Should Christians Support Capital Punishment?

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A while back, I was given a pamphlet entitled, “Capital Punishment: The Case for Justice” by J. Budziszewski, Professor of Government and Philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin. Professor Budziszewski argues that capital punishment is just, and that the Bible demands it, citing Romans 13:3-5:

For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of him who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain; he is a servant of God to execute His wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be subject, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience.

However, Budziszewski’s argument is devastated if he is wrong in his interpretation of Romans 13, which he believes is talking about the State. But why should he think such a thing? Though this is a common interpretation, it makes no sense. Here we have St. Paul, a man who was beaten by the State, imprisoned by the State, and eventually killed by the State, and somehow he can write that the State is “not a terror to good conduct”? I figure that Paul must be talking about some other entity. (Gerard Casey offers an interesting and plausible alternative.)

But let us grant Budziszewski this premise and see how the rest of his argument fairs.

He defends retribution as the justification for punishment, particularly in terms of the benefits it has for society: “Society is justly ordered when each person receives what is due to him…In retribution the spur is the virtue of indignation, which answers injury with injury for public good.” Furthermore, “Retribution is the primary purpose of just punishment as such.” This is for three reasons:

  • Just punishment is not something which might or might not requite evil; requital is simply what it is.
  • Without just punishment evil cannot be requited.
  • Just punishment requires no warrant beyond requiting evil, for the restoration of justice is good in itself.

Any other purpose of punishment, such as deterrence or incapacitation, is secondary and cannot override considerations of retribution. In fact, Budziszewski argues, all of these purposes are better (or at least not worse served) by capital punishment.

Next, he addresses some objections to the death penalty by Cardinal Dulles:

  1. Sometimes innocent people are sentenced to death.
  2. Capital punishment whets the lust for revenge rather than satisfying the zeal for true justice.
  3. It cheapens the value of life.
  4. And it contradicts Christ’s teaching to forgive.

Budziszewski’s argument against point (1) seems rather like a strawman. Most of it is a hypothetical where a suspect’s factual guilt is unquestionable, but he is acquitted by a juror who read Descartes and is unsure if he can trust his senses. Yeah, I’m pretty sure what people have in mind when they think of innocent people being convicted is when actually innocent people are convicted. The National Registry of Exonerations has cataloged over 1,500 of them, and who knows how many factually innocent people are still in prison or took a plea deal in order to avoid jail time? Budziszewski utterly fails to address this issue.

His argument against the idea that capital punishment feeds the lust for revenge is better, yet the fact remains that in terms of its criminal justice system, the US is an extremely vengeful society, considering that it has the highest incarceration rate in the world by far. Even if every non-violent drug offender were released from prison, it would still be the highest. And why is this? There are many reasons, but not the least of them is that there are special interests who benefit from this state of affairs, particularly the prison-industrial complex. If there is one thing the prison-industrial complex is not in pursuit of, it is justice. As well, American police forces can hardly be referred to as “peace officers,” as their increasing militarization attests. Not only that, but the US government horrendously tortures people to death with no accountability. The idea that this is what Budziszewski argues throughout his essay is the servant of God is downright disturbing and terrifying. Apparently there is no atrocity so egregious that would lead those who believe the State is God’s march upon earth to think that perhaps they are interpreting Romans 13 incorrectly.

Lastly, and this is not intended as a cheapshot (though it may look like one), why have I never observed Christians who argue for the death penalty address the fact that Jesus Christ was brutally executed by the State (as have many martyrs throughout history)? Clearly, execution has been a tool of despotic governments against those who they dislike or want to silence, and it is still used today. It seems that Christians who enjoy the relative freedoms in Western democracies take it for granted that their governments usually don’t round up dissenters and imprison (or execute) them. But it is entirely irresponsible for them to forget the fact that, worldwide, governments aren’t always friendly to Christianity.

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2 responses »

  1. Bud’s positions are much stronger than yours.

    The Death Penalty: Mercy, Expiation, Redemption & Salvation
    http://prodpinnc.blogspot.com/2013/06/the-death-penalty-mercy-expiation.html

    Jesus and the Death Penalty
    http://prodpinnc.blogspot.com/2013/06/jesus-and-death-penalty.html

    “All interpretations, contrary to the biblical support of capital punishment, are false. Interpreters ought to listen to the Bible’s own agenda, rather than to squeeze from it implications for their own agenda. As the ancient rabbis taught, “Do not seek to be more righteous than your Creator.” (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7.33.). Part of Synopsis of Professor Lloyd R. Bailey’s book Capital Punishment: What the Bible Says, Abingdon Press, 1987.

    Saint (& Pope) Pius V, “The just use of (executions), far from involving the crime of murder, is an act of paramount obedience to this (Fifth) Commandment which prohibits murder.” “The Roman Catechism of the Council of Trent” (1566).

    Pope Pius XII: “When it is a question of the execution of a man condemned to death it is then reserved to the public power to deprive the condemned of the benefit of life, in expiation of his fault, when already, by his fault, he has dispossessed himself of the right to live.” 9/14/52.

    “Moral/ethical Death Penalty Support: Modern Catholic Scholars”
    http://prodpinnc.blogspot.com/2009/07/death-penalty-support-modern-catholic.html

    THE DEATH PENALTY: SAVING MORE INNOCENT LIVES

    The Death Penalty: Do Innocents Matter? A Review of All Innocence Issues
    http://prodpinnc.blogspot.com/2013/10/the-death-penalty-do-innocents-matter.html

    The Innocent Frauds: Standard Anti Death Penalty Strategy
    and
    THE DEATH PENALTY: SAVING MORE INNOCENT LIVES
    http://prodpinnc.blogspot.com/2013/04/the-innocent-frauds-standard-anti-death.html

    OF COURSE THE DEATH PENALTY DETERS: A review of the debate
    and
    MURDERERS MUCH PREFER LIFE OVER EXECUTION
    99.7% of murderers tell us “Give me life, not execution”
    http://prodpinnc.blogspot.com/2013/03/of-course-death-penalty-deters.html

    • Thank you so much for reading and taking the time to comment. Please note, however, that I did not make the argument that Christians ought to be against the death penalty per se, but rather challenged the idea that the State is the agent of God (and consequently is approved by God to execute people).

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