Christians arguing over the death penalty

As with the whole “is lying ever justified?” argument, I myself don’t have a settled opinion on the death penalty but can’t help but notice that one side’s thinking is a lot sloppier than the other.  I am surprised to find myself siding with the evangelical Joe Carter and against both the American Catholic bishops and my favorite First Things author, David Bentley Hart over the compatibility of the death penalty with Christian morality.

The bishops condemned the death penalty as an act of vengeance, in contradiction to Christ’s commandment to forgive.  Carter notes the obvious equivocation over the word “vengeance”, which could be used to condemn any act of retributive justice by the State.  He points out that the authority of the State to execute criminals is explicitly affirmed in Genesis (to Noah) and implicitly affirmed in St. Paul’s letter to the Romans.

Hart replies to Carter by first saying that Jesus Christ has overthrown natural justice (so we can apparently ignore its claims).  He says that Noachide covenant doesn’t apply to us–pointing out that it also forbids the consumption of blood, and we’re surely not bound by that.  He denies that Paul ever considered what Christians should do if they controlled the State; all he meant in Romans was that God uses the vengefulness of (presumably pagan) rulers to work justice (bringing good out of evil, as it were).  Hart then engages in some bizarre speculation that Paul believed the Mosaic Law had been corrupted in its transmission to the Jews by rebellious angels.  Finally, he cites two allegedly anti-death penalty incidents in the New Testament:  Jesus sparing the woman caught in adultery, and his own unjust execution.

Carter has replied to Hart this morning, saying he finds it odd to suppose that God would mean to work justice through pagan magistrates but not Christian ones.  He also affirms that the Noachide covenant remains binding, and consuming blood is sinful.  I was pleased that he stuck by this point, since I myself have argued that this prohibition belongs to the natural law on account of the natural symbolism of blood.  Finally, he notes that it was the Pharisees, not the Roman government, who wanted to stone the adulteress, so Jesus was here only condemning private mob violence, not government-administered justice.

I would like to add a couple of points here.  First, people often infer from the story of the woman caught in adultery that Jesus condemns the execution of adulterers.  This may be the obvious lesson to people today, who treat marriage as a joke, but it certainly wasn’t the obvious lesson to prior generations of Christians who continued to execute adulterers for centuries.  More reasonable ways to understand this story are 1) Jesus denies that private individuals–being sinners themselves–have the authority to kill people who they think deserve it; since the authority of the State supersedes that of individuals, this has no implications for the death penalty; 2) Jesus used his personal authority to issue a pardon.

Second, the story of the crucifixion cannot be cited unproblematically as an act of injustice.  We Christians believe that Jesus took our richly-deserved death penalties on himself and squared the books with his crucifixion.  This reasoning in fact relies on death being a suitable punishment.

Going back to the bishops, whose arguments are even worse than Hart’s:  a thing that strikes me as odd is how differently the same bishop behaves when taking the conventional liberal side on an issue or the minority conservative side.  When a bishop or theologian decides to take a public stand against abortion or gay marriage, he is careful to argue from natural law, not exclusively from the Bible, and certainly not from fatuous sentimentality.  He makes some effort to avoid obvious logical fallacies and to avoid laying down principles that have obviously absurd applications.  When the bishop or theologian takes a “liberal” stand (on immigration, the death penalty, or health care, say), all that goes out the window.  He just latches onto some isolated phrase in scripture about welcoming “the stranger” or forgiving “your brother”, elevates it to an obviously crazy absolute imperative, tells some sob story about poor immigrant children or whatever, and then calls anyone who disagrees a heartless bigot.

Of course, being a reactionary, I may be more forgiving of bad arguments for positions I support, and this may color my perceptions.  On the other hand, even on those rare occasions when I’ve found myself in agreement with the bishops’ “liberal” positions, I’ve been aware of how poorly they present their case.  It hardly seems that on these issues the bishops argue at all.  They make no attempt to understand and rebut the arguments of death penalty advocates or immigration restrictionists.

I think the obvious conclusion here is that when an intellectual or cleric takes a conservative position, he anticipates opposition and prepares for it.  When he takes a liberal position, he doesn’t expect to ever have to defend it.  Everybody, at least everybody in his circle, knows that borders and electric chairs are racist.  If he says so, he knows everyone will just nod in agreement.  The hierarchy’s arguments on these issues are really bad–it’s inconceivable that they would ever convince anyone not already convinced, but I doubt the bishops really imagine themselves facing such an audience.  The audience they face–their kind of people, the people who “matter” in their world–are annoyed with them for their unfashionable sexual ethics, and the bishops are always looking for a way to win back their credibility, to atone for their opposition to abortion.  Along comes a national debate on, say, immigration, and they think “Thank God!  A case where the old man in Rome won’t stop me from siding with the better sort of people.”   “End the death penalty” is bishopese for “The Catholic Church isn’t a conservative institution–really!  Please don’t take away our tax exemption!”

Again, I’m not saying this because I disagree with the bishops.  I don’t; I’m uncommitted on this one.  I expect there are good arguments out there against the death penalty, but that just makes the sloppiness on display more striking.


11 Responses

  1. My argument against the death penalty is simple. If you vote for the death penalty and an innocent person is executed, then you are an accomplice to murder. I am not saying that there aren’t crimes for which the death penalty is justified, I am saying that people are too imperfect to be trusted to impose such an irrevocable penalty. I would think my view on this is in sync with Christianity.

  2. I lean against the death penalty as I want to give even the most horrible of people as much time to repent for their sins as possible.

    I do want tougher penalties for criminals and would like corporeal punishment to be trialled and if successful implemented.

    @fschmidt
    “If you vote for the death penalty and an innocent person is executed, then you are an accomplice to murder”

    If an innocent man is jailed and you vote for prisons are you a kidnapper?

  3. There’s nothing like a fail trial followed by a first-class hanging.

  4. FAIR trial.

  5. Stewart Griffin, I would say that something becomes a crime when you know that you did wrong and fail to rectify it. So if a jailed man is found to be innocent and isn’t released, that is a crime (of kidnapping), and if an executed man is found to be innocent and isn’t resurrected, that is a crime (of murder). Since we humans can release people from jail but we can’t resurrect people, I suggest we stick with prison as a punishment.

  6. Hi fschmidt,

    I would say that your view is consistent with but not required by Christianity. I would agree that we should not execute people when there is a reasonable doubt as to their guilt. On the other hand, if one is morally certain of a man’s guilt, and then through unforseeable circumstances it turns out that he’s innocent, I don’t think the government or citizenry incurs any sin (assuming capital punishment to be legitimate in the case of absolutely certain guilt, which is where I think the real argument lies). Of course, I’ve used some vague terms above: “reasonable doubt” and “moral certainty”. While vauge, I think concepts like these are necessary for a world where we almost never have absolutely certain knowledge of non-tautological truths.

  7. I am of two opinions on the death penalty.

    My first, and most basic opinion, is that the death penalty is the only just punishment for certain crimes, particularly cold-blooded, pre-meditated murder. Refusing to impose the death penalty under any circumstances is not a position consistent with a high degree of respect for human life. If we truly respect human life, we will insist that when someone has deliberately, unlawfully, taken another person’s life, the only penalty they can pay to society is their own life – anything less is inadequate.

    My second opinion, is that the kind of government that exists in Western countries today, mass democratic government, administered by self-important bureaucrats, is not a kind of government that can be trusted with the power of life and death.

  8. Execution seems, by natural law, to be the just punishment for someone we know beyond a reasonable doubt to have murdered someone.

    However, this means it’s impossible for society to inflict just punishment on mass murderers. If the Allies had captured Hitler, they could only inflict 1/11 millionth of his just punishment, a farcical fraction.

    So applying Christ’s supernatural mercy actually seems more practical than applying the natural justice He built into the world as the Logos.

  9. It seems to me that the sorts of arguments Carter and Hart are making are interesting, but that they are not especially relevant to our beliefs about the death penalty. Were the Church to be silent, these sorts of arguments would be relevant.

    Actually, if we could just ignore everything since Pope Pius XII, the arguments would not be especially interesting, since then we could just say that the Church has always affirmed the licitness of the death penalty, call the people who disagree nuts, and go on. This is definitely what I would do under such circumstances.

    But the Church is not silent. The CCC, the current Pope, and the prior Pope all say, essentially, that the death penalty is illicit “Today” (whatever that means). Now, the death penalty is not intrinsically evil, and the Arizona Bishops’ statement does seem to say that it is, which is pretty weird.

    As with so much the churchmen have done since the Council, their teaching on the death penalty is baffling and their efforts to justify this teaching are even more baffling. But, we don’t get to just ignore the Catechism and the teaching of the two most recent Popes, do we?

  10. Bonald, I think you’re analysis of US Bishops’ articulation (or lack thereof) of arguments for traditionally leftward positions is dead on.

    Interesting article recently in First Things traces this habit, i.e., the habit of pretending the Church has authoritative guidance when in fact she has none, guidance palatable to the “right kind of people”, to the Cardinal Bernadin era. As a Catholic, a relatively recent convert to boot, I too have struggled with this. It seems patently stupid on so many levels. In the eyes of our Cultural Masters, Catholics have always been anti-progressive mouth-breathers on all issues. Birth control, in fact, never really took off until Sanger managed to create a wedge issue out of it between Catholics and the right kind of Protestants. (Fundamentalists, nearly as slow on the uptake as Catholics, ironically sided at first with latter on the issue.)

    So, until the RCC allows female clergy and blesses homosexual unions and declares the UN Millenium Goals infallible, no amount of dubious posturing by US Bishops will endear Catholics to our Masters, progressives who have no friends to the right and no enemies to the left.

    At the same time, as you note, they make piss poor, often laughably inarticulate arguments on behalf of leftist causes: This profoundly damages their credibility when they are required to speak words of instruction, i.e., stand up for unchangeable truth, an inherently conservative act, and given the current regime, inherently reactionary. No one, not even their flock of whom they are supposed to be pastors, takes them seriously.

    Fr. Neuhaus (RIP) was very far from correct on a number of issues, but he declared several times that where it is not required for the Church to speak, the Church is required not to speak. If our shepherds would but follow this simple advice, the Church, even America at large, would not be in half the hot water they are.

    At any rate, if the FT article has any truth to it, it looks like that Bernardin Era may have in fact come to an end. Perhaps our children and grandchildren will, should they survive and proper, take great lessons from the Current Silliness, and not judge us too harshly.

  11. I doubt the capacity of people (including myself) to overthrow the consensus judgment of – say – 1700 years of Christendom (including its most spiritually advanced representatives) and suddenly discover that the death penalty is unjust. The timing is more than a little suspicious. The values of the most vehement opponents of the death penalty seem to nail it.

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