There is Something Fundamentally Wrong with Christian Support for the Death Penalty

For  years I strongly believed that capital punishment was a viable crime deterrent and a just form of punishment.  This was coupled with a sens of satisfaction that the death penalty provided me with; the serving of just desserts.  I was not a Christian nor a believer in any sort of God, but I appreciated those conservative religious people who understood the obvious necessity for a legal death sentence.

cross-and-chair

Upon entering one of they many streams of the  Christian faith ( a very conservative one) I was pleased to find  that many of my long held political  convictions fit in quite nicely with my new found religion.  It was not long before, after overcoming my initial fear of heterodoxy,  my understanding of Christ’s teachings began to take me in new ‘liberal’ directions  both theologically and politically.  I guess it really is a slippery slope.

Now I am firmly opposed to the administering of the death sentence.  Not that I don’t think the state has the right to take life under extreme circumstances;  I am certainly glad that the Baltimore police as well as the Marine Corps are fully armed and trust (and hope) that they expert in the use of those arms.  Nor do I think that no one ‘deserves’ to be executed.  Plenty of people deserve no less than death for their crimes- those who commit single as well as multiple murders,  those who kidnap and rape and  torture, not to mention the world’s horrendous genocidal despots.   I think, tough, that taking this final irrevocable step -of killing the guilty –  in some way diminishes our own humanity.  More objectively,  I am opposed to capital punishment on the grounds that the state certainly has executed innocent people, and continues to do so.

I have tried to make that last point many times when talking with Christian fundamentalists. For the most part, they are very much in favor of capital punishment.  Many of them firmly believe that there is a biblical  imperative for the death sentence, that God not only does not forbid it, he mandates it.  I’ve found that there is little value in arguing against these Biblical points, as there is usually an unbridgeable gulf of scriptural understanding between us. They read the Bible much differently than I do and so long as east is east and west is west….

But what confounds me so much is that, even if you get some of the most rigid fundamentalists to admit that our judicial system is humanly flawed and at times corrupt, even after being confronted with the growing testimony of numerous death sentences being commuted due to new DNA evidence, they will remain firm in their support of capital punishment.  Righteousness trumps mercy yet again.

There seems to be a sense that those innocent people killed by the state are in some way negligible and acceptable losses for a system that firmly metes out justice.  Surely, they will say, the death penalty is an effective deterrent (highly disputable) and those murderers left alive might kill again (even though no one is suggesting that they be released). I often hear that the cost of keeping these convicts  alive is not in our economic best interests yet that very argument receives  their righteous criticism when the abortion advocates use it.  I even had one good lady tell me that my concern was misdirected, because even if the innocent person was executed, if they had made their peace with God, then they (like the Good Thief ) would receive their reward in Paradise.  Couldn’t this same argument be used for abortion, or even for infanticide?  This is the type of perverted theology that drives tragic stories like that of Andrea Yates, who drowned her own, still innocent, children rather than chance their falling into Hell.

We could debate these issues all day long and never come to an agreement.  But if we can concede that it is at all possible (and the evidence PROVES that it is not only possible but likely) for the state to take the life of an innocent person, how can anyone, much less a Christian, tolerate capital punishment?  Do we agree with Mr. Spock when he upbraids the illogical and emotional Captain Kirk,  saying that  “the good of the many outweigh the good of the one” ? Perhaps Caiaphas said it even better; “You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.” (John 11:49-50).

I think it is worth considering that this willingness on the part of many Christians to risk sacrificing  innocent lives for the benefit of the majority, coupled with an eagerness to bestow a punishment of death on the guilty, are the toxic byproducts of a traditional and orthodox view of  Jesus’ undeserved execution as the legal and  substitutionary sacrifice for our own individual, as well as collective, guilt.  Once again, the secular world seems to have a better understanding of Jesus’ teachings on forgiveness.

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  1. #1 by theoraclemag on March 20, 2009 - 12:33 am

    This was a great post, and though I agree with you I feel that even if you are pro-death penalty, you have to be against it in the United States because our judicial system is so messed. There are to many innocent men and woman in prison, and some of them are on death row.

    • #2 by Christian Beyer on March 20, 2009 - 9:02 am

      My point exactly. How can this be excused?

      BTW – thanks for kicking off the discussion. Hope you will continue to contribute.

  2. #3 by peterrubel on March 20, 2009 - 1:47 am

    For what it is worth, the justification for the death penalty for murder in the Noah account was that murder constituted a kind of blasphemy (if I can put it that way), because the victim was made in the image of God. In the case of murder, concluding that the death penalty is immoral seems to devalue respect for the God in whose image human beings are made. Justice must be respected.

    But hang on. I am substantially opposed to the death penalty on account of my growing skepticism of our legal system, and more importantly, our sense of right and wrong. Especially when we are eager to exercise the death penalty.

    By the way, you see Christians rationalizing the death penalty where the executed party was erroneously convicted partly in perverted sacrifice-for-sin terms. I have not seen that ugliness (and hope I never do), but rather I see in such cases a desire for the self-comfort of believing that the deceased victim is in a better place, heaven. Plus the fact that executing the innocent bothers the conscience, as you would rightly argue.

    I’d add that in the traditional Christian view, human sacrifice cannot please God in part because the sacrificial victim is sinful (excepting Jesus) and in part because such sacrifice (the execution of the innocent) would be murder.

    And then I can’t help but remember an ancient Greek story of a city that would sacrifice its king when there was a crop failure or other disaster. Sorta like vetting elected officials in bad times today.

    Peter Rubel

    P.S. In one of your illustrations, the execution of a truly innocent person we may assume to be accidental, whereas abortion and infanticide are intentional, so I am not sure I see the parallel as exact. Of course, the intentional execution of a person known to be innocent is murder despite legal formalities.

    • #4 by Christian Beyer on March 20, 2009 - 9:10 am

      Welcome Peter. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Good points.

      I don’t think that abortion is 100% analogous to capital punishment, but it seems that proponents of both seem to be less concerned interested in descussing the intentional demise of a potentially innocent life as opposed to how it might benefit themselves in particular and society in general. My point was that the ‘pro-life’ advocate will label the economic argument as being driven by an attachment to this world (money) and not worth considering. The same standard must also apply to their support for the death penalty. (Besides, some say that the trial process costs more than the state’s room and board. But that argument is just as irrelevent.)

      • #5 by peterrubel on March 20, 2009 - 2:19 pm

        If that is what you have found pro-life/pro capital punishment people arguing, I think I see your point.

        If the argument is, “the societal benefits of capital punishment justify the sacrifice of innocent lives by execution,” I think the end have nothing to do with justifying the means.

        To flip the argument (devil’s advocate, if you will), can abstention from capital punishment on the truly guilty be construed as the ends (avoid murder) justifying the means (by avoiding justice) in some cases? (No, I’m not sure where to go with this one.)

  3. #6 by Steve B on March 20, 2009 - 7:23 am

    It’s a toughy all right. I’ve struggled with this, too. To me, something about the Death Penalty abrogates the possibility of repentance, of second chances.

    At the same time, there are some crimes so reprehensible, so patently evil, that it reinforces my belief that there ARE situations were it the Death Penalty seems like the only reasonable response.

    I’ve never heard the “close enough” defense that if a few innocent get caught up in the mix, oh well. To me it’s always been an issue of the social contract. One of the implicit and/or explicit contracts we make as members of a communal society is that there are steps to be taken to preserve the general welfare. One of those being taking those who are inherently dangerous to the society OUT of it.

    But do we need to kill them to do it? The death penalty isn’t a punishment, it is a consequence. Are there other consequences that achieve the same ends, but don’t tarnish our “humanity?”

    To me, the death penalty is another tool we use to communicate the types of behaviors we are not willing to accept in our society. You peform certain acts, the consequence is that your life will be taken from you. I think that there is a place for it, but perhaps we significantly narrow the types of crimes for which it is considered, and impose a much greater standard of proof.

    The problem is though, can we ever guarantee that an innocent person will never be wrongly executed? No. We can make it more and more unlikely, but impossible? Probably not.

    This begs the question, if you had a cancer drug that you knew would kill one in every 10,000 patients to whom it was administered, but had an almost 100% cure rate for the rest, would you still market the drug?

    • #7 by Christian Beyer on March 20, 2009 - 9:15 am

      Thanks Steve.

      The cancer drug analogy doesn’t work for me. Ostensibly all those who take the drug are already ‘condemned’ to an early death and have agreed to take the risk. Now, if to perfect this drug it needed to be tried on people without cancer, and against their own will, well, that might be a bit closer.

      Which is precisely what some people have occused some pharmaceutical companies of doing in Africa. The book and movie (fictional but supposedly based upon fact)”The Constant Gardner” depicts this scenario.

  4. #8 by logiopsychoambrosiaivorytowerpath on March 20, 2009 - 10:59 pm

    You said:

    “I am certainly glad that the Baltimore police as well as the Marine Corps are fully armed and expert in the use of those arms.”

    Are these the only ones?

    My gosh.

    • #9 by Christian Beyer on March 20, 2009 - 11:31 pm

      Just the two martial services that have the most pertinence. For me, that is.

  5. #10 by logiopsychoambrosiaivorytowerpath on March 20, 2009 - 11:00 pm

    Lam Diberal!

  6. #11 by logiopsychoambrosiaivorytowerpath on March 21, 2009 - 7:02 am

    Oh. You mean the Baltimore County Police (at You In Trouble) Howard County Police (at your house) and Ann Arrundal County Police (at Camelot) have no bearing on your safety?

    Anyway. The death penalty. Hmm.

    The problem I have with those who carry protest signs against the death penalty is that they make criminals into sympathy cases.

    I think it is better just to quietly be against the death penalty, if such is one’s view, for the sake of the families of the victims.

    As far as Martin O’Malley–he knows that he will win many votes from members of minority groups if he says he is against the death penalty. I don’t believe he is on any moral high ground. The panel last year was a joke. It was a predetermined outcome.

    Personally, I see no reason for the death penalty, when life in prison is a perfectly good punishment (but I also believe prisons should be completely overhauled–be made into more humane institutions–they have become
    Halls of Hell, and have outlived their usefulness).

    Other than that, I think the many Christians go running to the Genesis “Whoever sheds man’s blood-by man his blood shall be shed . . .” without considering the full moral implications of the state taking a life for a life.

    On the other hand, I don’t like it when people opposed to the death penalty (like the media–except Nancy Grace, Rush Limburger, and Ann Cult-Er) use high-profile cases like Tookie Williams. These grandstand plays make the families of victims relive their nightmares.

    Maybe this is one moral question that has no pat answer.

    • #12 by Christian Beyer on March 21, 2009 - 10:47 am

      I think the answer can be pretty ‘pat’ – as it is for most Western nations. We can resolve to just NOT do it – life in prison should be an acceptable punishment (and I agree with your desire for prison overhaul). We are supposed to hold to a higher standard today than we did 200 years ago.

      Heck, even beleagured and bellicose Israel has only executed two people in their history; Adolph Eichman and Meir Tobianski. One so obviously guilty of genocide, the other innocent of the charges of treason brought against him. You could say that their .500 batting average is a lot worse than ours and a good reason to pull out of the execution game. Or perhaps they believe that one mistake is too high a price to pay. It certainly must look that way to those innocents on death row in America. (And THEIR families, too. What of their nightmares?)

    • #13 by Christian Beyer on March 21, 2009 - 10:51 am

      Hey, I said BALTIMORE. County or city will do. And we have much less crime where I live in HoCo – not because the cops are so damn good but because we are a damn rich county. (What am I doing here?) They all have some bearing but it’s the Bal.Co.Po. that I see the most. As for the Marines, well, whenever I can give them a plug….

  7. #14 by rogueminister on March 21, 2009 - 10:10 pm

    Christian, I would just like to simply say “Amen!” Oh, and sorry I havent been around in a while… school takes up most of my time these days…

  8. #16 by alex on September 21, 2009 - 12:07 pm

    there is a 4 part podcast series on this subject for those interested: http://ancientfaith.com/podcasts/stevethebuilder/P7/

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