walter russell mead peter berger lilia shevtsova adam garfinkle andrew a. michta
Published on: October 26, 2011
Christians and the Death Penalty

The cross has been the foremost symbol of Christianity for so long that we easily forget that it was an instrument of execution. Subjects of the Roman Empire at the time could hardly forget this, and the spectacle of a religion using this symbol must have been shocking indeed, if not downright obscene. To achieve a comparable shock value today one might decorate the altar with a gallows, an electric chair, or the equipment for lethal injection. One might think that the fact of Jesus having died as an executed criminal would make his followers averse to the death penalty. One would be wrong. Ever since the establishment of Christianity as the religion of states, the principal practitioners of the death penalty, there has been a close relationship between priests and hangmen. In the Tower of London there used to be (perhaps still is) an exhibit of executioners’ swords. Some of them had Biblical passages inscribed on the blades. One inscription read “Thou Lord Jesus art the Judge”, affirming the belief that the man wielding the sword was only acting as the impersonal (and ipso facto blameless) instrument of divine justice. Some years ago I came across an English translation of a liturgy for executions by the Lutheran Church of Sweden. It spelled out, step by step, what the officiating minister was to say when the prisoner stepped up to the scaffold, when the noose was placed around his neck, when he was pushed to his death, and when the ceremony was concluded. (I did not find out why this Swedish text had been translated into English. Perhaps for the benefit of  Swedish immigrants condemned in Minnesota? Or their pastors?) Today the situation is more complicated and (at least in Sweden, if not in America) less uniformly repulsive.

On September 21, 2011, the state of Georgia executed Troy Davis by lethal injection for the alleged murder of a policeman in 1989. (The long interval between crime and punishment is of course not unusual, as attorneys exhaust every possible means to save their clients.) The case aroused wide interest, since there were serious doubts about the guilt of the accused. Several key witnesses for the prosecution had revoked their testimony. Prominent persons around the world asked for a pardon, among them Pope Benedict XVI and Jimmy Carter. There was a storm of outrage in Europe, the case being cited as yet more evidence for the barbarity of the American legal system. A few days after the execution, on September 26, 330 Catholic theologians issued a statement deploring the event and calling for the abolition of capital punishment in the United States. The statement was quoted in a story in the National Catholic Reporter on October 14; it was also reported in the secular press. The statement conceded that Catholic teaching did not call for outlawing the death penalty outright, but said that it should be used only if there are no other ways to protect society—a situation that very rarely if ever occurs in a modern state.

The current Catholic position on the death penalty was promulgated in 1995, when Pope John Paul II issued the encyclical Evangelium Vitae, which stated that the extreme penalty is only permissible “in case of absolute necessity, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society”. This position was reaffirmed in a statement by the American episcopate, “A Culture of Life and the Penalty of Death”. Since then the Catholic Church in the United States has strongly advocated for abolition. As the bishops’ statement suggests already in its title, its opposition to the death penalty is linked to its opposition to abortion, both supposedly part of a “seamless” affirmation of life. (Needless to say, this linkage is not necessarily endorsed by other opponents of capital punishment.)

The United States is exceptional among democracies in its use of this penalty, in this matter right up there with countries like China and Iran. It could not be admitted to the European Union, whose charter of human rights prohibits the death penalty (even Turkey was induced to renounce it as it began the process of admission). In polls the majority of Europeans favor the EU policy, with the exception of the United Kingdom (don’t ask me why—indeed, in a poll in August 2011, 65% of Britons favored the reinstatement of the death penalty—a deep Anglo-Saxon nostalgia for the gallows?). Also opposed is a majority of people in Latin America, Australia and New Zealand. In the United States a total of about 3,200 individuals currently reside in death rows. Yet even here there are signs of change. 14 states, as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, have no death penalty. In 2011 Illinois joined this group, in the wake of reported exonerations of innocent individuals sentenced to death. There has been an overall decline of popular support for capital punishment, from 80% in 1994 to 61% today. Given the surfacing of the issue in the current presidential campaign, it should be noted that the decline has occurred among both Republicans and Democrats, though pro-abolition views are higher among the latter. There are a number of factors that explain the decline: The use of DNA in proving the innocence of some convicted individuals (since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1973, after a brief suspension, 138 individuals on death rows have been exonerated). Racial and class inequities in the application of the death penalty. Reports about the scandalous incompetence in the legal representation of some poor defendants, and about the suffering sometimes caused by the process of lethal injection. And, last not least, by the immense cost of prosecuting capital cases. It is fair to say that none of these factors are the main reason why most abolitionists hold their position. Rather it is because of their perception that the death penalty is inherently and unavoidably inhuman. However, most of them are satisfied if there is movement toward abolition for any reason—even if it is to save money.

What about religion? Overall, religious conservatives (Jews as well as Christians) tend to be for the death penalty, religious liberals against. (Remember the swords in the Tower of London.) Generally, religious and political conservatism correlates, as does religious and political liberalism.  The Catholic Church now stands with all the mainline Protestant denominations in opposition. That includes the liberal Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (which has long ago incorporated what used to be a Swedish synod—alas, that old liturgy can no longer be used); the conservative Missouri Synod is for. Not surprisingly, the Southern Baptists are for. Across denominations, white Evangelicals are still the strongest religious supporters of capital punishment—62% in 2008 (but, all the same, down from 82% in 1996—very similar to the decline in the general American population). Needless to say, those who favor the retention of the penalty say that it must only be used in the most heinous cases and with all the protections of due process.

The death penalty is not exactly a hot issue in the current presidential campaign. It has come up, perhaps accidentally, around the candidacy of Governor Rick Perry of Texas, who on numerous occasions has been presented, and has presented himself, as an authentic Evangelical Christian. Texas leads the nation in the number of executions—234 since Perry has been governor (more than under any other governor in recent history), including some rather dubious ones. During the presidential debate on September 8, 2011, Perry was asked whether this troubled him. He replied: “I’ve never struggled with this at all.” When the number of 234 executions was mentioned by the questioner, there was loud applause from the audience. Perry commented on this reaction by saying that “Americans know justice”.

Perry’s main rival at this time of writing is Mitt Romney, another governor, but of one of the states that has no death penalty. However, in 2005 he introduced a bill to reinstate the penalty in Massachusetts; the legislature defeated the bill with a large majority. As to Barack Obama, his career did not give him much of an opportunity to develop a position on this issue. Asked about it during the 2008 campaign, he replied that he was in favor of the death penalty “in extreme cases” (the question was about the rape and murder of a small child). But so as not to give undue blame, or credit, to Republicans, let me mention Douglas Wilder, Democratic governor of Virginia 1990-1994, hailed at the time as the first African-American governor of any state—all the more impressive as this governor resided in the old capital of the Confederacy. There were 14 executions in Virginia on his watch. I recall the case of a man in a wheelchair, who had to be carried into the execution chamber. I don’t know whether Wilder “struggled with this at all”.

At the time of Troy Davis’ execution the press published a picture of Georgia’s death chamber. I don’t know if this is the same in other states, but I was startled to see that the table on which the prisoner is placed is cruciform. Two arm rests are opened up on both sides, presumably so that injections can be made into either arm. Let me suggest a topic for meditation to the good Christians who applaud the death penalty: An individual executed in the state of Georgia dies while strapped to a cross.

show comments
  • Dennis Sanders

    Besides the acknowledgement of the current form of execution being in the shape of the cross, I don’t know what was the point of this blog post. It seemed to be sharing information most people already know.

  • Matthew Brotchie

    Bravo. Beautiful Essay.

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    In historian Charles Freeman’s “A New History of Early Christianity” (2009), illustration No. 14 shows the wooden image from the door of the church of Santa Sabina in Rome about 430 a.d. depicting an image of Christ between two persons who are crucified on wooden crosses. But the Christ figure is not on a cross but sort of suspended in air. According to Freeman, Christian art seldom showed Christ suffering on the cross before the 10th century possibly because of shame or theological difficulty showing a suffering deity.

    As to Mr. Sanders’ comment above, I believe what Dr. Berger is pointing out is the coincidental symbols of the lethal injection table and the cross, as if a religious legitimation of the death penalty is implied by the configuration of a medical death table. Unlike Dr. Berger’s executioner’s swords, secular execution is clean, medical, antiseptic and painless and thus OK.

    To execute a criminal, fight a war, or abort an unborn, some authorization is typically needed approving the action. The ultimate authority for approving such actions is for the state to assert that such authority comes from God. It is difficult ask soldiers to fight risk their lives or take the lives of others in war with only secular authorization.

    Not only is there an inconsistency with conservatives who believe in the death penalty but not abortion but also liberals who oppose the state taking human life by execution but put no limits on the state taking property. If any public use can be an excuse to take property then there is no limit to what else the state can take – such as life. Both liberals and conservatives have their inconsistencies.

  • Paul Blankenship-Smith

    To some Christians, perhaps seeing the cross as the bridge to salvation and eternal life leads to obscured vision (seeing how THE cross saves, but not seeing how A cross kills/the injustice of the cross).

  • Carl Gregg

    The cruciform pattern of the death penalty similarly startled me when I first saw the 1995 film “Dead Man Walking,” directed by Tim Robbins — highly recommended. The film is based on the story of Sister Helen Prejean (Susan Sarandon) and her work with a death row inmate (Sean Penn). Based on the book of the same name.

  • Moises

    By coincidence (?), this week Orthodox Jews read the Story of Noah, followed by this verse: “Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall his blood be shed, for in God’s image he made humankind.” (Gen 9:6)

  • Toni

    I believe the proper Christian view is for abolition. Charles Manson may never repent — Timothy McVeigh never did — but God ought to be the one to decide the moment of death, whereupon a Manson or McVeigh presumably no longer has a chance to repent.

    That said, I’m also a little-d democrat. The choice is up to the states. Abolitionists whose appeals drive up the cost of execution have no standing to complain about the cost.

    In fairness, Rick Perry went on to say, “The state of Texas has a very thoughtful, a very clear process in place. When someone commits the most heinous of crimes against our citizens, they get a fair hearing, they go through an appellate process, they go up to the Supreme Court of the United States if that’s required.”

    DNA evidence has never exonerated someone Texas has put to death, to my knowledge. Perry has governed the second most populous state for nearly 11 years; the number of executions on his watch should not surprise.

    In 2004, the Atlantic reported that Texas actually imposes fewer death sentences than 15 other death-penalty states:

    The Facts of Death

    It is widely believed that Texas is the nation’s execution capital, and that blacks are overrepresented on America’s death rows. The reality in both cases is more complicated, according to a study published in the Journal of Empirical Legal Studies. Although Texas’s death row is the largest in the nation, the overall percentage of murderers sentenced to death is actually lower in the Lone Star State than in fifteen others: for every thousand murders, Texas sentences twenty people to death, compared with fifty-one in neighboring Oklahoma and an average of twenty-five among the thirty-one death-penalty states included in the study. Texas’s reputation as death-sentence-happy rests primarily on its high murder rate and on its willingness to carry out the sentences it imposes. (California, for instance, sentences nearly as many people to death as Texas, but as of this writing has executed only ten of them since 1977, whereas Texas has executed 319.) As for the supposed overrepresentation of blacks among those sentenced to death, blacks make up 41 percent of death-row inmates and commit about 50 percent of all murders nationally (in both death-penalty and non-death-penalty states). The study’s authors are quick to note, however, that judges and juries are least likely to impose the death penalty in black-on-black murders (which make up the majority of murder cases involving blacks), more likely to do so in white-on-white cases, and most likely when the perpetrator is black and the victim is white.

    —”Explaining Death Row’s Population and Racial Composition,” John Blume, Theodore Eisenberg, and Martin T. Wells, Journal of Empirical Legal Studies

  • Kevin Menard

    #2… Freeman is wrong. There are early icons of Christ on the cross. It’s well represented in Eastern images.

  • Chris Neely

    You are seriously misrepresenting the Catholic Church’s position on the death penalty.

    The principle that bloodless means are preferred if they can protect society is well understood.

    The fact that Popes or bishops judge bloodless means to be adequate in today’s society does not mean that the church is against the death penalty. It means that those individuals are making a judgement about conditions that the faithful have no obligation to agree with.

    The faithful are free to judge matters differently than the Pope and believe that the death penalty does help protect society and establish temporal justice and is therefore justified.

    Disagreements about circumstances are very different from matters involving differences of principle, such as those found in debates about abortion or euthanasia.

    Given your level of theological education, I can only conclude that your zeal for your cause has led you to mislead.

  • R.C.

    The death penalty is sometimes the only way in which something approaching justice may be done; and as in a criminal justice system we are morally obligated to do justice, we are morally forbidden to entirely abolish the death penalty.

    Even then we may not quite do justice. It is worth noting that many crimes are so heinous that the death penalty is insufficient justice, and is indeed disproportionate in its leniency. But to use something worse (death by torture, I suppose) to try to approximate justice makes us less human and we are thus morally forbidden to use it. The death penalty is in these cases a good compromise, in which we sacrifice sufficiency of punishment in favor of retaining our own souls.

    Still, the death penalty ought to be retained. We know that it ought to be limited in its use…but then again, we also know that particularly heinous crimes ought to be limited in their frequency. If an increase in the frequency of the latter is in no way matched by some increase in the use of the former, that is a good sign that we are increasingly abdicating our moral responsibility toward justice. Hard words, but factual.

    The sad truth is that many Christians oppose the death penalty not because they are abundantly blessed with compassion for the guilty, but because they are largely devoid of concern for justice. The latter concept seems too harsh, too “right-wing,” too nasty. They recoil from it.

    Which is to say that they recoil from an attribute of God, an attribute which God bids secular authorities reflect.

    Now none of what I say takes into account the problem of miscarriages of justice. If there is a possibility for a death-row inmate (or for that matter, a lifer, or really any other prisoner) to be exonerated by recourse to real evidence, that evidence must — MUST! — be taken into consideration.

    And if it is found that such miscarriages occur in a significant number of cases — and where the death penalty is concerned, even 1% is significant — then of course procedures must be altered, and the system made more accurate.

    But these, please note, are arguments for improving the criminal justice system. They are not arguments for abolishing capital punishment. No-one opposes improvements in the system to make it more reliable at discerning the innocent from the guilty. But that does not mean that, for the sake of the innocent, justice should never be done on the guilty.

    So by all means, let us reform THIS and tweak THAT and place safeguards on THE OTHER.

    But let us not contemplate such a gravely immoral act as abolishing the death penalty altogether.

    The good and the wise and the merciful (for it must be remembered that when justice is not done on the wicked, society suffers as a whole) are therefore in favor of retaining the death penalty, even as its use is curtailed under the application of additional safeguards and procedural hurdles.

    This explains the difference between Britain and America, on the one hand, and much of the rest of Europe on the other, on this topic. Those who are most firmly divorced from the continuous traditions of Christianity are naturally those whose culture undervalues justice and makes mercy into an idol. But the tenuous cultural connection retained faintly in Britain and somewhat more robustly in the United States prevents justice from being discarded and mercy from being converted into a blind god, and thus into a devil.

    The intransigence of these two countries on the topic is thus a rebuke to the secularism and moral drift of Europe. The world twists the law of God like a rubber nose, but there is always a faithful remnant.

  • Goldberg

    Always refreshing to see supporters of rape and murder trot out their indignity that the poor, poor, rapists and murderers might actually have to pay some type of price. So much more dignified to allow them to go murder someone else than actually do something to stop them. After all, better to let a thousand innocents be killed than take a chance that someone on their third felony wasn’t read their Miranda rights.

  • Gary Novak

    Berger’s testimony is always worth listening to, and he has been arguing against capital punishment throughout his career. His most impressive argument is that many advocates of capital punishment do not accept personal responsibility for what they are doing– and bad faith is always bad. But surely there are some who accept responsibility for exacting retribution. And might not Christians argue that the cross is so shocking because of Christ’s innocence, not because killing is always wrong?

  • james solbakken

    Everyone I’ve ever know who was against the death penalty was a softheaded imbecile, at best, if not an outright criminal themselves.
    What kind of stupid ass feels more compassion for the murderer than they do for the murdered.
    Also, I think non-Anglo Saxon systems, being traditionally less representative of the common people but rather merely arms of the power elite, have come to see execution as something the rulers impose on the people for political control rather than something the people are imposing on criminals who have it coming to them.
    James Solbakken

  • CG

    “The United States is exceptional among democracies in its use of this penalty, in this matter right up there with countries like China and Iran.”

    Although I agree with the sentiment of the author, this statement is actually incorrect. Both Japan and India, democracies both, have and use capital punishment.

    Nevertheless, I agree that it should be abolished.

    “Also, I think non-Anglo Saxon systems, being traditionally less representative of the common people but rather merely arms of the power elite, have come to see execution as something the rulers impose on the people for political control rather than something the people are imposing on criminals who have it coming to them.”

    Actually, I think this is inaccurate. The UK, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and other countries with the Anglo-Saxon system have abolished capital punishment.

    I think it is precisely because the U.S. system is more populist in nature that capital punishment persists in the U.S. Unfortunately, there is strong public support for the death penalty in the U.S. In states where that is less so, the death penalty has been abolished.

  • Ron Greene

    The death penalty should be expanded to include any crime of a sexual nature done to children.

  • Roger Olson

    It seems to me the main reason capital punishment should be abolished is its finality. Once someone is executed it is too late to correct the conviction and sentence if the deceased is exonerated. Why are there not more cases of post-execution exoneration? Because once a person is executed very few people are interested in investing the energy or money to look further into the matter. Many people convicted of serious crimes have been exonerated by DNA evidence–especially in Texas. I find it hard to believe that no innocent persons are being executed. Recently nationally renowned arson experts have stepped forward to testify that a man Texas executed for allegedly burning down a house with his children in it was probably innocent in that the house burning was probably not arson. Many people labeled the testimony of arson “experts” against him “junk science.” Dateline aired an entire episode on this and similar cases where junk science has led to erroneous convictions for arson. Capital punishment should be abolished simply because it assumes we human beings can be absolutely certain of things such as “beyond a reasonable doubt.” What that means differs from jurisdiction to jurisdiction and even from person to person. Life without parole is a better alternative; it accomplishes everything needed to protect society from further injury at the hands of murderers.

  • A Smith

    Maybe, in the future, we will be able to determine genetically who has the capacity to murder and then abort them. Problem solved!

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