Christians and the Death Penalty
Published on: October 26, 2011
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  • 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).

  • 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?

  • 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.

  • 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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