Thomas McKenzie
by grace alone


Thomas McKenzie's Blog.

The Death Penalty is the Most Evil Option


Pope Francis recently set fire to conservative American Catholic twitter by declaring the death penalty to be wrong in all cases. This is over against the previous Catholic position which allowed for capital punishment in certain circumstances. The New York Times said it well:

Before, church doctrine accepted the death penalty if it was “the only practicable way” to defend lives, an opening that some Catholics took as license to support capital punishment in many cases. But Francis said executions were unacceptable in all cases because they are “an attack” on human dignity, the Vatican announced on Thursday, adding that the church would work “with determination” to abolish capital punishment worldwide. (You can read the entire article here).

This didn't come as a surprise to most Christians world-wide. After all, it's hard to "love your neighbor" and kill him at the same time. In most democracies, the death penalty is no longer employed. In totalitarian states, people are summarily executed in the dark, so it's hard to get facts and figures about that. Regardless, in lots of places in the world the idea of the government legally killing people is not acceptable. 

America is, of course, different. We legally execute more people than any other Western nation. You can read the statistics here. Even with the local court challenges to the death penalty, and the lack of killing-drugs available, we're still putting people to death.  

The Pope may not have shocked the world, but he did shock conservative American Christians. My friend Russel Moore (who is, in fact, a great guy whom I love and know personally) did a good job of explaining the conservative, American, Christian position here. Russ' essential position is this: the Bible is OK with the death penalty, so we can be OK with it. Of course, he's more nuanced. He allows for the fact that the way the death penalty is applied in the U.S. is pretty awful. Nevertheless, the Bible is cool with it so the Pope is wrong.

The way Russ gets there is by pointing out that the Pope relies on the commandment "thou shalt not murder." This commandment is given in the context of a nation (ancient Israel) which practiced capital punishment in a way that most of us would be very upset about. Russ is right that the word "murder" here cannot possibly apply to capital punishment in that context. 

So, if something is allowed by the God-given Torah of ancient Israel, is it acceptable for Christians today? I would say "hell no." Forcing a man to marry the woman he had raped (as an example) may have been a good idea in the ancient near-Eastern world (because of the economic impact of rape and marriage), but I don't think any of us want that enforced today. Why? Because we have better ways of handling rape than that. Today, we would say that marrying my daughter off to her rapist would be immoral, even evil. 

Russ argues that the New Testament allows for the death penalty. He does this by pointing out that St. Paul says something about the government having the right to "bear the sword." He also reminds us that the thief dying on the cross said he was being punished justly. Based on these two verses, he concludes that Jesus is cool with the death penalty. 

In doing this, the otherwise amazing Russell Moore makes a normal fundamentalist mistake. He finds a couple of Bible verses that sort of say something that might have something to do with a contemporary issue, and then uses those verses to guide his argument. In so doing, he ignores the entire thrust of scripture concerning love, grace, justice, and the value of human life. (This is not a mistake he makes in other areas).

OK, let's say Russ is right. Let's say that the New Testament is cool with the death penalty. Let's say that a reference to "wielding the sword" beats Jesus commandment to "love your neighbor as yourself." Sure, fine. Should American Christians today be OK with the death penalty? The answer is, once again, "hell no." Why?

I was once listening to a sermon by Richard Niebuhr. In it, he said something like:

Christians are always looking for a choice between good and evil. But this fallen world rarely gives us a choice between good and evil. It most often gives us a choice between evil and more evil.

That's not at all an exact quote, but it's still a really important idea for morality. It's an idea that gets in the way of conversations between more traditional Christians (Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans) and fundamentalists. The later group is looking for the right Bible verse, the former is looking for the most moral of the immoral options. 

In a death penalty situation, what is the most moral choice? Let's say we believe that God created all humans in his own image (Genesis 1:27, etc.), that he loves everyone in the world (John 3:16, etc.), and that human life is sacred (Psalm 139:13, etc). Given this, it seems clear that it is more moral to let someone live than to kill them. According to the New Testament, the ultimate law is the law of love. It seems obvious that you cannot both love and kill someone at the same time. 

But!, you say. What about?, you say. Hold on, I'm with you. Sometimes someone "has to" die. Sometimes there is no way around it; or, the way around killing is worse than killing. I agree. Taking a life is a moral evil, but sometimes it is the lesser evil. For instance: D-Day. Was it more evil to let Hitler have Europe, or to kill all those men on D-Day? Neither is good, but D-Day was the less evil option. 

This is the foundation of "Just War" theory, for instance. It's also the argument for abortion if the life of the mother is threatened. It's even the argument for putting someone in jail for a crime. Is constraining a person in a cage good? No, it's not. But sometimes it's necessary (and sometimes it's not).

Divorce is evil, but sometimes it's less evil than the alternative. Stealing is evil, but sometimes it's less evil than the alternative. Killing is evil, but sometimes it's less evil that the alternative. That said, it is never necessary to execute an inmate in our prisons. Execution is the most evil alternative.

In America, we can easily keep a person in prison for life. In fact, life imprisonment is less expensive than the death penalty, because of the near-endless appeals people get in death penalty cases. There is no reason to kill a person. They aren't going to escape, they aren't going to ever be danger to society again. Unlike in Europe, the U.S. really does jail people for life. So why kill them? Justice? Vengeance, rather. While vengeance may be emotionally satisfying (which I doubt), it can't be considered a Christian idea. 

In the time of Moses, life imprisonment was ridiculous. They didn't even have prisons. Punishment was quick because it had to be. In the time of St. Paul was death better than imprisonment? With starvation, slavery, forced military service, and torture rampant in Roman custody most of us would have chosen death. In these cases, death may have been less evil than the alternative. 

Let's go back to the New Testament. Because something is allowed in the New Testament, should Christians support it today? If we say "yes" to that question then we better be OK with slavery. The New Testament is totally vague about the death penalty, but it's pretty clear about slavery. While slavery in the Church is undermined by St. Paul's teaching (read Philemon), it's not challenged as a societal norm. Do any of us think that slavery is the best moral option today? Of course not. Slavery is the most evil option. So why would we accept the death penalty? 

Add to this argument the horrible ways in which the death penalty has been used as a racist weapon in the U.S. Add to this the number of people who are later exonerated by DNA and other evidence. Add to this the way the death penalty undermines the sanctity of life. It seems that the death penalty must be accepted as the most evil option the U.S. government has available. Therefore, it should be opposed by American Christians. 

Thomas McKenzie