The Bible has a lot to say about crime and punishment, particularly in The Law (the first five books of the Bible). These laws of the Hebrew people were developed over a long period of time and became codified by Moses, the great law giver, in the Ten Commandments. These Ten Commandments get to the essence of law for Judaism, Islam and Christianity, three of the truly great religions of the world. One of those commandments is "Thou Shalt Not Kill" (Deut. 5:17 and reiterated by Jesus in Matthew 5:21).
There are a variety of crimes for which death is the penalty under Hebrew Law. For a fuller grasp of the Old Testament teachings regarding capital punishment, you are encouraged to read Deuteronomy and Numbers.
Jesus' attitude and teaching takes on a different, less harsh note than is found in much of The Law in our Judeo-Christian heritage.
For instance, The Law allowed for stoning to death a woman who was caught in adultery. John records an interesting incident in which a woman taken in adultery is brought to Jesus by the scribes and Pharisees (John 8:3-11). The scribes and Pharisees were always testing Jesus on the issue of observance of The Law. In this story Jesus confronts the woman's accusers and tells them, "Let him who is without sin among you cast the first stone." Finally all the accusers are gone and Jesus says to the woman, "Where are your accusers? Has no one condemned you?" She said, "No one, Lord." And Jesus said, "Neither do I condemn you; go, and do not sin again." The emphasis with Jesus seems to be "pardon," or "forgiveness," or "a second chance."
Our Christian Tradition (or more accurately "traditions") presents a mixed picture on capital punishment. The two great leaders of the Protestant Reformation both believed in capital punishment as a necessary action to maintain civil order. Luther, in the tradition of St. Paul, believed that political/governmental leaders were God's representatives commissioned to keep order and mete justice. This represents the view of Two Kingdoms, one spiritual and the other carnal (sinful society), and Christians are called to be citizens of both kingdoms. There were some exceptions to this notion of dual citizenship, primarily from the Monastic community who withdrew from the "world." John Calvin not only believed in capital punishment for certain civil crimes but also for heresy. Luther did not support capital punishment for heretics (perhaps because he had assumed the role of "heretic" when he confronted the Roman Catholic Church of his day).
John Wesley, a Church of England clergyman and the founder of the Wesleyan movement and whose life and ministry spanned most of the eighteenth century, did not seem to seriously question capital punishment which was used for approximately 200 crimes, many of them against stealing small sums of money. The prison system of his day was filled with people who could not pay their debts and who were imprisoned for the smallest of crimes (according to our standards today). He did minister to people in prisons and sought better conditions for prisoners, but he never railed against the unjust system that put them there.
In Colonial America the death penalty was commonplace, usually in the form of hanging or burning at the stake. Even after the founding of the Republic, capital punishment was still used for a number of crimes.
Recently, as I was preparing this essay, I took a break to watch a movie. The film happened to be a "Western" starring Clint Eastwood. (I guess all boys have a little lawman/cowboy in us.) The title of the movie was "Hang 'Em High." The story was about a judge who lived in the Oklahoma territory and thought of himself as the only "Law" in the territory. Eastwood was one of his marshals who went around the territory in paddy-wagons and brought all sorts of criminals in for judging. The judge believed strongly in "hanging," whether the crime was rustling cattle, stealing horses or killing someone in a gun fight. Eastwood, on one occasion, brought in a couple of 17 and 18 year old brothers who had been involved in cattle rustling in which a rancher was killed. They had no part in the killing and Eastwood felt they should be given something less than the death penalty. The judge disagreed. The public hanging of the two, along with four other hardened criminals, was the occasion for quite a celebration and social affair in the town. Some of that same "frontier justice" still haunts us in this country. The State of Texas has by far the largest number of executions among all the states that allow capital punishment.
The Methodist Church (one of the denominations that formed The United Methodist Church, along with the Evangelical United Brethren Church in 1968) was the first Mainline Protestant church to condemn capital punishment in 1956. They were joined by several other denominations shortly thereafter. Pope John Paul II, in a speech in St. Louis in 1999, described capital punishment as "cruel and unnecessary." That same year, America's Catholic Bishops came out with a strong statement against capital punishment. Part of the statement was, "Increasing reliance on the death penalty diminishes all of us and is a sign of growing disrespect for human life -- the death penalty offers the tragic illusion that we can defend life by taking life." [Jimmy Carter, OUR ENDANGERED VALUES, p. 83]
All but 12 states allow capital punishment. Those that do not are Alaska, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Vermont, West Virginia and Wisconsin. What are the crimes for imposing the death penalty in the states that allow it?
"The death penalty is applied only to Class I felonies, in which case the punishment can be either death or imprisonment for life with the possibility of a fine of up to $100,000. Class I felonies have been legislatively defined and grouped into twelve (12) categories." All 12 of these categories involve "the willful, deliberate, and premeditated killing of a person." [CAPITAL PUNISHMENT -- a publication of the UM Church, pp.11-12]
What is the current situation in the United States in regard to the number of persons facing the death penalty? As of 2002, there were 3,711 persons on death row in the U.S. Fifty-four percent of those were in nine Southern states. Texas had the largest number with 455 followed by Florida with 386. Mississippi had 68 and Alabama had 188. [Cf. Ibid, p. 9]
A casual observer would recognize that the administration of the death penalty is very uneven and in many cases comes down hardest on the people at the bottom rung of the social, financial and political ladder. There are obvious reasons for this, including their social surroundings, their poverty, their lack of education and their inability to employ high powered defense attorneys. In fact, the lack of financial support for court-appointed attorneys in most states is cited by authorities who oppose the death penalty. Most states provide minimal fees for the attorneys and almost no funds for investigation. In addition, many court-appointed defense lawyers tend to be the less-experienced and often less-skilled members of the Bar.
Some new technologies now play an important part in criminal investigations. DNA testing has proven several death-row inmates innocent in recent years. Because of the issues stated above, we know quite assuredly that some innocent people have been put to death since the death penalty has been in effect in these 38 states.
Two illustrations carry the point. The first is told in Jimmy Carter's book, OUR ENDANGERED VALUES. He tells of a black woman in Georgia who was convicted of killing a white man who had held her in servitude against her will and had abused her repeatedly. This happened in 1945. She was convicted by an all-white jury and was executed. "After a thorough reexamination of the case, she was given a full pardon in August 2005 -- 60 years after dying in the electric chair." (Somewhat late, wouldn't you say?) [ OUR ENDANGERED VALUES, p. 85]
Another, more hopeful outcome for innocents on death row, has come out of Illinois. Law students from Northwestern University, working with a faculty adviser, did a lot of investigation of certain cases where the death penalty had been given. They uncovered evidence, including DNA findings, that proved the innocence of several death row inmates. It became such an issue of injustice that in 2000 then Governor George Ryan called for a moratorium on executions in their state.
What are Christians and other people of faith to think of the death penalty? Is it ever justified? Can the administration of the death penalty be "fool-proof," ie, without error -- and thus put to death some who are innocent of the crime? Cases are coming to the fore on a regular basis proving that some innocent people are on death-row. For the first time these innocent prisoners have hope they may escape execution.
Does killing one person for killing another person truly serve justice?
We in the United States are one of only four countries who carry out ninety percent of the known executions in the world. Our "impressive" partners in this fascination for the death penalty include China, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Some might even suggest that we are part of an "Axis of Evil" (no offense intended).
Many people of faith have to face this issue head-on in the court room where as citizen-jurors they have to make life and death decisions. What would you do if you were summoned to serve on the jury in a Class I felony case? Likely, you would be asked by the court if you could support the death penalty in case the accused is found guilty of the felony. Practices vary; both judge and jury are often involved in making this awesome decision.
In 1995, a movie about capital punishment titled "DEAD MAN WALKING," starring Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon, provoked much thought and discussion on this issue. The movie was based on Sister Helen Prejean's stinging indictment of the death penalty. In recent years a stage version is being presented in selected colleges and universities (mostly Roman Catholic). The production was part of the Dead Man Walking School Theatre Project, a nationwide effort to broaden discussion about the death penalty. [Cf. EMORY MAGAZINE, Summer 2005]
Oxford College in Oxford, Georgia, a United Methodist related school and one that is closely allied with Emory University, was the only non-Catholic college involved. Professor of English, Clark Lemmons PhD, director of the theatre at Oxford, had this to say about the play: "This play has been a difficult one to work on for a number of reasons. The emotions the play releases for the cast and crew, who have had to deal with challenging scenes and creating props like the lethal injection gurney, have had to be channeled into art and that's not easy." Professor Lemmons goes on to say, "We certainly don't all believe alike, but we've all had to deal directly with the issue." [op.cit., p. 11]
And so it is with all thoughtful and sensitive Americans, especially if we live in states that have the death penalty. Remember some of the questions we ask when confronting an ethical dilemma:
What is the will of God in this matter?
What am I to do (or think) as a responsible member of the Christian (or faith) community?
What is the appropriate response called for in this situation?
And one other question that affects the "ethics" of capital punishment is, does it really deter crime and, if not, how can it be justified by its proponents?
Unless we are absolutists, we tend to have to deal with a range of ambiguities on this and other issues. From this writer's perspective, there are not simple or easy answers to such profound ethical dilemmas. In our desire to be persons of integrity and to try to have consistency in the way we "feel" or "think" about such an issue, it might be well to remember the poet's warning, when he said, "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds."
For further reference see:
Jimmy Carter, OUR ENDANGERED VALUES, Simon and Schuster, New York. 2005
Hunter P. Mabry, CAPITAL PUNISHMENT, a faith-based study, Abingdon Press, Nashville. 2002