Justice Be Hanged: Christian Critics of the Death Penalty Have Given Up on Logic

By Dwight Longenecker Published on May 1, 2019

Last week John William King was executed for his part in one of the most gruesome murders in recent memory. On June 7, 1998 King and his pals Shawn Berry and Lawrence Brewer beat up African American James Byrd. Then they chained him to the back of their pickup. Then they dragged him for miles along a country road.

Still alive during his torture, Byrd was finally killed when his body, bouncing along the road and being ground raw, hit a culvert and his right arm and head were torn off. They dumped what was left outside an African American church. Then they went off to swill beer and down some grub at a barbecue. You can read the whole story here if you need some extra nightmares.

Shawn Berry was sentenced to life in prison. Brewer was executed in 2011. King died by lethal injection last week. Avowed white supremacists, Brewer and King never expressed remorse for their crimes. They said they would do it again if they had the chance.

Opponents of the death penalty were paddling upstream when it came to the case of John William King and Shawn Berry. Here were two of the most despicable specimens of the human race. Remorseless cockroaches of pure hatred, they tortured and murdered a fellow human being in the most horrible way because of his race.

Compassion and Common Sense

Every human heart with a smidgen of compassion and common sense would demand that King and Berry die for their crime.

Nevertheless, opponents of the death penalty insisted that King should not be executed. They were supported in theory by Pope Francis. The Catholic Church upheld the need for the death penalty for two thousand years, but last year Pope Francis changed all that. He ruled that the “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.”

The objective penalty is still the foundation for justice. In light of this, the Catholic church’s present position seems sentimental and poorly thought out. The church’s proper role should be to call for objective justice.

The basis for ruling the death penalty “inadmissible” has three planks. The first is the dignity of the human person. Even an unimaginable evil person like John William King retains an innate worth. The second is the fact that the public can be adequately protected through imprisonment. The third is that without the death penalty the prisoner will have the opportunity to be remorseful and be rehabilitated.

However, the problem with the catechism’s rejection of the death penalty is the reasoning — or I should say lack of it. Catholic theologians are usually pretty savvy, taking care to cross their “t’s” and dot their “i’s”. In the case of the recent prohibition on the death penalty they seem to have had an off day.

While we accept that every person — even the most hardened and cruel criminal retains an innate worth, the other two planks of this new Catholic position are, on their own, incomplete. What is missing is a simple understanding of the basis for criminal justice.

C.S. Lewis on Punishment

In a famous essay C.S. Lewis criticizes any form of criminal justice which is based only on the need to protect the public or rehabilitate the prisoner. He points out that if these are the motives for punishment, great injustice will occur. Why? Because if punishment is only to protect members of the public, a person who has committed a relatively minor crime, but who remains a danger to others would have to be incarcerated forever.

That would be unfair.

On the other hand, if rehabilitation is the motive, a serious criminal might be treated too leniently just because he has shown remorse and rehabilitation. Furthermore, if he knows remorse is the key to leniency he is more likely to fake his remorse and rehabilitation.

The reverse could also be the case — one who commits a minor crime, but does not wish to be “rehabilitated” could be locked away indefinitely. What if you don’t want to bake a wedding cake for a gay wedding because of your faith and you do not wish to be “re-educated”?

Should you be locked up until you comply?

Insane Injustice

This kind of injustice occurred in the Midwest a few years ago. In the Autumn of 2013 two Christian pastors were convicted of sex offenses against children. Brent Girouex raped about a dozen boys. Shawn Ratigan touched little girls and took pictures of their crotch area.

Girouex was sentenced to seventeen years, but the judge suspended the sentence. He said the former youth pastor could serve five years probation and receive therapy instead. Because the judge considered rehabilitation to be the foundation for justice, a child rapist went free.

On the other hand, Ratigan, who was in his forties, whose objective crime was not as serious, was sentenced to fifty years. In effect he received a life sentence. Why? In order to protect the public.

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So in both cases gross injustice prevailed, because the motive for punishment was only rehabilitation or protection of the public.

In his essay, Lewis makes the point that there should be an objective basis for justice. This is called retributive justice. Lewis clarifies that this is not simple revenge. Instead the state assigns certain objective punishments that fit the crime.

Objective retributive justice is therefore the foundation for retaining the death penalty. Some terrible crimes simply demand this terrible punishment. Protection of the public and possible rehabilitation should be considered when sentencing is carried. Likewise possible reductions of the sentence due to circumstances and intention can follow.

Sentimental Theology

The objective penalty is still the foundation for justice. In light of this, the Catechism’s present position seems sentimental and poorly thought out. The church’s proper role should be to call for objective justice. At the same time she should remind us that justice is tempered by mercy and while the death penalty should remain, its execution should be rare.

I once asked a prominent judge why this form of retributive justice is now so widely ignored in our courts.

His answer was illuminating.

“It is because for retributive justice one must first believe in an objective right and wrong. To believe in an objective law you must also believe in an external law giver. Secular humanist judges do not have that belief. Therefore, the legal argument is a theological argument.”


Read Dwight Longenecker’s popular blog, listen to his podcasts, browse his books and be in touch at dwightlongenecker.com

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