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:
- Sometimes innocent people are sentenced to death.
- Capital punishment whets the lust for revenge rather than satisfying the zeal for true justice.
- It cheapens the value of life.
- 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.