Death Penalty: the Christian View
In almost every society, there are crimes and violations of human rights. To deal with these things, there are laws that prescribe the prevention of their occurrences. However, if the law is broken, commensurate punishment is put on the violator.
Depending on the seriousness of the crime, the punishment may be light such as imprisonment for up to one year with corresponding fines, or it could also be severe as death penalty. Capital punishment or death penalty is usually imposed on persons who committed heinous crimes and are those that endanger the safety of the society.
Some countries and societies implement capital punishment while others do not. There are various reasons for this policy of countries, including the social view on the death penalty and the prevailing religious view in the society among others. One of the foremost arguments for the imposition of death penalty is that it acts as a deterrent for heinous crimes. Most societies throughout history have used capital punishment. Governments have also used this extensively to execute persons that do not conform to the laws and standards of conduct in the society.
Throughout history, capital punishment was also used to suppress political dissent and to preserve the prevailing order in the society. Nowadays, the death penalty is being imposed on capital crimes such as treason against the state, espionage, and murder. In other countries, crimes that are of sexual nature such as rape, sodomy, and adultery are also punishable by death. Human trafficking, plunder and corruption, as well as drug trafficking are also punishable by death in other countries. The foremost reason being given for the imposition of capital punishment is its power to deter crimes.
The argument says that if heinous crimes are punishable by death, would-be perpetrators of such crimes would protect their lives and they will not commit heinous crimes. On the part of the victims of such crimes, they also receive justice and redress for the injury through the capital punishment. On the other hand, capital punishment is a lot less expensive than life imprisonment (Paternoster, 1991). There are a lot of debates surrounding the imposition of capital punishment. Almost all countries in Europe, as well as in the Pacific area, and Latin
America have abolished capital punishment in the name of respecting and protecting human rights. There are still a large number of countries that retained it, however. The United States Federal government with 36 States has retained it. Brazil imposes capital punishment only during wartime while countries in Asia and Africa also retained it. Notably, South Africa does not have capital punishment in spite of the high incidence of violent crimes such as murder and rape. South Korea no longer imposes capital punishment, as well as Uzbekistan, because it was not being used for a long time.
A number of individuals, organizations, and human rights advocates object to the imposition of capital punishment. The questions they raise concern the effectiveness of capital punishment in deterring crimes. Moreover, there is always the possibility that the innocent person will be sentenced to death. Once the penalty is imposed, it can no longer be undone even if a separate investigation will render the accused as innocent from the crimes. There are also a number of instances in which minority groups are discriminated against in imposing capital punishment.
Minority groups usually have lesser access to the best lawyers. As such, they run the greater risk of being proclaimed guilty for the crimes for which they are accused. With capital punishment, once death penalty is imposed, it is final. The person will have no chance to reform his ways or redeem his actions. He has been condemned by the courts to be forever separated from the rest of the society. In the 62nd General Assembly of the United Nations in 2007, the UN passed a resolution calling for the universal ban on capital punishment.
This resolution asked the member-states of the UN to impose a moratorium on imposing the death penalty with the eventual plan of abolishing capital punishment. This resolution was made in recognition of the human rights of accused criminals and the possibility of redemption and change. Various religions also have varied responses to capital punishment. Even a particular denomination or religious group may not have a unified stand regarding capital punishment. Religious sentiments do play a significant part in the views of people regarding capital punishment.
The Bible is replete with various passages that may seem to support or condemn capital punishment. The Old Testament, particularly, is based upon a morality of “teeth against teeth” and “life for life. ” The books of laws of the Old Testament actually prescribe stoning to death the persons who commit serious crimes against God and against the community. A number of biblical scholars have considered the part of the Ten Commandments that say “You shall not kill” as a prohibition against individual cases of murder (The Ryrie Study Bible, Exodus 20:13).
In the first place, the Christian faith believes that humans are created in the image of God. As such, a serious crime against another person is also a crime against God. In the Old Testament, premeditated murder was sufficient reason for the death penalty (Numbers 35:31, 33). Moreover, in Genesis 9:6, it can be read that “whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed”. St. Thomas Aquinas also published his thoughts regarding capital punishment.
He said that “the civil rulers execute, justly and sinlessly, pestiferous men in order to protect the peace of the state” (Summa Contra Gentiles, III, 146). Furthermore, St. Thomas Aquinas talked about the need to impose death penalty on the crime doers. “The fact that the evil, as long as they live, can be corrected from their errors does not prohibit the fact that they may be justly executed, for the danger which threatens from their way of life is greater and more certain than the good which may be expected from their improvement.
They also have at that critical point of death the opportunity to be converted to God through repentance. And if they are so stubborn that even at the point of death their heart does not draw back from evil, it is possible to make a highly probable judgment that they would never come away from evil to the right use of their powers” (St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, Book III, 146). The sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross is at the centerpiece of Christianity. Without such sacrifice, there would be no Christian faith.
Such sacrifice is also a form of capital punishment in the sense that he bore the sins of the whole world. Such sin therefore requires the death penalty and Christ willingly went to the Cross to satisfy the requirements of a just and loving God for the remission of sins. Although the Old Testament has a number of provisions for death penalty, the New Testament appears to emphasize the love of God. This has been seized by anti-capital punishment advocates in moving towards the abolition of capital punishment.
John 8:7 (NIV) of the Bible, which reads, “But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them; “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her. ” is being taken as a passage supporting the abolition of capital punishment. In this regard, the sixth commandment is also being preached in a lot of churches as a prohibition against capital punishment. Several Christians also point to the love and grace of God as reason why capital punishment should not be instituted.
Following this line of argument, it means that criminals are being given the maximum time for the possibility of repentance and redemption. With God’s grace and love, even criminals may still get a chance to reform their ways. Christian groups have diverse opinions and individual Christians do have the choice for their own preference and view apart from the official stand of their churches. Historically, the Roman Catholic Church accepted capital punishment based on the theology and views of St. Thomas Aquinas. The reason behind this is the way in which death penalty can deter and prevent crime.
It is not a means for revenge. However, during the time of Pope John Paul II, the Roman Catholic Church revised this position. This position was defined by Pope John Paul II through the encyclical he released entitled Evangelium Vitae. As a result of this, the Roman Catholic Church now believes that capital punishment is not the best way to deal with crimes. Rather, capital punishment should be avoided except in cases where it is the only means available to defend the society from the criminal or offender. Given the present situation of penal systems, such need for execution is virtually non-existent.
According to the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church, “Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor. If, however, nonlethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.
Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm – without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself – the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity are very rare, if not practically nonexistent” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 2267). Given this position, the Roman Catholic Church has affirmed the sanctity of life through this position.
Such position aims to affirm the dignity and rights of a person even if he has committed some crimes. The position promoted and adopted by the Roman Catholic Church through Pope John Paul II is a revolutionary one and it is in keeping with the prevailing views in the world today regarding the abolition of death penalty. Depending on the stand of the churches, more liberal groups tend to be abolitionist, meaning they want to abolish death penalty. The more conservative denominations of Christianity tend to support the imposition of death penalty.
Protestant Christian Churches also have their official stand regarding capital punishment. The Anglican and Episcopalian churches has opted a policy that condemns death penalty in 1988 through the Lambeth Conference of Anglican and Episcopal bishops. The United Methodist Church, as well as other Methodist churches all over the world has taken the position against capital punishment. The church says that it cannot support capital punishment on the basis of social vengeance and retribution.
More importantly, capital punishment tends to be imposed more frequently to marginalized sectors of the society such as the uneducated, ethnic and racial minorities, the poor, and the disenfranchised. The General Conference of the United Methodist Church, which meets once in every four years, asked its bishops to oppose capital punishment and advocate for governments to impose a moratorium on the implementation of death penalty (United Methodist Church website, 2007). The Lutheran Church in America also opposes the death penalty.
Such decision was made in 1991 through a social policy statement that the church released. The policy stated that vengeance is the main reason for the imposition of capital punishment. Furthermore, the Church believes that repentance, forgiveness, and redemption are necessary for true healing to be accomplished (ELCA, 2007). With this policy, the Lutheran Church joins the throng of Christian churches that support the abolition of death penalty. Given these stands of various churches, most denominations appear to support the abolitionist position.
The interpretation of these churches of the Christian faith is one in which God’s love and mercy takes precedence over the imposition of punishment on the erring party. There are still churches within the Lutheran tradition that supports death penalty. They cite the stand of Martin Luther regarding death penalty and the way that this represents the justice of God. This also means that churches are now more and more in sync with the ideas and movements of other cause-oriented groups in the society. As time moves on, the views of Christian churches are also changing.
There is almost a universal consensus regarding the importance of abolishing death penalty. For Christians, however, there are important issues at stake. This also concerns the emphasis on God’s justice, or God’s love. This also has an implication on the advocacies and ministries of Christian Churches. Traditionally, Christianity has emphasized the justice and the holiness of God and the way in which humans fall short of this. Moreover, justice means equality for all and that people get what they deserve. Given this framework of understanding, capital punishment is necessary.
In recent years, however, there has been an emphasis on God’s love and grace. This means that the churches have redefined their role to dispense grace and promote forgiveness, healing, and reconciliation. This does not sit well, however, for the advocates of capital punishment. Because the major denominations such as the Roman Catholic Church, the United Methodist Church, and the Lutheran church have worldwide presence, this means that the abolitionist perspective has a better chance to be propagated all over the world.
In this regard, the Christian church is working hand in hand with the United Nations, Amnesty International, and other human rights groups in promoting the dignity of humans. If the advocacy of rights groups and the churches succeed, this means that more and more countries might forego the capital punishment in the coming years. The effects of this on the incidence of crime and the social and governance policy of governments all over the world remain to be seen.