But slowly and surely the Spirit presses on the conscience of Christian civilisation. The practices they inherited from their ancestors (and the cruelties they devised on their own) – evisceration, hanging, drawing, quartering, skinning alive, burning at the stake, drowning, pressing people to death, beheading and all the other legal forms of state-sponsored killing – lose their charms and cease to be public entertainments. Christian conscience starts to feel shame over the spectacle, because, in its heart of hearts, it feels shame over the act as it felt shame at crucifixion.
Increasingly the thought presses: “This is a person made in the image and likeness of God. Somebody’s son. Somebody’s daughter. A human being like me. Yes, they may have done monstrous things. But, well, what kind of person takes delight in watching them jerk at the end of a rope, spurt blood, scream at the licking flames? What kind of person waves a frying pan at the execution of Ted Bundy? What does the death penalty do, not just to the condemned, but to those who kill him and take dark delight in that killing? What is it doing to me, to my soul? If it’s really a commandment from God and not just a concession to human weakness, why did executioners, in more Christian times, ask forgiveness of their victims and seek to prescribe years-long penances instead of swift death?”
And so Christian civilisation starts to hide its face from the death penalty, to rein in the brutality, to feel sickened qualms about “cruel and unusual” modes of killing and to move the whole thing out of sight. Executions leave the Place de la Concorde, the town square, and the public gallows and are taken indoors, out of sight, out of mind. Eventually, every western country but one – America – abandons the practice.
In America, as we resist this universal witness of conscience in the western world and the teaching of the Church, we have turned doublethink into an art form. We compare ourselves favourably to brutal Communist and Islamic regimes that retain capital punishment as we weirdly cling to the notion that the death penalty is a “deterrent” while doing everything we can to drain it of the power to deter by privatising the whole thing. We condemn Kim Jong Un as he executes his enemies with anti-aircraft guns and the Islamic world as it holds public stonings, both of which are methods that do indeed have a deterrent effect. We politely gas, shoot, electrocute, poison, and hang people behind closed doors and far from the public eye. We insist, in our secular age, on sanitising the process by turning it into a quasi-medical procedure in which we force the one person in our society who has taken a vow to Do No Harm to administer the lethal injection and kill the patient. And as Americans press on in this weird schizophrenia, tardy in relation to the rest of the civilised world, an increasing number of Christians in our post-Christian country wonders if it has made some fundamental mistake, and starts to rethink what “made in the image and likeness of God” could ultimately mean and whether there is a better way to think about this.
In short, 20th century Christian civilisation tardily, and in fits and starts, probes the idea that the law was made for man, not man for the law, and realises more deeply that, in the words of the Church, the human person is the only creature God has willed for his own sake (Gaudium et Spes 24). Americans begin to think and feel in their bones about the death penalty that “from the beginning, it was not so” – that the thing to do with Cain is spare him, not slaughter him, if possible.
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