Am I a "Heretic" for Endorsing Capital Punishment? (2)1
In the previous article we briefly examined the relevant biblical texts on the subject of CP. We now turn our attention to the most commonly heard objections to it, together with my response to each.
1. CP is not an effective deterrent to crime
Statistical evidence on the issue is inconclusive. Studies have yielded support for both sides of the argument. The question also needs to be answered: What deters all of us who have never committed a capital crime? Could it be the prospect of death? CP certainly deters the murderer from committing another murder.
As Daryl Charles points out, "If capital punishment does not serve to deter the potential murderer, the abolitionist will thus need to acknowledge the grim reality that neither will any other form of punishment. (Thus, any punishment is arbitrary).” And let’s not forget that CP is not primarily for the purpose of deterrence but an expression of justice.
Finally, "if executing a convicted murderer is 'barbaric,' is it not all the more barbaric to make possible the sacrifice of additional lives in order to save the life of the murderers? If, for the sake of argument, capital punishment is implemented under the mistaken notion that it deters, the lives of convicted murderers are lost. If, on the other hand, capital punishment is abolished due to the mistaken belief that it does not deter, then innocent lives are lost. Social justice would therefore suggest – all things being equal – that the death penalty for premeditated murder should be retained, theological presuppositions aside" (Daryl Charles, "Outrageous Atrocity or Moral Imperative? The Ethics of Capital Punishment," Studies in Christian Ethics 6/2, 1993, p. 9).
Charles also contends, correctly I believe, that "no person who in principle is opposed to capital punishment will be sufficiently convinced by any statistics that are suggestive of changing trends in criminal justice" (8). In other words, if it could be proven that abolition of the death penalty would result in a 100% increase in the homicide rate, those opposed to the death penalty would in all likelihood remain opposed.
2. CP violates the biblical warnings against seeking vengeance (Rom. 12:17-21; 1 Pt. 3:9); believers are to love their enemies, not execute them (Mt. 5:43-44)
But there is a difference in Scripture between what is the prerogative of the individual in interpersonal relationships and what is the prerogative of the state in the administration of public justice. Whereas Christians are not permitted to seek personal vengeance, the state is allowed to seek public justice. The prohibition of personal revenge in Romans 12 is followed immediately by the endorsement of public retribution in Romans 13.
3. CP constitutes cruel and unusual punishment
This argument depends on what one means by the terms cruel and unusual. If cruel means painful and penal, then CP is indeed cruel. But justice requires the infliction of penal pain for certain crimes. Certainly torture is not to be allowed. But all punishment, to some degree, is painful. If unusual means irrational, we are back to the original question of whether or not CP is an effective means to accomplish the ends for which it is designed. If it is, it isn't irrational.
4. CP discriminates against minorities and the poor
As the Feinbergs point out, "discrimination does not show capital punishment to be morally wrong. Instead, it suggests a need to change the judicial system in order to administer the death penalty fairly. The proper or improper manner in which any penalty is implemented says nothing whatsoever about moral rightness or wrongness of the penalty per se" (Ethics for a Brave New World, 136). Furthermore, it is not at all certain from recent studies that minorities and the poor are discriminated against in cases of CP.
5. CP allows for the possibility of the execution of the innocent
Again, "cases where convicted killers were later found innocent do not demonstrate that the death penalty per se is wrong. They only show that demands for proof of guilt must be much more stringent than current judicial procedures require" (Feinbergs, 136). Daryl Charles agrees:
"That there is room for error in the criminal justice system is undeniable. That 'mistakes' will be made is inevitable. Yet, to state the obvious, no domain of our present legal system is predicated on a zero-percent chance of error; fallible people in an imperfect system work toward 'just' results. Imperfections in the system justify efforts at working toward reform as it touches application, but not abolition of the underlying principle. The presupposition of error, incontestable in and of itself, must necessarily be tempered by the weight of New Testament apostolic teaching" (7).
Thus, even in an imperfect system, the governing authorities serve the will of God by restraining evil. This is Paul's point in Romans 13, which was written, by the way, at a time when a schizophrenic maniac was sitting on the Imperial throne (Nero). "Religious abolitionists in contemporary western culture," therefore, "cannot legitimately use 'the fallibility of the criminal justice system' as substantiation for their views" (Charles, 8).
6. The demand for CP ignores the biblical examples of mercy and clemency (Cain, David, and Moses all committed intentional murder yet were extended mercy; David and Moses went on to live productive and godly lives)
In the OT exceptional cases, it was God who extended mercy, not society. Unless instructed by God to do otherwise, the state is bound to follow the dictates of Scripture in the application of CP.
7. It is logically and morally inconsistent for Christians to argue in favor of capital punishment while at the same time arguing against abortion and euthanasia
Can a Christian consistently oppose abortion and euthanasia while endorsing CP? Yes. We must remember that "the unborn, the aged, and the infirm have done nothing deserving of death. The convicted murderer has" (Feinbergs, 147). CP is not, as critics suggest, a disregard for the sanctity of life. It is, in point of fact, based on belief in the sanctity of life: the life of the murdered victim. Also, whereas life is indeed sacred, it can still be forfeited. Finally, the Bible opposes abortion and endorses CP. Therefore, if there is an inconsistency, the problem is God's.
8. CP terminates all hope for the salvation of the victim
It is true that CP ends all hope of salvation for the lost. But so, too, does war and occasionally self-defense. Yet the Bible endorses the latter two activities. Also, "life is uncertain, and decisions about our eternal destiny cannot be delayed at our own leisure. God said to the rich and complacent fool, 'Fool! This night your soul is required of you!' (Luke 14:20) (Davis, 187). Perhaps the prospect of impending death will serve to shock the unbeliever to repentance. Finally, again it is God who endorses CP. So, if there is a problem with it in relation to the lost, it is God's problem, not ours.
9. Would Jesus push the button or pull the plug in the execution of a human being?
This final “objection” assumes that most people would answer, “No, Jesus wouldn’t do it,” followed by the conclusion, “Therefore, no Christian should do it.” But is it the case that Jesus wouldn’t do it?
Let’s remember four things. First, Jesus believed in and endorsed the inspiration of the Old Testament and lived under its moral authority during the course of his earthly sojourn. Therefore, I believe he embraced the truthfulness and righteousness of the civil code of Moses, including its regulations concerning capital punishment for specified crimes and sins.
Second, we must also remember that Jesus is the incarnate God. He is Yahweh in human flesh. Thus, Jesus is none other than the very God who inspired Genesis 6:5-6, who commanded the slaughter of the Canaanites, the very God who instituted the civil stipulations of the Mosaic Code. We must never pit the “God of the NT” against the “God of the OT” as if they were not one and the same.
Third, the Jesus of whom we ask this question is the very Jesus from whose mouth, at his Second Coming, issues “a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty” (Rev. 19:15). If one believes that it is consistent with the moral character of Jesus to slaughter his enemies at the Parousia and consign the unbelieving to hell, why is it any more difficult to believe he would have endorsed CP and, if in a position to do so as an agent of the state, would have participated in an execution?
Finally, Jesus did not hold a position of political or military authority during his earthly sojourn. He was not an officer of the state. As a private citizen, he would have abided by the same principles that govern all interpersonal relationships: he would have turned the other cheek, walked the second mile, and refused to retaliate or seek vengeance on those who perpetrated evil against him. But I believe he would have supported the state’s right to inflict punishment on criminals. So, yes, if he had served in an official capacity as an agent of the Roman government, I believe he would have participated in the execution of those who by law had been determined to be worthy of death.
And if I were personally to serve in an official capacity as an agent of the United States government (or that of the state of Oklahoma), I would participate in the execution of those justly convicted of a capital crime.
So I suppose, at least in the estimation of some, I am indeed a “heretic”!