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.