Capital Punishment is an interesting subject. Part of what makes it so fascinating is the fact that even within Western culture there is a great divide in opinion about it. Some people are firmly in support of it and other people firmly against it, even though these people all share a fairly common social background and heritage.

This difference in opinion is also quite geographical given that most people outside of the United States have long concluded that this form of punishment is not acceptable and have legislated away from it, while most people within the United States appear to be somewhat content to continue with this practice.

Actually I do believe that there are many politicians in the United States who would like to have the death penalty abolished but they are not convinced that they would get enough public support for it. The result is that, if they were to make an election issue out of it, they are fearful that it might adversely impact their overall support and they might fail to get elected or reelected; a rather sad situation indeed.

If capital punishment was really just an interesting topic for debate or some abstract philosophical discussion then this would all be fine, but unfortunately this is a topic that actually costs some people their lives and implicates others through its practice. This makes discussion on capital punishment an important and urgent matter.

So what, if anything, is wrong with capital punishment? If a person takes another person’s life then surely there is no problem with a reciprocally based punishment in which the perpetrator’s life is also taken? Is this not fair punishment?

Well, for one no other crime, in Western societies anyway, results in reciprocally based punishment; this is simply not the type of justice system we have. For example, if a person is hit by a vehicle and becomes injured, we do not inflict the same physical injury upon the driver who injured them, even in the extreme case in which they drove into that person with the intention of injuring them. Also, if a person steals money from someone else they are normally only forced to repay what they can based on their current assets. Incarceration is intended to cater for the rest of the punishment for the crime.

Despite all this, many still feel that capital punishment helps deter people from committing murder. The argument is that because the punishment is so severe there are numerous individuals who might have gone ahead and killed someone but were held back by the fear of their own execution. Ignoring for a moment the fact that studies done by countries that have abolished the death penalty have shown results to the contrary, this argument still needs to be addressed. One of the problems with it is the subjective nature of deciding what types of crimes should have this particular punishment applied to them. 

If it’s okay to execute someone for murder, because it then creates a good deterrent, why should the same punishment not be applicable to other crimes? In fact in some other cultures numerous crimes are deemed worthy of death, but I think most supporters of capital punishment in the United States would be horrified to be associated with the execution of an individual for blasphemy. And yet these two are really just about where to draw the line since the approach in both is similar - in essence the belief that some crimes deserve the extermination of the perpetrator. Simply put, the idea is that executing people is fine; it is just a matter of deciding the appropriate crimes or events for applying this as punishment. Once you have decided that capital punishment is morally acceptable then it is hard to argue against someone who agrees with you but has differing criteria for deciding who deserves it and who does not. And really this is the lesser point when compared to the initial decision that it is acceptable to kill someone as punishment.

Even if you are firm in your conviction that only those guilty of murder deserve capital punishment, there is the obvious contradiction in this approach that makes it somewhat illogical. On the one hand it proclaims that killing someone is a terrible thing to do and that the perpetrator should be punished severely, and then it goes ahead and proposes the exact same terrible thing to be done to the perpetrator. Is taking a life wrong or is it not? And if it is so wrong then how can it be used as punishment? Anyone who has raised a child will understand the consequences of setting a bad example. If something is okay for one person to do then it must be okay for others to do it as well.

Of course the counter argument is that taking a life is not wrong in itself, only the taking of an innocent life, and thus the taking of a murderer’s life is not wrong. But where does this belief come from and upon what foundation of justice does it stand? Also, if one is still convinced that some crimes are validly punishable by death, on what basis does one decide which crimes are deserving and which ones are not?

Due to the seriousness of capital punishment the answer to questions like these cannot simply be based on personal opinion (an often fickle and highly manipulated resource). One has to look beyond simple opinion and seek out reputable references in the hope of finding some unbiased and well developed answers to these questions.

The horrors of the two world wars in the twentieth century, which included the brutal killing of so many people, gave rise to the United Nations’ series of agreements on human rights that contain the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, as well as other key documents. These are important documents since they were drawn up at a time when people were only too conscious of the reality of killings, and nations were prepared to put aside petty politics for the benefit of all humanity. There has never been another instance of such universal agreement about how people should be treated, and its significance in this regard should not be underestimated. It is to these documents that we shall now turn our attention.

Article 6 of the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights deals with the fundamental right to life for all humans, and specifically mentions the death penalty. At the time of compilation most countries still had the death penalty and so the wording was drawn up to permit it “for the most serious crimes”. If it had not done so then no major nation would have adopted it. However line 6 of the Article was written to direct nations to move towards the abolition of the death penalty. In fact the subsequent Second Optional Protocol to this covenant was drawn up to specifically commit its members to the abolition of the death penalty. So from a human rights point of view, the consensus is that capital punishment is not an acceptable practice. In a sense it is the ultimate human right violation because it terminates a person’s life thereby denying them all the other rights that they would have been able to exercise if they had continued living.

It is interesting to note that the current set of nations that perform executions includes George Bush’s Axis of Evil ones, namely Iraq, Iran and North Korea, as well as almost every other ‘rogue’ nation like Sudan, Syria and Libya, plus China and a handful of other eastern nations, and of course, the United States of America.

Also of interest is a comment by Pope John Paul II in his encyclical entitled Evangelium Vitae in which he states that execution is only appropriate “in cases of absolute necessity, in other words when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society.” And, as the Pope continued in that document, it would be hard to come up with a legitimate scenario that fits this condition when attempting to apply this to a person who is locked up in prison at the time.   

Of course the whole religious understanding about this topic is very relevant in this discussion since (sadly enough) many supporters of the death penalty in the United States come from a Christian background, especially those with a more conservative perspective.

So ignoring the remaining arguments, such as the one about numerous documented instances of the times when the wrong person was executed (deemed a sort of collateral damage to those who argue in favor of capital punishment), it is certainly worthwhile reflecting on the moral issues surrounding this topic, and especially from a Christian point of view.

When asking some Christians as to how they are able to justify capital punishment in the light of their faith, those with some knowledge of scripture will potentially refer to Old Testament references like Leviticus 20, or a New Testament one like Romans 13:3-4. However the fullest manifestation of God, and thereby the highest authority from a Christian perspective, is in Jesus Christ. Thus even the interpretation of Scripture and especially the Old Testament must be subject to the essence of what Jesus said and how he acted.

So when you consider some of the relevant teachings of Jesus found in the Gospels, for example when he told us to ‘turn the other cheek’  and his intervention in the stoning of the woman caught is adultery, together with the overwhelming expressions of compassion and love in his nature, especially for sinners, you can only find arguments to the contrary. It is hard to imagine Jesus as an executioner; not even as a passive witness or a supporter of one. And besides, we cannot forget that Jesus himself was a victim of the death penalty - an innocent one at that.

There are some other aspects of capital punishment, especially as it is practiced in the United States, which make it anti-Christian. For one, capital punishment is performed as an act of revenge. The fact that the injured parties are invited to attend and watch the execution is purposely done so as to give them some satisfaction or resolution that is supposed to come from watching the person who inflicted their loss and pain being punished to the point of extermination. However revenge has no place within Christianity; in fact the exact opposite is taught by Jesus – forgiveness. You cannot claim to be forgiving someone if you are also executing them. You can’t even claim that you will forgive them later after you have had them executed; there are too many contradictions in that statement.

Certainly a person who commits a crime deserves punishment but there is a difference between making someone serve a punishment and killing them (thereby terminating the rest of their life). This difference is best exposed by another key Christian principle that gets violated by capital punishment – the concept of redemption.

By taking the life of a criminal one is effectively ending their time on earth, and one is thereby denying them any more life experiences including the potential for God to redeem them and have them turn their life around. From a Christian point of view this is a most serious issue because in essence, by killing them, one is denying God the opportunity to work any further with this person here on earth. The whole Christian message is centered on redemption and on the plea for people to repent, to turn away from their sins, and to use their lives to do good. To purposely deny someone this opportunity is to purposely behave contrary to the plan of God.

One might argue that the death penalty can in fact help people face their actions, and that many people on death row turn to God when confronted with their day of execution. While fear can be a good motivator it can also result in a false or forced outcome. And even if the criminal on death row does turn, be it in fear, to God and repent, we then ironically go ahead and kill them. Their lives are then taken away from them before they can make any means of amendment or produce any positive contribution. I’m not sure how that can make any sense from a Christian perspective.

Peter Queenan