CAPITAL punishment is a divisive issue today, even among Christians. Fundamentalist Christians in America, especially from the so-called Bible-belt, support the death penalty because it is the explicit teaching of Scripture, particularly the Old Testament.
Conservative Catholics support the death penalty maintaining that the practice – which is the right of the State – is in concurrence with Scripture, tradition and natural law. Liberals (and some conservatives) have long called for its total abolition.
It is impossible within the limited compass of this essay to examine this complex issue from every angle. What follows is a brief survey of the biblical material and the witness of the Christian tradition. I will also discuss, albeit briefly, the arguments in support of and against capital punishment, before presenting my own position.
There can be no doubt that the Old Testament sanctions capital punishment for certain crimes and offences. In the Mosaic Law there are no less than 36 capital offences that are punishable by execution by stoning, burning, decapitation or strangulation. The list includes offences such as idolatry, magic, blasphemy, murder, adultery, bestiality, incest, and even the violation of the Sabbath. But the death penalty is seen as an especially appropriate punishment for murder, for the Noahic covenant presents the following principle: “Whoever shed the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.” (Genesis 9:6).
That capital punishment is an approved punishment that the State can execute is surely taught, or at least implied, in Romans 13. The authority of the State is established by God to reward the good and punish the wicked. The State has the right to wield the sword in dealing with the wicked.
Although Jesus Himself refrains from using violence, He does not deny that the State has the authority to exact capital punishment. He cites with approval the harsh commandment, “He who speaks evil of father or mother, let him surely die”, in His debate with the Pharisees (Matthew 15:4; Mark 7:10, Cf. Exodus 21:17; Leviticus 20:9). In His trial before Pilate, Jesus did not contest Pilate’s right to execute offenders but reminded him that this authority came “from above”. (John 19:11).
Support for the death penalty is almost unanimous in the Christian tradition, particularly in the teachings of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church. Except for a few like Ambrose, most Church Fathers maintain that Scripture gives the State the right to exact such punishment on certain offenders.
Thoughtful objectors of the death penalty have offered four reasons why capital punishment should be abolished. The first is that the convict may be innocent. This objection alerts us to the fact that even the best and most objective justice system is imperfect and therefore not infallible. The second objection is that the death penalty whets the appetite for revenge. The third objection is that the death punishment cheapens the value of life and promotes the idea that murder in some respects may be condoned. Some see this as a weak objection: many pro-life advocates are at the same time advocates of capital punishment because they reasoned rightly that the innocent and the guilty do not have the same rights.
The final objection will at first glance appear to be compelling: Christians are called to forgive. Although forgiveness is an important aspect of the Gospel and the Christian is commanded to forgive, there must be a distinction between the assailant’s relationship with his victim and with the state. Personal pardon on the part of the victim does not absolve the offender from his/her obligation to justice.
The purposes of criminal punishment may be summarised thus: rehabilitation, defence against the criminal, deterrence and retribution. Can the death penalty achieve these goals?
Rehabilitation: Obviously the death penalty does not help to reintegrate the criminal into society – although from the pastoral standpoint it may cause repentance and reconciliation with God. Defence against the criminal: Capital punishment is obviously an effective way of protecting society from the criminal, although some questioned if such an extreme measure is really necessary. Deterrence: The death penalty may deter others contemplating to commit similar crimes, although its power to do so is debatable. Finally, retribution: The general principle is that guilt calls for punishment; and the greater the offence, the more severe the punishment.
But since the State, unlike God, is neither omniscient nor omnipotent, retribution by the State obviously has its limits.
I believe that the State has the authority to exact the death penalty although it may choose not to do so. The State may choose to commute the death sentence to a less severe punishment, like life imprisonment without parole. However, should the State choose to put criminals to death, such punishment should be meted out only to perpetrators of heinous crimes like murder.
The State has the authority to wield the sword, but it must do so sparingly, and always in the interest of justice.
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. This article was originally published in the Methodist Message.