Gallows And Altars
Published on: March 27, 2013
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  • Berger quotes Jay Sekulow: “I think
    you are short-cutting the whole process of redemption [by imposing the death
    penalty] . . . I don’t want to be the person that stops that process from
    taking place.” Berger comments: “What is
    interesting here is an explicit religious rationale for the opposition.” I agree with Sekulow, and I, too, find it
    interesting that his opposition to the death penalty is religious, not “merely”
    moral. I would add that the religion in
    question is, in my case at least, “inductive,” not “deductive.” Like C. S. Lewis, who begins his discussion
    of “Mere Christianity” with a discussion of “Right and Wrong as a Clue to the
    [Theistic] Meaning of the Universe,” I have trouble with “stand alone” morality—moral
    perceptions which have no theistic implications.

    When morality is uncoupled from its
    religious implications, it all too easily justifies capital punishment. Is Immanuel Kant a barbarian when he says (in
    “The Metaphysics of Morals”), “. . . every murderer—anyone who commits murder,
    orders it, or is an accomplice in it—must suffer death”? No, but neither is he a Christian. Kant can argue that it is immoral to treat
    people as means, not ends, and he can construct a philosophically sophisticated
    version of the Golden Rule—the categorical imperative—and still argue that
    capital punishment is not only permissible but obligatory. (Not to execute murderers would be to treat
    them as something other than moral agents responsible for their actions, a
    clemency no honorable moral agent would accept.)

    Ask people who support capital
    punishment how they would like it if, after serially raping and murdering
    little girls, they were condemned to death.
    Most would say that that is exactly what they would deserve. They are quite comfortable defending capital
    punishment against the charge that it is unjust or barbaric. But how could it be defended against the
    charge that it short-cuts the process of redemption? (Set aside the objection that redemption is
    not really a “process.”) Richard Wagner
    puts the argument in the mouth of Elizabeth when she defends Tannhauser against
    the townspeople who want to execute him (for celebrating carnal love and
    hanging out in “Venusberg”!): But if you
    kill him, he can’t repent.

    That is a powerful argument, but from
    a practical perspective, it has the disadvantage of assuming that sin and
    redemption are concepts that resonant with modern people, who are more likely
    to view the invocation of such ideas as evidence of religious fanaticism. If one is primarily interested in actually
    winning more time for Tannhauser to repent, it might be wise, today, to
    downplay the religious angle.

    But that, too, has a disadvantage:
    the religious argument is the only one which can awaken the Kantians from their
    dogmatic moral slumbers in their well-fortified dream castles—not to mention
    the proto-Kantians who volunteer to buy the bullets and pull the trigger. Berger has convinced me to take the issue of
    capital punishment more seriously than I have—for most of my life I’ve thought of
    it as a topic for high school essays—but it is only the religious approach that
    enables me to get the right answer.

  • Anthony

    “Or, to put the same idea in more secular terms, homo sapiens is not the moral climax of the evolutionary process.” For secularists and sectarians, therein lies crux of issue and the paradox “The violence triangle.” Lamentations regarding death penalty have a long history in civilized life and professor Berger rightly concludes that an ongoing philosophical seminar (for better and worse) comes up short. “But man, proud man, drest in a little brief authority, most ignorant of what he’s most assur’d, his glassy essence, like an angry ape, plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven as makes the angels weep.” Death penalty and inner demons implications of both still bedevils.

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