I have tremendous respect for my “consistently pro-life” friends and colleagues, who oppose war, euthanasia and the death penalty as fervently as they oppose abortion. Life is a gift of God, they say, and it is not for us to choose when it ends.
Yet I do not think this is the only ethically valid approach to the issue. For one thing, the fact that God commands both the death penalty and war at various points of Torah forces me to reject the idea that either is always and everywhere wrong. If life is a gift from God, then like the other gifts he gives us it may be abused and even forfeited. The wanton and premeditated taking of another’s life may well constitute such a forfeit.
While I don’t think the church is supposed to be in the business of executing either war or criminals, the state does wield the power of a sword which is not merely symbolic. Indeed, the apostle Paul speaks of a governing authority as “God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer” (Rom. 13:4). Isaac Watts’ hymn envisions a great day of justice when “on wings of vengeance flies our God to repay the deficit of blood”; until then, justice may only be meted out imperfectly. But it must be meted out.
I would think that it is tremendously difficult for a public servant responsible for making life-or-death decisions to do so with full confidence; I know I would have to live with the awareness that due to human imperfection some percentage of executed criminals—however small that percentage might be—will be put to death for crimes they did not commit. But if the death penalty is eliminated, some percentage of people will still be imprisoned for life in harsh and dangerous conditions for crimes they did not commit, which is no picnic. I’m not convinced a just society behaves unjustly by giving a murderer a life sentence rather than putting him to death.
I can see a strong prudential case for eliminating the death penalty simply due to the expense and time involved in prosecuting death penalty cases. Yet it may be wise to maintain some greater punishment to deter criminals already serving life sentences from harming prison guards or fellow inmates. Either way, I don’t think it’s an open-and-shut moral question. Unlike Rick Perry and my consistently pro-life friends, I just can’t be that sure that I’m right.
Jason Poling | Sep 13, 2011 4:59 PM