose they are based solely on biblical revelation and imitation of Jesus, etc. Suppose that I nevertheless wish to persuade secular government to abolish capital punishment. How to I speak to secular government about it? If I meet with a groups of lawmakers to talk about capital punishment, what reasons can/should I give to persuade them to abolish capital punishment? If I give Christian reasons, what persuasive force should they have for secular government?
*A close analogy here is the abolition of slavery and the temperance movement to abolish selling alcoholic beverages. But in both cases those were times when most people in government at least claimed to be Christian and believed Christian ethics did have proper influence in government. That is no longer as accepted as it was then. Even then, however, Christian involved in abolition of slavery and temperance (abolition of alcoholic beverages) had to add secular arguments to their religious ethical arguments before government stepped in.
7. Must we not distinguish between personal reasons/motives for opposing capital punishment and public reasons for opposing it—in our current situation of secular government and social pluralism?
*My personal reasons may be religious and sound, but how much influence can and should those have in public discourse?
*If I say they should have much influence in public discourse, what do I say about non- Christian reasons? Should they be excluded from public discourse? Should all reasons be given equal hearing and influence? If so, what about (for example) Church of Satan or Aryan Nation or other fringe groups? Who decides in a pluralistic society which opinions to follow?
8. Suppose I strongly oppose capital punishment for religious reasons (e.g., “What would Jesus do?”) but recognize that I live in a pluralist society and that government is secular. What would be the best approach to persuading government to abolish capital punishment?
*Might I keep my religious motives and reasons within the church but use secular arguments when speaking to government?
*What secular arguments could I use when speaking to government about capital punishment?
9. Secular opponents of capital punishment use secular arguments. Might I borrow theirs—even if my personal reasons for opposing it are primarily religious? Might I even join with them to oppose capital punishment even though our motives, reasons, are different? Might government be more likely to listen if religious and secular people come together and use only secular reasons for arguing that capital punishment should be abolished?
*This doesn’t necessarily mean hiding my religious beliefs and motivations; it just means putting them aside in the public square where people speak to government about laws and using only secular, non-religious, arguments.
10. What are some secular reasons for opposing capital punishment?
*It is impossible to be certain that a convicted person is guilty; new evidence may turn up in the future that will exonerate him or her. Capital punishment presumes absolute certainty which is impossible.
*There is no sure way to avoid executing innocent people in a system with capital punishment.
*Capital punishment constitutes unnecessary deadly force: “Life without parole” does everything the death penalty does except satisfy blood lust for vengeance which should play no role in justice.
*”Life without parole” is less expensive than capital punishment.
*Everywhere capital punishment exists poor people and minorities are more likely to suffer it than rich majority people. It is unlikely that this would ever change.
11. The above reasons are secular because they do not rely on revelation from God, personal feelings, or religious traditions. (However, postmodern philosophy teaches us that “secular” does not mean “view from nowhere” so even the reasons given above and called “secular” are not superior to non-secular reasons. They are simply reasons based on social consensus. Most people in our pluralistic society agree that executing innocent people is not good and that applying the death penalty unequally is also bad. So the appeal I’m calling “secular” is really just to social consensus which seems the only way to go forward in public ethics in a pluralistic society. Nothing I have said here in any way forbids Christians from continuing to make their case against capital punishment on religious grounds. It just realistically recognizes that in a pluralistic society such as ours such arguments are not likely to hold much weight and that those who make them to government have to live with the consequence that others will argue for the opposite based on their religious grounds and that might even lead to Christians being punished for holding their views and making them in the public square.)