Thou shalt not kill - the Death Penalty

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hou Shalt not kill.

Death Penalty

Let us consider the appropriateness of the death penalty from the point of view of Christian ethics. We shall begin with the arguments advanced for and then those against the death penalty.

The first argument for the death penalty--the Equity argument is fairly simple. It maintains that elementary justice requires that an offender who has forcibly deprived another person of life undergo the same experience. This argument draws on the Old Testament, but is ruled out by the New Testament. A second argument for the death penalty--the Utility argument--draws its inference from the general benefit to society.

The Utility argument has some persuasiveness. Because the thought of death provokes primordial fear in most people, the death penalty may serve as an effective means of preventing murder. Accepting that, then certain offenses of a violent character must be punished by the death penalty in order to restrain potential murderers from committing similar offenses. If the death penalty does not stop other murderers, people may argue, society loses nothing except the life of the murderer. Argument may carry on, that the evil nature of some people does not yield to correction in confinement, and that they will inevitably return to a criminal way of life. Depriving these people of life may bring benefit to society.

Certain advocates of the death penalty may impart a philosophical cast to their words. They may say that the death penalty strikingly underscores the belief of society in the Sanctity of Life. They argue that not using the death penalty in appropriate instances will undermine belief in the sanctity of human life. This sanctity argument can be turned against itself.

Turning to the popular arguments against the death penalty, we can hear its opponents recall the Sanctity of Life. They may say that every life, including the life of a murderer, is sacred. Therefore, they characterize the institution of the death penalty as a "cold-blooded" and "barbaric" violation of the sanctity of life.

Another popular argument against the death penalty is that death penalty satisfies only the "base, barbaric" instinct of retribution. It is impossible to justify it because desire for vengeance is immoral.

Certain opponents of the death penalty also point out that human justice is fallible. Human error is go great as to allow such gross errors as a court sentencing an innocent person to death. This fact alone can justify repealing the death penalty. These are the few basic arguments "for" and "against" the death penalty in contemporary society. The problem of the death penalty, however, is more complex. Anyone who seriously ponders the problem of the death penalty knows no simple answers to this problem. All the more so for the Christian.

All systems of criminal justice, both ancient as well as modern, contain in themselves certain aspects of the principle of retribution as the basis for punishing the premeditated, violent taking of the life of another. The Old Testament expresses this idea in the phrase an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth (Leviticus 24:20). From this Old Testament principle we arrive at the inescapable conclusion expressed in the book of Exodus: He that smiteth a man, so that he die, shall be surely put to death (Exodus 21:12).

The early Church, however, was opposed to the death penalty and based its opposition on the teaching of Jesus Christ. This teaching is expressed with the utmost clarity in the words of the Savior:

Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: but I say into you, That ye resist not evil . . . .love your enemies, bless them that curse you (Matthew 5:38-39, 44).

A little later, during the time of persecution, Christian apologists developed the teaching of Jesus against retribution. Early Christian writers raised arguments not only on the grounds of self-defense, but also because they wished to transfigure the pagan world through the Gospel of Christ. Early Christian authors considered the death penalty a violation of the commandment Thou shalt not kill. In this matter, Lactantius, a writer of the Western Church who lived in the third century, wrote:

For when God forbids us to kill, He not only prohibits us from open violence, which is not even allowed by the public laws, but He warns us against the Commission of those things which are esteemed lawful among men . . . . a just man (ought not) accuse any one of a capital charge, because it makes no difference whether you put a man to death by word or rather by the sword, since it is the act of putting to death itself which is prohibited. Therefore, with regard to this precept of God, there ought to be no exception God willed to be a sacred animal (Institutes VI, XX, 15).

When Christians were themselves persecuted by the state, they could not conceivably hold governmental offices and oppose the death penalty through legislation. The problem of the death penalty acutely confronted Christians only after the Emperor Constantine the Great stopped the persecutions and made Christianity the state religion. Christians began to occupy government posts as legislators, judges, and preservers of the social order. They began to act according to the principles of the words of the Apostle Paul:

He is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil (Romans 13:4).

Many Christians began to accept the death penalty as permissible for the sake of justice, and for the sake of law and order that might prevent violence. Of course, Christians never looked on the death penalty as something ideal or desirable but as an unavoidable evil in a world far from ideal.

Even if human logic can justify the death, all the same, the penalty is incompatible with the injunction of the Sixth Commandment Thou shalt not kill. Laws and customs must be more and more imbued with God's Laws. Judicial penalties must strive to awaken the conscience of the criminal. There is power in the spirit of mercy. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.

©Archpriest Victor Potapov

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