Why Some Christians Oppose the Death Penalty — But Shouldn’t
The drive against capital punishment has many motives, some of them worthy.
Why would pro-life Christians join secular, pro-choice leftists in a drive to eliminate capital punishment? There are a number of plausible motives. Let’s leave aside the cynical reasons, such as a craving for approval from an implacably anti-Christian society, and move on to the pure ones.
There are pro-lifers who think that rejecting capital punishment will show the depth of their commitment to human life as an absolute and unconditional good. They hope that this extreme, outrageous gesture will convince their opponents to come on board, and reject the cost-saving, ruthless expedients of abortion and euthanasia. That tactic reminds me of arguments I had with pro-choicers back in college, who’d cite my support for capital punishment to prove that my views were inconsistent.
“Okay,” I’d answer. “I think the death penalty is justified, but I’m not attached to it. Let’s trade: I’m willing to eliminate executions, if you will ban abortions. I’m willing to spare the guilty, if you will spare the innocent.” Nobody took the deal.
Perhaps I didn’t bid high enough. Maybe Christians should up the ante, and embrace pacifism and anarchism, as Dorothy Day did. Eliminating our armed forces and disarming our policemen would be an even more “radical” gesture of this kind of reverence for life. Would that convince Planned Parenthood to stop dismembering babies? Would it win over ISIS to cease beheading civilians? There is much more to moral suasion than hysterical, grandiose gestures — especially those that play into the hands of our enemies.
The other reasonable motive for objecting to capital punishment is fact-based: It is often abused. Some countries such as Saudi Arabia and China execute criminals for offenses that do not remotely call for capital punishment, if any punishment at all.
Here at home, each year seems to turn up another innocent man sitting on death row, for the “crime” of having employed an inadequate attorney — often an unqualified public defender appointed by the court. Such cases rightly appall us, and ought to inspire a moratorium on ordinary criminal executions, until our system is fixed.
But abuses do not prove that capital punishment is intrinsically unjust, any more than the imprisonment of innocent people “proves” that we need to throw open all the penitentiaries, just in case. The abuse of an institution doesn’t disqualify it from being used rightly and justly. The same U.S. Army that expelled American Indians also marched south and freed the slaves.
We should get behind a moratorium on the execution of poorly-educated, psychologically troubled Americans who could be safely imprisoned for life to punish them for their crimes. Our system of justice in capital cases is just too broken, and needs to fixed and made fair. While we’re at it, we should focus our attention on more widespread and destructive abuses in our prison systems: the national scandal of prison rape, for instance — which jailors routinely wink at and American “comedies” laugh about.
The death penalty should be reserved for exemplary criminals whose guilt is beyond all question, such as terrorists and traitors, but it must be maintained in law as the ultimate means of enforcing collective justice.
Yes, we must spare the innocent. The execution of an innocent man, like his imprisonment, casts a stain on the whole system of justice — which performs a central and sacred civilizational duty: To embody the deepest and highest aspirations of a people, to render societal retribution against those who violate the inalienable rights of others and to protect the innocent from exploitation by human predators.
These are duties which we as individuals delegate to the state. A state which completely ceased to perform those duties would lose our allegiance, and those rights would revert to us. If you steal my property, I have a human right to recover it. If you murder my sister, I have a human right to expect that you will be punished. To avoid the anarchy of feuds and private vengeance, we hand over such cases to an impartial authority, and abide by its imperfect decisions. But the human right remains, and if the state routinely fails to mete out justice, the government falls into crisis — and failing every peaceable remedy, a revolution may be in order, as our Founding Fathers knew.
To reduce the role of the state, as some Christian critics of capital punishment do, to the lone, lame goal of “protecting people,” is to march 70 yards closer to the secular liberal “happy moments” theory of life. We would not execute or imprison people as punishment — that’d be judgmental and vindictive. No, we’d put people away for our protection, and for their own, so they could get the help and rehabilitation that they needed. In fact, some say, we should not even imprison people without parole, because then they would live without “hope” — which they redefine not as a Christian virtue focused on salvation in the next life, but rather as the “hope” of grabbing a few more happy moments in this one.
Some critics of capital punishment allow for executions in theory as a last resort — in a society where prisons are insecure, for instance. They seem not to realize the ominous principle they’re admitting here. They believe that no one really deserves to die at the hands of the state, in the name of justice. But they will allow the state to execute someone if he is a persistent danger to society. His guilt is irrelevant to whether he lives or dies. That depends on the thickness of prison walls, and whether the guards can be bribed.
Consider the logic of this position for a moment. Stephen Spielberg played it out in his anti-utopian film Minority Report, where criminals were captured and punished before they’d even had the chance to complete their crimes, for the better protection of the innocent. If we can execute people not because they are guilty — remember that that is a sin — but only out of expediency, then why can’t we imprison them for the very same reason? Why wait for them even to commit a crime? Much better to put them in therapeutic confinement the moment they are diagnosed with strong anti-social tendencies.
Before you scoff at that as science fiction, remember that states across the country have tried to enact “preventative detention” laws, holding sexual abusers captive after they’d served their sentences, to stop them from striking again. As genetics advances, and we learn more about “predator genes,” do you really put it past the mad scientists who make up our country’s bioethics as they go along — who have filled IVF center’s freezers with hundreds of thousands of embryos — to get behind preventative detention? Why not eugenic screening? The last thing Christians need to do is to encourage such madness, by abandoning the clear, stark standard of justice as the only criterion for punishment.
If we will not execute terrorists whose guilt is plain as day, but instead leave them to sit in comfortable cells composing their memoirs and manifestos, we dishonor the lives they ended and degrade our very own. We embrace, whether we know it or not, the secular liberal consensus that life is cheap, so it needs to be fun, because nothing really matters.
Also see Part I of this analysis, which explains the secular liberal “happy moments” view of life, and the traditional Christian understanding of justice.