Capital Punishment, Term Paper Example
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According to a recent BBC article (BBC), the Christian community is divided regarding capital punishment. Some Christians argue for, while others against. As there are several possible interpretations of the Bible and the teachings of Christian authors, it is hard to determine whether or not capital punishment (often referred to as death penalty) has a place in Christian ideology. The author of the current essay will attempt to reveal the major influential teachings of the Bible, current theories of theology, and reflect on the arguments for and against capital punishment. However, before analyzing the related literature and publications, it is important to note that there are several types of capital punishment, and it is a penalty that can be given for different crimes, based on the laws of the country. Some countries apply capital punishment only in serious murder cases, while in other countries it is acceptable to kill someone who committed lesser crimes. Therefore, the author will attempt to examine the legacy of death penalty not only in general, but also applied to different crimes and cases.
Before starting to examine the legacy of capital punishment in Christianity, it is important to look at the Biblical references related to taking others’ lives, and punishing crimes. The author would like to review Old Testament and New Testament references and quotes in order to determine whether or not punishing crimes with taking someone’s life is compatible with Christian ethics.
The Old Testament
In Genesis (Gen 9:, NIV), we read: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed”. The Old Testament, indeed, is full of references to the “eye for eye” principle. While it is clear that the Old Testament calls for capital punishment for murder, it is also important to note that it allows death penalty for lesser crimes, as well. In Levetians (Lev 20:16, NIV), blasphemy is required to be punished by death. Several other references from the Old Testament are presented by the Connecticut Network to Abolish the Death Penalty. The authors mention several crimes punishable by capital punishment, such as violating Sabbath, cursing parents, and enslaving people (Connecticut Network to Abolish the Death Penalty, 1). Kukis (3) further notes that there was a close relationship between the Law of Israel and the teachings of the Old Testament. Indeed, governments were given authority to carry out punishments that are noted by the Old Testament and prophets. As an example, adultery, homosexuality, and rebelliousness, as well as being a false prophet was punishable by death.
The New Testament
The New Testament, however, puts death penalty in a new perspective; both because of Christ’s execution on the cross, and because of his new, more humane teachings about forgiving others. The last thing Jesus says on the cross, indeed, is “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing”. (Luke, 23:34 NIV)
The main debate related to the teachings of the New Testament, according to Belousek (376) is that:
“Jesus’ teaching in the Gospel of John amounts effectively to a permanent moratorium on the human practice of capital punishment in fulfillment of the substance of covenant law; and that Paul’s gospel announces the good news that God has put a final end to the death penalty through the cross of Christ”
Jesus did forgive to all sinners, instead of calling for punishment. One of the examples of expressing forgiveness and calling for Christians not to carry out death penalty is when the people are asking Jesus’ opinion on stoning a woman caught in adultery. According to Old Testament law, this sin was punishable by death. However, Jesus seems to contradict the old law, telling the people: “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” (John, 8:1, 7, NIV). In the story, Jesus tells the woman to go and live her life without sin. According to him, forgiving would be more effective in improving people’s morale than taking their lives. This event is one of the many that enraged Pharisees against Jesus: according to them, he was committing blasphemy, ignoring the word of the Bible. In reality, Jesus was sent to create a new law: one that is based on understanding, humanity, and forgiveness.
There is, however, a contradiction that needs to be addressed, based on the different things Jesus says in the Bible. As he states that other men do not have the right to judge others in the above example, he also clearly indicates that he does not want to change the law set by prophets: “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish, but to fulfill” (Matt 5:17, 19).
Further, in Matt 5:38-48 he tells people to love their enemies. In order to fully comprehend the teachings of Jesus about capital punishment, it is important to make a distinction between his teachings about human behavior and the role of authorities. He does not question the role of the government and officials: it is clear from his death. He also tells his followers to “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mk, 12:13-17). The separation of earthly power from God’s authority is the most important aspect in Jesus’ teachings that help understanding the controversy that surrounds capital punishment and Christian values.
One of the most influential Christian writers, Augustine was clearly against death penalty. His arguments are quoted below to be examined in detail:
“The final point in the letter from your excellent self was that the church does not demand in retribution either life or bloodshed. Rather, the guilty should be stripped of the possessions they are most afraid of losing.” (Augustine, Letter 103).
“What if countless innocent men were dragged violently from the church and executed?” Augustine, Letter 250)
The above two points that the author makes are interesting for several reasons. First of all, Augustine states that death is not a real punishment, and does not provide victims with redemption. Indeed, death is too simple, and irreversible. As humans make a decision at court about people’s lives, it is likely that the decision would be biased and imperfect. Humans’ laws are always inferior to God’s law. On the other hand, the author makes an interesting point stating that those in power could abuse their authority and condemn innocent people to death. There is a real danger, therefore, based on the arguments above it is clear that death penalty should not be supported by the church.
More recent views of the compatibility of death penalty with Christian values support Augustine’s ideas. Northey (3) states that there are currently three Christian arguments surrounding death penalty: biblical/theological, humanitarian, and pragmatic/operational. The author calls for clarifying Biblical messages, taking a critical standpoint, and considering the practical impact of supporting or banning capital punishment.
Garnett (2) argues that the boundaries between private faith and political life should be broken down. While in the beginning of the essay, the author stated that in order to fully understand the controversial references of the Bible, it is important to separate the authority of those in power and God’s law, Garnett seems to oppose this proposition. According to him, religion should be taken to the “public square”. There are several issues surrounding the above argument. First of all, the previously mentioned quote from Jesus that calls for separating God’s power from the power of authorities. Indeed, while in the Old Testament, God took a more active role in punishing his people (E.g. Sodom and Gomorrah), in the New Teatament he seems to be taking the “back seat” and teach instead of punishing. Jesus is attempting to change the Jewish people through teaching instead of punishing them. Likewise, St Paul educates new Christians about the values and principles of religion. The author of the current study would therefore like to argue that forcing Christian values and ethics on masses would only result in another crusade. Jesus’ tolerance should be the example for all Christians. He touches those who are untouchable, mixes with sinners, and those from different religions and races.
Corinthians 6:1-4 clearly summarizes the Christian value of tolerance:
“When one of you has a grievance against another, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints? Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more, then, matters pertaining to this life! So if you have such cases, why do you lay them before those who have no standing in the church?”
The above passage clearly confirms that the power of God should be separated from earthly power. However, it is also important to mention that modern ethics of the Western society are originated from Christianity, therefore, they are influenced by Christ’s teachings. At the same time, the author of the current essay believes that moral values and principles should be universal to the entire human race, therefore, they should not be linked to one religion or another.
Archbishop Renato Martino (2) clearly stated that Christian values were incompatible with death penalty. The author provided several points supporting the above statement. These will be examined in detail below. Fist, the author argues that death penalty violates human dignity and the sanctity of life. Indeed, this argument is in line with the Christian values, still it is arguable that protecting life of innocent people is equally important. If the person to be punished is not likely to change, and would commit further crimes against others in the future, it is possible that the only way they could be restricted from causing more harm is to kill them. Still, real life sentence could be just as effective. The next argument is based on Jesus’ teachings, and therefore extremely relevant to the subject of the current essay. The author states that death penalty goes against Teachings of Christ, who supported forgiveness over the “eye for an eye” principle. The third of the most important arguments made by the Archbishop is that death penalty takes away the chance of changing from criminals. In the Bible, there are several examples to be found to Jesus giving people a second chance and forgiving those who commit crimes against him. Indeed, Saul, later Paul was attempting to destroy Jesus before his conversion. If Jesus assumed that he was a lost soul and there was nothing to be done for him, he would not have built his church on him. That stated, it is evident that Jesus believed in people’s ability to see God and change their ways, therefore, Christians should as well. Instead of condemning sinners, members of the church should support them and show them the way towards God.
Benson (6) makes an interesting point when he states that “Traditional church teaching on the death penalty has been strongly influenced by the church’s changing relationship with the state”. While most of the Catholic churches and committees support the abolition of capital punishment in the Western world (Benson, 6), protestant churches are more divided regarding the moral and ethical validity of death penalty. The author brings up some interesting ethical and moral arguments for capital punishment, and it is important to examine these in order to fully understand the context of the debate. The first argument that Benson (7) quotes is that “Justice demands retribution, not rehabilitation”. This argument is common among those arguing for maintaining the institution of capital punishment, however, as it has been proven above by reviewing New Testament references, is against Jesus’ teachings. Jesus believed in the superiority of rehabilitation, instead of retribution. He forgave Saul and Peter, allowing them to grow in their faith.
The second argument presented by the author is that capital punishment “expresses society’s outrage at heinous crimes” (Benson, 7). Judging others based on their values, however, is against Christian tolerance, and showing an example does not seem to have a strong enough impact on crime levels.
The third statement quoted by Benson (7) is that death penalty is a “deterrent against crime”. Several authors have already researched the impact of having death penalty in place and crime levels. Benson (7) states that “statistically there is no relationship between capital punishment and the murder rate in retentionist societies”, therefore, the above statement has been proven invalid.
Recent Events and Reflection
Smith and Winright (3) talks about Christian values and ethics, quoting the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us”. The main argument the authors make in the light of the recent events, such as the 9/11 bombings is that the main focus of the church should be supporting the victims of crime, instead of seeking redemption and punishment. Considering that Christianity is a religion, and not a state, it is important to keep the powers separated. If one person’s ethical considerations do not allow supporting death penalty, this can be for several reasons. Beliefs and personal ethics are influenced by, but not determined by one’s religion. The main purpose of religion should not be to help authorities make decisions that involve law and order, but to develop one’s own values that they live by.
As Smith and Winright (15) states: “In the light of its Eucharistic worship, the church refuses to take sides with only the offender or only the victims; because of Christ’s death and resurrection, we are called to be on both of their sides”. The above statement is an interesting message of Christian humanity, and should be examined further to fully comprehend. In the Bible, there are several references of Jesus looking at sinners as victims, as they are not aware of God’s love. Therefore, letting them go, instead of allowing them to meet Christ would not be acceptable. At the same time, it is required to care for victims. Today’s priests visit both hospitals where ill people and victims suffer, and prisons where perpetrators are being punished.
Death penalty can be given for several crimes around the world. A recent event in Indonesia (CNN), for example, executing prisoners who were found guilty in illegal drug trafficking. The international outrage related to the issue is mainly based on the disproportionate punishment of the crime; we can see that the Indonesian government went further than applying the “eye for an eye” principle.
In other parts of the world, having a religion that does not comply with the state rules carries a death penalty. It is clear from the above examples that the main purpose of death penalty is not to maintain an ethical and just society, but to exercise political power, therefore, Christians should in no way support the institution: mainly because laws made by humans can be imperfect, and secondly because Jesus called for the separation of power of politicians and the power of God.
Based on the above review of related quotes from the Bible and Christian authors engaging in the debate of capital punishment, the author of the current essay found that the debate on death penalty should not be carried out on a religious basis. Concluding the main finding of the study, the power of governments should be separate from God’s law, and while Western ethical principles are influenced by Christian values, they are not the same. It would be wrong to force governments to accept the official standpoint of the Catholic church. Another finding of the study is that one of the main themes of Jesus’ teachings is forgiveness. He called for forgiveness, and gave people a second chance, just like the woman who committed adultery and was about to be executed, or Saul who persecuted Jesus’ followers, and Judas as well. From the above examples, it is clear that the real message of Christianity is to love every person, without considering their previous actions and beliefs. If death penalty was the only option, the work of priests in prisons’ death rows would be unnecessary, as it would solve the problem completely. While the Old Testament mentions several examples of death penalty carried out by priests, it is also important that in the old Judea, the separation of power between priests and government officials was almost non-existent. Jesus did not claim that God’s judgment was superior to the government’s, and accepted his death sentence without rebelling against him. Even his last words confirmed that he believed in forgiveness more than in revenge, therefore, Christians should exercise compassion for all, forgiveness, and reject judging others based on their actions and beliefs.
BBC “BBC Religions” 2009. Web. http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity/christianethics/capitalpunishment_1.shtml
Belousek, Darrin W. Snyder. “Capital Punishment, Covenant Justice and the Cross of Christ: The Death Penalty in the Life and Death of Jesus.” Mennonite Quarterly Review 83.3 (2009): 375.
Benson, R. “The ethics of capital punishment” Centre for Christian Ethics Background Paper 12 February 2007. Web.
Connecticut Network to Abolish the Death Penalty. “The Death Penalty, Christianity, and the Bible” 2004. Web.
Garnett, Richard W. “Christian Witness, Moral Anthropology, and the Death Penalty.” Notre Dame JL Ethics & Pub. Pol’y 17 (2003): 541.
Kukis, G. “The Bible and Capital Punishment” 2010. Web.
Martino, R. “Christian Teaching Opposes The Death Penalty” 1999. Web.
Northley, W. “The Death Penalty: An Historical and Theological Survey, James J. Megivern, New York/Mahwah, N. J.: Paulist Press 1997, 641 pages.” Review. 2009. Web.
Smith, Allyne, and Tobias Lee Winright. Christian Worship and Capital Punishment. Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2003.
The Holy Bible. “New international version.” Grand Rapids: Zondervan (1984).
Tkacz, Michael, Douglas Kries, and Ernest Fortin. “Augustine: Political Writings.” (1996).
Whiteman, H. and Castillo, M. “Australia Recalls Ambassador after Indonesia Executes Prisoners” CNN. 29th April, 2015. CNN Online.
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