Against Capital Punishment

Against Capital Punishment August 8, 2018

When Paul wrote to the Ephesians, he told them that by becoming Christian, they were now to set themselves apart from the customs which they once followed that ran contrary to the Christian faith. They were not to live like the Gentiles they had been:

Now this I affirm and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds; they are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart; they have become callous and have given themselves up to licentiousness, greedy to practice every kind of uncleanness  (Eph. 4:17-19 RSV).

Paul, known as the teacher of the Gentiles who welcomed them to the Christian in part by enculturating himself with them so that they did not have to mirror Judaic customs and practices in order to be Christian, knew that they could not remain as they once were. They would have to purify themselves of their base prejudices and practices which came out of their unrefined way of life. To seek the life of God they had to open their hearts and overcome all callousness which allowed them to ignore the plight of their neighbor.

This callousness was not something which only Paul had to face. It is a problem which has been with Christians throughout the centuries. They rightfully look to the good in their own society and embrace it, but in doing so, they often take in biases and prejudices which run counter to the Gospel of Christ.  Among the most significant of these problems is the lack of care and concern which develops for human life. Christians must be called, time and time again, to the message of the Gospel, to the message of the Sermon of the Mount, to see that we are called to love our neighbor as ourselves because they are loved by God. Everyone has been given a dignity which no one can take away from them because God made them to be in his image and likeness. This message exists not only in the Sermon of the Mount, but throughout all of Scripture. This is how and why Pope Saint John Paul II indicated that the Sermon of the Mount brought to perfection what was established in the Ten Commandments:

The commandment regarding the inviolability of human life reverberates at the heart of the “ten words” in the covenant of Sinai (cf. Ex 34:28). In the first place that commandment prohibits murder: “You shall not kill” (Ex 20:13); “do not slay the innocent and righteous” (Ex 23:7). But, as is brought out in Israel’s later legislation, it also prohibits all personal injury inflicted on another (cf. Ex 21:12-27). Of course we must recognize that in the Old Testament this sense of the value of life, though already quite marked, does not yet reach the refinement found in the Sermon on the Mount. This is apparent in some aspects of the current penal legislation, which provided for severe forms of corporal punishment and even the death penalty. But the overall message, which the New Testament will bring to perfection, is a forceful appeal for respect for the inviolability of physical life and the integrity of the person. It culminates in the positive commandment which obliges us to be responsible for our neighbour as for ourselves: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself” (Lev 19:18).[1]

“You shalt not kill” (Ex. 20:13 RSV). God, time and time again, says he desires not death but life. “Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, says the Lord GOD, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?”  (Ezek. 18:23 RSV). Many of the Sages of the Talmud understood this as they decried the use of capital punishment to be tyrannical:

A Sanhedrin that is responsible for an execution once in seven years is called “tyrannical.” R. Eleazar b. Azaryah said: Once in seventy years. R. Tarfon and R. Akiba said: If we were members of the Sanhedrin, no one would be sentenced to death. Rabban Simeon b. Gamaliel said: They would thereby have caused an increase in murderers in Israel. [2]

The Sages of the Talmud believed that Genesis indicated the unity of humanity in creation as a way to indicate the value and significance of the human person. “All mankind was created from a single ancestor to teach us that whoever takes a single life is as though he destroyed a whole world, and whoever sustains a single life is as though he sustained a whole world. [3]

Likewise, then, John Paul II declared that the dignity of the human person means that the good of each and every person must be affirmed by respecting human life and affirming its value:

To give an example, the origin and the foundation of the duty of absolute respect for human life are to be found in the dignity proper to the person and not simply in the natural inclination to preserve one’s own physical life. Human life, even though it is a fundamental good of man, thus acquires a moral significance in reference to the good of the person, who must always be affirmed for his own sake.[4]

Capital punishment is tyrannical because it denigrates and rejects the fundamental good of human life, thinking that the dignity and good of human life itself can be violated by evil deeds. When someone is executed, their evil deeds are not negated, rather, the human person with the goodness still contained in them is. “When a guilty man is put to death, the person rather than the fault is punished.”[5] In this way, as Vladimir Solovyov explained, there can be no good established by putting anyone to death; instead, there is more negativity, more ill will which is established:

What, then, is negated by the execution of the criminal is not his evil will, but the positive good of life, — and this is once more a simple negation, and not a ‘negation of the negative.’ But a simple succession of two negatives cannot lead to anything positive. [6]

The ancient Christians understood this. God is the Lord and giver of life, the one who has authority over life. Willful suicide was explained to be a sin because it usurps God’s authority over life. Likewise, taking the life of anyone else, even a criminal, is unjust, not only because it usurps God’s authority but also because it rejects the inviolate dignity of the human person. Lactantius, writing to teach Constantine and his family, explained:

For when God forbids us to kill, He not only prohibits us from open violence, which is not even allowed by public laws, but He warns us against the commission of those things which are esteemed lawful among men. Thus it will neither be lawful for a just man to engage in warfare, since his warfare is justice itself, nor to accuse any one of a capital charge, because it makes no difference whether you put a man to death by word, or rather by sword, since it is the act of putting to death itself which is prohibited. Therefore, with regard to this precept of God, there ought to be no exception at all; but that it is always unlawful to put to death a man, whom God willed to be a sacred animal.[7]

St. Cyprian, likewise, said that Christians must avoid bloodshed because it is wrong for the innocent to kill the guilty:

But when beaten back as well by the faith as by the vigour of the combined army, he perceived that the soldiers of Christ are now watching, and stand sober and armed for the battle; for they cannot be conquered, but they can die; and that by this very fact they are invincible, that they do not fear death; that they do not in turn assail their assailants, since it is not lawful for the innocent even to kill the guilty; but that they readily deliver up both their lives and their blood; that since such malice and cruelty rages in the world, they may the more withdraw from the evil and cruel. [8]

Capital punishment is the way of the Gentiles, the way of the bloody past, where authority was demonstrated by power, and punishment was executed not for the sake of justice but for revenge. Life is good; actively taking away life, for any reason, brings about an evil. Solovyov expressed, with a Christian sentiment, that reformation should be at the basis of all justice:

In the true conception of punishment its positive end, so far as the criminal is concerned, is not to cause him physical pain, but to heal or reform him morally. This idea has been accepted long ago (chiefly by theologians, partly by philosophers, and by a very few jurists), but it calls forth strong opposition on the part of jurists and a certain school of anthropologists. [9]

The good, even of the criminal, is good for the whole of society. Society is wounded whenever evil is done by one of its members or by society as a whole. Adding evil upon evil, death upon death, only harms society more. Finding a way to restore some, if not all of the good, is what is needed for society to move on away from the harm which evil has caused and make sure it does not establish a system which creates a cycle of evil which has no end. Solovyov, therefore, said that two moral interests are at stake: the common good, and the private good of every person. The proper balance requires neither to be abolished:

Since the essence of legal justice consists in maintaining the balance between two moral interests – that of individual liberty and of the common good, it is clear that through the latter interest may limit the former it may not under any circumstances abolish it. [10]

Capital punishment, by destroying the individual, abolishes a good and therefore is an evil. This, once again, was a part of the message of Jesus. Life is invaluable, a good which is to be affirmed. Instead of seeking to destroy someone because they are our enemy who has wronged us in some fashion, Jesus said we should love them, because of the good which still remained within them despite their actions:

By his words and actions Jesus further unveils the positive requirements of the commandment regarding the inviolability of life. These requirements were already present in the Old Testament, where legislation dealt with protecting and defending life when it was weak and threatened: in the case of foreigners, widows, orphans, the sick and the poor in general, including children in the womb (cf. Ex 21:22; 22:20-26). With Jesus these positive requirements assume new force and urgency, and are revealed in all their breadth and depth: they range from caring for the life of one’s brother (whether a blood brother, someone belonging to the same people, or a foreigner living in the land of Israel) to showing concern for the stranger, even to the point of loving one’s enemy.[11]

It is this message, found throughout Scripture, but highlighted and brought to perfection by Jesus Christ, which Christians need to follow and promote. But what are we to say about those parts of Scripture which seem to go against this very foundation? Do they not oppose us? Vladimir Solovyov did not think so; the issue is to understand Scripture as a whole, not to take it apart piece by piece so that we can ignore the overall message being presented by it:

Three major moments relative to our question are marked in the Bible:

The proclamation of a norm after the first murder: a criminal, even a fratricide, is not subject to human execution: “And the Lord put a mark on Cain, so that no one would kill him.”

Adaption of the norm to the “hard-heartedness of people” after the Flood, which was called forth by extreme displays of evil in human nature. “He who spills the blood of a man – a man will spill his blood.” This accommodating statute is developed at great length and made more complex in the Mosaic Law

A return to the norm in the prophets and in the Gospels: “Vengeance is mine, says the Lord; I will repay.” With what will he repay? “Mercy I desire, and not sacrifice.” “I came to recover and save the lost.”

The Bible is a complex spiritual organism which developed over a thousand years. It is completely free of external monotony and unilinerarity but amazing in its internal unity and in the harmony of the whole. To snatch out arbitrarily from this whole only intermediate parts without a beginning and an end is an insincere and frivolous business; and to rely on the Bible in general in favor of the death penalty – attests either to a hopeless incomprehension or a boundless insolence.[12]

Scripture can easily be abused, especially when it is not understood to present a history of the relationship between humanity and God and the slowly evolving consciousness of what that relationship entails. Often God worked with humanity where it was at, nudging it along to something better: this is how many have explained the use of sacrifices in the Torah. God, as the prophets indicated, did not desire them or seek them out (cf. Hos. 6:6; Jer. 7:22; Isa. 1:11; et. al.), however he understood the people of Israel, coming out of Egypt, believed in and felt the need for a sacrificial system. God set a limit to the sacrifices in order to slowly move the people of Israel away from such a desire while establishing in and through it an allegorical representation of what was to come as sacrifices were to come when such sacrifices would likewise come to an end. We do not look to Scripture to justify such sacrifices today: likewise, the harshness of human hearts had to be overturned, so that God slowly worked with humanity a system which would point to an end to the whole retributive system of justice expressed in capital punishment (this, as the Sages of the Talmud show, was taken to heart and understood by the Jews and not just the Christians).

To promote the end of the death penalty is to promote the end of a cruel and unjust penal system which denigrates life and sees it as an object to be manipulated and destroyed by human will.  “To resist evil by evil is wrong and useless; to hate the evil-doer for his crime and therefore to revenge oneself on him is childish.”[13] We must move beyond the childish ideologies of the past and awaken to the realization that capital punishment violates the dignity of the human person and is for that reason completely and utterly unacceptable. Once we do so, we can then get to work at establishing a true system of justice which works for the promotion of the good of all because we recognize the good is what we seek without question.

[IMG=Altarpiece – “Sermon on the Mount” – detail By Henrik Olrik By Ib Rasmussen [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons]

[1] St. John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae. Vatican Translation. ¶40.

[2] The Mishnah 1:10 quoted in The Talmud: Selected Writings. trans. Ben Zion Nokser (New York: Paulist Press, 1989), 213-4.

[3] The Mishnah 4:9 quoted in The Talmud: Selected Writings. 207.

[4] St. John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor. Vatican Translation. ¶50.

[5] St. Ambrose, Letter 84 in Letters. Trans. Sister Mary Melchior Beyenka, OP (New York: Fathers of the Church, Inc., 1954),474.

[6] Vladimir Solovyof, The Justification of the Good. Trans. Nathalie A. Duddington, MA (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1918), 310.

[7] Lactantius, “The Divine Institutes” in ANF*7) 187.

[8] St. Cyprian, “Letter 56” in ANF(5): 351.

[9] Vladimir Solovyof, The Justification of the Good, 324.

[10]Vladimir Solovyof, The Justification of the Good, 379.

[11] St. John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, ¶41.

[12] Vladimir Soloviev, “On the Death Penalty” in Politics, Law & Morality: Essays by V.S. Soloviev. Trans. Vladimir Wozniuk (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), 175-6.

[13] Vladimir Solovyof, The Justification of the Good, 317.


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