Sunday, April 5, 2009

The Death Penalty

Taking the test at Kalamazoo Valley Community College propelled me into the journey of labeling my personality in neat categories. I turned out to be extroverted, and....some other stuff. ESTJ is what I recall. Most poignant to me was the section on word preference. Which word do I prefer: justice or mercy? Well, as a then die hard Metallica fan, I had to pick Justice, after their 1988 album, ...And Justice for All.

Now, when we answer such questions, our musical tastes and cultural proclivities should obviously be set aside as we seek to apply these concepts to public policy and our personal lives. You may recall Justice John Roberts' "trial" before Senator Ted Kennedy regarding Roberts' conservative, Catholic views and his application of Constitutional law to public policy as a would-be Supreme Court Justice. Roberts stood his firm ground against Kennedy's belligerent prodding, admitting that regardless of his views on the authority and inspiration of the Bible as divine revelation, Roberts would apply the Constitution on its own terms and not through the lens and authority of his Catholic presuppositions.

Of course, Kennedy needs to know, and I think Roberts held his peace of this bit of knowledge, that epistemologically, unless there is a transcendent moral law and revelation, we humans are left with an ultimate relativism that is not sustainable on its own grounds. Nevertheless, for all practical purposes, Roberts heeded the call to the integrity of the Constitution on it own terms. This type of pragmatism works--that's what pragmatism does--for up to a certain point, as long as the Constitution is understood on certain epistemological, linguistic and historical grounds. So Roberts was wise not to get into a philosophical and theological debate with Kennedy. Surely, Roberts would win the debate hands down, as he is brilliant beyond comparison. Now, the question remains, as to the application of justice and mercy concerning our public lives here in the United States.

Should people be put to death for certain crimes? Can this question be answered by means of Constitutional study, along with the Bill of Rights and other founding documents? Or, do we need a grander, transcendent ideal from which to apply this question of life or death? (The Nuremberg trials appealed to "natural law" as a transcendent ideal in prohibition of murder). It should be obvious--though it isn't--that unless there indeed is a moral law higher than ourselves, then relativistic notions of "fairness" are balanced for either the victim or the criminal based upon categories of thought within the finite realm only. The question of the death penalty may be subject to conjecture based on popular vote, states rights, the rhetoric of the defense attorney, the rhetoric of the prosecuting attorney, the emotional state of the jury, and so on.

For those familiar with the Bible, especially the Old Testament Civil Law Code found in Exodus 21 and following and the Levitical and Deuteronimic laws in the 3rd and 5th books of the Torah, the question of the death penalty is made much simpler. The answers are not easily applied, because the theological problem of the application of the law of Moses under the administration of the new covenant remains a debate among Christians. Nevertheless, the death penalty was to be rigidly applied to Israel in the thousands of years before Jesus.

A simple keyword search of "put to death" in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy on the Bible Gateway website reveals the various scriptures applied to those eligible for the death penalty: adulterers, sorcerers, those who curse their parents, murderers, kidnappers, rapists, those who own an animal that kills a person, and who knew the animal had a violent past of harming people, but did nothing to prevent the animal from killing, those who commit bestiality, Sabbath-breakers, homosexuals, blasphemers, and finally, those who sacrifice their children to Molech (or any other god).

To most in the West, the mere sniff at the idea of the death penalty is cause for great alarm. However, when we think about matters of justice "versus" mercy, we are threatened with the overwhelming sense that allowing a rapist or a murderer to live is the result of mere sophistry. A recent search on "voyeurism" for example, reveals that many psychologists and psychiatrists enjoy labeling such activity under the rubric of "disease" rather than "perversion." A "disease" is an uncontrollable malaise over which a person has no control. Perversion, on the other hand, reveals a matter of the person's will. A person wills to spy on another and violate her privacy.

Perhaps we've gone too far with our "scientific" explanations regarding human behavior. Much more can be said about this, but this paradigm of thought coming from our research institutions and meted out through the media is indissolubly linked to a precommitment to philosophical naturalism. Philosophical naturalism is a worldview that believes that everything in human experience can be explained by means of the five senses. On this view, criminals are not sinners, they are victims. They are victims of their disease whether it be propensity to alcohol abuse, anger, depression, sexual "abnormality" or whatever. The homosexual community for example, has had vast, incredible success in communicating the idea that homosexual behavior is purely natural based upon genetic predisposition as opposed to an action based upon desire coming from one's will.

From a Christian perspective, A person wills to take another person's life. A person wills to destroy a child or a woman violating that which is most sacred to her: her body. A person chooses to live a certain way. Applying this to the death penalty, the Christian really has only one dilemma, and that is how to apply the law of Moses within the new covenant administration. Most Christians agree that the death penalty should remain en force based upon God's covenant with Noah, which preceded the Mosaic covenant by hundreds if not thousands of years. In the Noahic covenants the Lord commands that

"Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed,for God made man in his own image," (Genesis 9:6). The covenant with Noah is a universal covenant that reaches to all humanity. Paul makes an allusion to the power of the sword to punish "wrongdoers" as instituted by God even in the Roman Empire in Romans 13:1-5. But which specific crimes, other than murder, are worthy of capital punishment carry over from the law of Moses?

What should we do with rapists, child molesters, drunk drivers who kill people? What about voyeurs? Should such a person be allowed to live? Why? Do you really think a man who rapes a child and murders her deserves to live? Does a person who poses a threat to the integrity of a family by spying on them and peering through their windows deserve to live? I would suggest that such laws, extending justice would make our country a better place. Those who contend against the death penalty say it poses no threat of deterrence of committing certain crimes. Let's leave that aside, and ask the question of simple and pure justice. A man who rapes, or murders, or carelessly drives an automobile in a drunken state so that he takes the life of another has lost his right to live.

What do you think?


T. Michael W. Halcomb said...

I adamantly disagree with your entire argument. I say this because your entire premise is fatally flawed. What I mean is that you set up a false contrast and then build an entire argument around that contrast, especially in terms of theology. This "false contrast" I am speaking of is your constrasting of justice with mercy. I would encourage you to step back and ask yourself: Is the opposite of justice really mercy? Once you ponder this, I think you will realize that the answer is "NO!". In fact, the opposite of justice is injustice. Just as well, the opposite of merciful is not justice but rather being merciless.

Either way...good to see you blogging.

dudleysharp said...

Death Penalty Support: Modern Catholic Scholars
Dudley Sharp, contact info below

There are thoughtful writings on both sides of this debate, but the pro death penalty side is stronger.

Even today, a Catholic in good standing can call for more executions, if their prudential judgement finds for that.

1) Avery Cardinal Dulles:

This recently deceased US Cardinal, in one of his final interviews, states that he thought the Church may return to a "more traditional posture" on the death penalty (and just war).

"Recent popes, Dulles conceded, beginning with John XXIIII, seem to have taken quasi-abolitionist positions on both matters. Yet used sparingly and with safeguards to protect the interests of justice, Dulles argued, both the death penalty and war have, over the centuries, been recognized by the church as legitimate, sometimes even obligatory, exercises of state power. The momentum of "internal solidification," he said, may lead to some reconsideration of these social teachings." (1)

NOTE: Based upon the strength of the Catholic biblical, theological and traditional support for the death penalty as, partially, revealed, below, I think the Church will have to.

2. Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J., considered one of the most prominent Roman Catholic theologians of the 20th century.

"There are certain moral norms that have always and everywhere been held by the successors of the Apostles in communion with the Bishop of Rome. Although never formally defined, they are irreversibly binding on the followers of Christ until the end of the world." "Such moral truths are the grave sinfulness of contraception and direct abortion. Such, too, is the Catholic doctrine which defends the imposition of the death penalty." (2)

"Most of the Church's teaching, especially in the moral order, is infallible doctrine because it belongs to what we call her ordinary universal magisterium." (2)

"Equally important is the Pope's (Pius XII) insistence that capital punishment is morally defensible in every age and culture of Christianity." " . . . the Church's teaching on 'the coercive power of legitimate human authority' is based on 'the sources of revelation and traditional doctrine.' It is wrong, therefore 'to say that these sources only contain ideas which are conditioned by historical circumstances.' On the contrary, they have 'a general and abiding validity.' (Acta Apostolicae Sedis, 1955, pp 81-2)." (2)

(3) Romano Amerio, a faithful Catholic Vatican insider, scholar, professor at the Academy of Lugano, consultant to the Preparatory Commission of Vatican II, and a peritus (expert theologian) at the Council.

"The most irreligious aspect of this argument against capital punishment is that it denies its expiatory value which, from a religious point of view, is of the highest importance because it can include a final consent to give up the greatest of all worldly goods. This fits exactly with St. Thomas’s opinion that as well as canceling out any debt that the criminal owes to civil society, capital punishment can cancel all punishment due in the life to come. His thought is . . . Summa, 'Even death inflicted as a punishment for crimes takes away the whole punishment due for those crimes in the next life, or a least part of that punishment, according to the quantities of guilt, resignation and contrition; but a natural death does not.' The moral importance of wanting to make expiation also explains the indefatigable efforts of the Confraternity of St. John the Baptist Beheaded, the members of which used to accompany men to their deaths, all the while suggesting, begging and providing help to get them to repent and accept their deaths, so ensuring that they would die in the grace of God, as the saying went." (3)

Some opposing capital punishment " . . . go on to assert that a life should not be ended because that would remove the possibility of making expiation, is to ignore the great truth that capital punishment is itself expiatory. In a humanistic religion expiation would of course be primarily the converting of a man to other men. On that view, time is needed to effect a reformation, and the time available should not be shortened. In God’s religion, on the other hand, expiation is primarily a recognition of the divine majesty and lordship, which can be and should be recognized at every moment, in accordance with the principle of the concentration of one’s moral life." (3)

Some death penalty opponents "deny the expiatory value of death; death which has the highest expiatory value possible among natural things, precisely because life is the highest good among the relative goods of this world; and it is by consenting to sacrifice that life, that the fullest expiation can be made. And again, the expiation that the innocent Christ made for the sins of mankind was itself effected through his being condemned to death." (3)


Many other modern and ancient scholars

"Christian Scholars & Saints: Support for the Death Penalty", at

"Capital Punishment: A Catholic Perspective",
by Br. Augustine (Emmanuel Valenza)

"Capital Punishment: The Case for Justice", Prof. J. Budziszewski, First Things, August / September 2004

"A Seamless Garment In a Sinful World" by John R. Connery, S. J., America, 7/14/84, p 5-8).

"God’s Justice and Ours" by US Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, First Things, 5/2002

"The Purpose of Punishment (in the Catholic tradition)",
by R. Michael Dunningan, J.D., J.C.L., CHRISTIFIDELIS, Vol.21,No.4, sept 14, 2003


1) "An unpublished interview with Avery Dulles", All Things Catholic by John L. Allen, Jr.,, Posted on Dec 19, 2008, at

2) "Capital Punishment: New Testament Teaching", Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J., 1998

3) "Amerio on capital punishment ", Chapter XXVI, 187. The death penalty, from the book Iota Unum, May 25, 2007 ,

about Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

about Romano Amerio

dudleysharp said...

From a Quaker biblical scholar Dr. Gervas A. Carey:

" . . . the decree of Genesis 9:5-6 is equally enduring and cannot be separated from the other pledges and instructions of its immediate context, Genesis 8:20-9:17; . . . that is true unless specific Biblical authority can be cited for the deletion, of which there appears to be none."

"It seems strange that any opponents of capital punishment who professes to recognize the authority of the Bible either overlook or disregard the divine decree in this covenant with Noah; . . . capital punishment should be recognized . . . as the divinely instituted penalty for murder; The basis of this decree . . . is as enduring as God; . . . murder not only deprives a man of a portion of his earthly life . . . it is a further sin against him as a creature made in the image of God and against God Himself whose image the murderer does not respect." (p. 111-113)"

Carey agrees with Saints Augustine and Aquinas, that executions represent mercy to the wrongdoer:

". . . a secondary measure of the love of God may be said to appear. For capital punishment provides the murderer with incentive to repentance which the ordinary man does not have, that is a definite date on which he is to meet his God. It is as if God thus providentially granted him a special inducement to repentance out of consideration of the enormity of his crime . . . the law grants to the condemned an opportunity which he did not grant to his victim, the opportunity to prepare to meet his God. Even divine justice here may be said to be tempered with mercy." (p. 116).

synopsis of "A Bible Study".from Essays on the Death Penalty, T. Robert Ingram, ed., St. Thomas Press, Houston, 1963, 1992. Dr. Carey was a Professor of Bible and past President of George Fox College.

chris van allsburg said...

My dichotomy between Justice and Mercy is to be understood under the guise of our own culture's MISunderstanding of this dichotomoy. I should have made that more clear.

You are correct in stating that the opposite of justice is injustice. And I declare to you that it is UNJUST to allow a rapist, murderer, or child molestor to live. "Show them no mercy"!!

chris van allsburg said...

Thanks for the resources. I will definitely check these out.

T. Michael W. Halcomb said...

Another issue I have with all of this is that you take an "all or nothing" approach. Sometimes dude, things aren't as black and white as you're acting like they are. There are cases where people have had consensual sex, for example, and then one person claims rape. In my view, it would seem that some cases are certainly punishable by death, but not all. Besides, how can you, an outsider, be less forgiving than the actual victim? There are cases, too, where persons have been raped, molested, etc. but have forgiven their offenders. Just as well, some people change! Look at the Apostle Paul, for instance. He was a murderer but changed when he encountered Christ and helped lead one of the greatest movements of all time. I feel as though you are definitely underestimating the powerful, life-changing, life-altering work of the Holy Spirit in your claims here but of course, most Israel had been known for doing that repeatedly, so, it isn't surprising to see OT allusions embedded all over this argument.

Good day sir...I mean toolbag :)

T. Michael W. Halcomb said...


chris van allsburg said...

Paul was a murderer-in one sense, but he was also legally sanctioned to do so by the Roman and Jewish authorities. Paul would have approved of murderers like Barabas to be put to death.

comment moderation removed.

chris van allsburg said...

Besides how do you take Romans 13:1-5? "For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commen you...He is God's servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer."

Michael, why does Paul use words like "terror" and "fear" and "agent of wrath" in reference to wrongdoers, if he did not heartily approve of extreme action against such criminals?

chris van allsburg said...

(From Eric Shake, Grand Haven Michigan)
Wow, very interesting subject Chris, but although I had no trouble understanding what I was reading, your big words make it a little difficult. When Jesus came he brought a new covenant between God and His children. Turn the other cheek and pray that God turns their heart. If you kill wrongdoers, even for murder, you steal away any opportunity for the Holy Spirit to work His wonders. If while on death row, the wrongdoers heart is changed by God and he truely repents in Christ... who then are you murdering on that persons last day? I believe when Christ died on the cross, He did so, so that we could live. Rather than continue the cycle of bloodshed, shouldn't we be ministering to the wrongdoer in jail, praying to change their heart? Forgiving those who have wronged us even as we ask to be forgiven for our mistakes and moments of weakend faith? We are merely human, all of us, capable of incredible good and unspeakable evil. Judge not lest ye be judged? My mom calls me a "red letter christian" because the gospels, for me, are where you'll find truth. Paul is sketchy to me and I'll not hang my eternity on his suspect theologies. Forgiveness and Love, that is the Essence of what Jesus brought us. We are to be as Christ like as we can, but judging as he does, choosing who's life is worthy of living and who's isn't... in my very humble opinion.. is beyond arrogant and will cause us to be judged so much more harshly. To suffer for the glory of Christ, that is our greatest test as well as our greatest honor. To die for Him would be easy when compared to the tortured heart of truely forgiving the one who destroyed you. I believe that's what we are called to do. Forgive, Accept and Trust in Gods greater plan.

You can copy this to your blog if you choose, or not... I just couldn't post there because I don't have an account.