Good Read: Christians and the Death Penalty

Here’s a good read from Joseph Bottum concerning the death penalty and our Faith.

One hears so many bad, thoughtless, and even dangerous objections to the death penalty in the United States. That it is unconstitutionally “cruel and unusual,” for instance, though the Constitution itself mentions capital crimes. Or that the large number of prisoners removed from death row in recent years by commutation and technical legal appeal somehow prove that hundreds of innocent convicts are on the edge of state-sanctioned death. Or that opponents of abortion are hypocrites if they don’t simultaneously reject the execution of criminals. Why, I always wonder, does this never seem to cut in the opposite direction: If the issues are genuinely linked, then what about the people who oppose capital punishment while supporting legalized abortion? Aren’t they equally hypocritical, and for exactly the same reason?

At the same time, one regularly hears another set of bad arguments for the death penalty. That it is required to teach human beings the wrongness of killing, for instance, though countries that have abolished capital punishment show no mass conversion to murder. Or that the cost of executing prisoners is significantly less than the cost of imprisoning them, though the expense of actually carrying out a death sentence in today’s legal climate is enormous.

But the worst of these, for a Christian, is the argument from justice–the argument made implicitly every time we tell the story of an executed murderer. One could quarrel here about Christian pacifism and its relation to the death penalty, the hard-edged claim that the task of a believer is to stand as a sheep among the wolves or the softly sentimental notion that mercy is somehow nicer than strict justice. The question I have in mind, however, is about the status of justice in political theory.

Christians may decline to accept responsibility for government, but governing must still go on. And that governing will inevitably find itself caught in the clash between justice and mercy. Christ’s teaching forgives the sinner even while it condemns the sin, and human justice and human mercy may perhaps find a unity in us as individuals if we turn the other cheek as we are taught. But at the level of any actual government–at the level of positive law, with its officers and magistrates–justice and mercy are necessarily in conflict. If judges show mercy, in any meaningful sense of the word, they do so at the explicit cost of justice; they are being unjust by failing to exact the penalty that justice requires.

So what kind of justice–high, low, divine, poetic–can a Christian expect in a modern nation-state? More to the point, what kind of justice can a Christian allow modern democracies to claim for themselves? [full article]

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