Christians and the Death Penalty

Christians and the Death Penalty August 1, 2014

Why should Christians (and other Americans) oppose the death penalty, at least as currently practiced in the United States?

Not because it is unbiblical. Several months back, Mark Tooley rather helpfully corrected a post of mine on this point. Prior to the particular laws given to Moses, God told Noah and his sons: “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man.” One could debate the extent to which the verse applies to wartime actions; however, the biblical consequences for murder are quite clear. Those who murder others forfeit their own lives in the eyes of God.

Not because it is inherently cruel. It is not inherently immoral, unethical, or cruel to execute individuals whose crimes lead the public to demand the ultimate punishment. Even most opponents of the death penalty will often make exceptions for unusual circumstances, such as in the case of Osama bin Laden or in the case of a serial murderer whose guilt seems entirely conclusive.

“Botched” executions have, perhaps, tilted arguments over the death penalty in the favor of its opponents. Most recently, it took two hours for a convicted double-murderer in Arizona to die by lethal injection. An attorney for the executed Joseph Wood described his final travails as follows: “About two or three minutes later [after he was sedated], I noticed his lips moved slightly … And then two minutes after that, he was gasping for air. He started breathing. And he was pressing up against the restraining straps. And that went on for about an hour.” It is uncertain whether or not (or how much) pain Wood endured during his execution. Arizona Senator John McCain labeled the process “torture.”

Why did Wood suffer for so long? Lethal injections have become complicated recently, because states face difficulties in utilizing the standard protocol because pharmaceutical companies increasingly refuse to provide the correct drugs. So, who is to blame for whatever cruelty Wood suffered? The state of Arizona? The pharmaceutical companies? In a sense, the more “botched” an execution, the greater the public relations gain for death penalty opponents. The latter and the pharmaceutical companies, one might argue, are playing a very cruel game by their own ethical standards.

There are almost certainly less cruel ways to execute individuals, as Chief Judge Alex Kozinski of the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals wrote in a dissent to one of Woods’s appeals:

If we as a society want to carry out executions, we should be willing to face the fact that the state is committing a horrendous brutality on our behalf.

If some states and the federal government wish to continue carrying out the death penalty, they must turn away from this misguided path and return to more primitive – and foolproof – methods of execution. The guillotine is probably best but seems inconsistent with our national ethos. And the electric chair, hanging and the gas chamber are each subject to occasional mishaps. The firing squad strikes me as the most promising. Eight or ten large-caliber rifle bullets fired at close range can inflict massive damage, causing instant death every time… Sure, firing squads can be messy, but if we are willing to carry out executions, we should not shield ourselves from the reality that we are shedding human blood.

The gallows humor in this rather chatty dissent strikes me as unusual, but Kozinski’s point is persuasive.

The death penalty’s constitutionality (or comportment with Christian ethics) should not hinge on the particular method used. Perhaps some methods are crueler, but it is a grave act to execute a human being in any event. Nevertheless, the idea that only a death both immediate and free from pain meets either constitutional or biblical standards makes little sense.

Because it is impractical, for a host of reasons:

– The evidence that the death penalty deters crimes is, at best, debatable.

– There is a chance slim, that the state will execute an innocent person.

– As with nearly all laws, it is impossible to apply the death penalty with full equity in terms of race and socioeconomic standing.

– It will become increasingly difficult for states to utilize lethal injection, and there is very little public support for more efficient methods such as the return of firing squads.

The death penalty is not inherently unbiblical or un-Christian. It is, however, entirely impractical in today’s United States. As Judge Kozinski writes, “I don’t understand why the game is worth the candle.”

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  • John Read

    I would disagree with this exegesis. God only introduces the principle of life for a life in Genesis 9, but to apply a principle taken from Jesus’ teaching on divorce “from the beginning it was not so.” In Genesis 4 God punishes Cain for Abel’s murder but does not kill him or allow others to kill him. The principle of life for a life in Genesis 9 is a bandaid solution to prevent the unending multiplication of violence begun by Cain’s descendant Lamech and culminating in the mass violence that led God to send the flood.

    Jesus inaugurates the new Creation, and everything begins to be restored to God’s original purpose. Divorce, which was a bandaid for broken relationships is recognized as a sin, and so too for the death penalty. This is why Jesus does not allow the woman taken in adultery to be killed in John’s Gospel (though adultery is a capital crime in the Torah) – in the Kingdom/New Creation the rule of death no longer applies. Therefore Christians must not practice it.

  • Antiphon411

    The Church (Catholic of course) has always supported the State’s right to execute criminals. John Paul II muddled that as he did with many things.

    We should go back to a more efficient method. Firing squad sounds good.

    Racial disparities? Execute more whites. So far as I understand the statistics, blacks are responsible for violent crimes at a level disproportionate to their slice of the population.

    Executing innocent people? Raise the standards. Many murders are open and shut cases. Where there is doubt, don’t execute. There was no doubt with Richard Ramirez or Jeffrey Dahmer or a fellow who murdered an acquaintance of mine. Scott Peterson: there was some doubt.

    No deterrence? No problem. The primary motive of punishment is retribution and righting the scales of justice. All other motives are secondary. That is a classical ethics question.

  • Andrew Dowling

    So anything you happen to disagree with post Vatican II is not a church policy? Are you an actual Roman Catholic or with St. Pius X or one of those other fringe groups who live in delusion-ville 365?

  • Antiphon411

    If the Church has always taught that something is so and suddenly teaches that it is not so, I go with the teaching that is hallowed by centuries of use.

    The Church has always said that capital punishment is just and suddenly JPII says a Catholic must object to it. Can right and wrong change? Are the Church’s teachings mere whims to be blown this way and that in accordance with changing fashions?

    There is nothing intrinsically wrong with the death penalty. A Catholic is free to support it.