The question was recently put to me whether I could bring myself to pull the switch to execute someone sitting in an electric chair or release the trapdoor to hang someone standing in a hangman’s noose. The one asking the question did not have anyone particular in mind that he wanted to swiftly dispatch; the question was raised as part of a discussion about the moral legitimacy of capital punishment. There are many things, I suppose, that I would have trouble doing. I would have trouble giving someone a needle or taking blood, as lab workers do all the time. I would have trouble cutting into living flesh, as surgeons routinely do. I would have trouble shooting someone who was shooting at me or at the public, as policemen sometimes find necessary, or shooting at someone in war, as soldiers do. None of these things should be regarded as morally repugnant; the problem here lies in the subjective emotions of the person doing them, not in the objective morality of the acts themselves. And anyway, in the case of taking human life, either as a hangman or as a police officer or as a soldier, it is a moot point, since clergy are canonically forbidden to do it. All taking of human life is fraught with moral ambiguity, even when required, which is why Christian soldiers may kill the enemy, but are still penanced for the act afterward. In our fallen world, the act is necessary and so must be done, but the moral ambiguity of it still remains.
Any sensible discussion of the moral legitimacy of capital punishment must therefore center on the Scriptures and the Tradition of the Church, not on one’s subjective feelings. We have already seen through the canons penancing soldiers that the act of taking human life remains morally ambiguous. In a perfect world, there would be no killing (and also no crime or invasion or evil to be resisted). But the world is not perfect, and so the question becomes: given the moral ambiguity of the act, is it still allowable for Christians?
The Scriptures are fairly clear and unambiguous in their affirmative answer. Even before the Law of Moses was given to Israel, we find the principle of lex talionis that “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God He made man” (Genesis 9:6). Note that the creation of man in the divine image and the value of human life are here cited as the precise reason for the retaliatory shedding of blood, and not (as often today) a reason why the human life may not be taken. The principle is stated here in poetic form, along with other bits of poetry such as in Genesis 2:23, 3:14-16, 3:17-19, 8:22. The poetic form in these passages indicates the foundational importance of what is stated in the poetry—thus the lex talionis of Genesis 9:6 does not represent a mere cultural fragment of a more barbaric time, but like the other bits cited, is presented as foundational for human existence: justice must undergird all societal living.
The principle is reaffirmed in the Law of Moses, which also prescribes the death penalty for murder (e.g. Numbers 35:31: “You shall not take ransom for the life of a murderer who is guilty of death, but he shall surely be put to death”). And note here too the reason: “You shall not pollute the land in which you are, for blood pollutes the land and no expiation can be made for the land for the blood that is shed on it, except by the blood of him who shed it” (v. 33). Refusal to avenge murder pollutes the land, and brings divine wrath—eventually the land thus polluted will spew its inhabitants from it in the judgment of God (Leviticus 18:24f). The nation of Israel of course was a theocracy, and so certain acts as well as murder were subject to capital punishment, acts like as deliberately breaking the Sabbath. America is not a theocracy (whatever its pledge of allegiance might perhaps suggest), and so the Mosaic Law cannot sensibly be included as part of its criminal code. But the principle found in Genesis 9:6 pre-dates the Mosaic Law, and is clearly intended for all the sons of Noah, not just the later Israelites, so that the prescription of capital punishment in the Law enshrines a universal human value, not just a theocratic Jewish one. It is the flip side of the Commandment, “You shall not murder”.
We note here that the argument for the use of capital punishment is rooted in the concept of justice and just retaliation, not in the idea that it is useful as a deterrent. It may indeed function as a deterrent, if it is administered quickly and publicly enough (which is clearly not the case in today’s society). But deterrence is not the issue; justice is the issue. The principle is a transcendent moral one, not merely utilitarian. It is enshrined in the story of the world’s first homicide, the murder of Abel. In this story, Cain rises up against his brother Abel and murders him. God then confronts him saying, “The voice of your brother’s blood cries to Me from the ground” and banishes him the world of men—in that culture, an equivalent of capital punishment (Genesis 4:10). This tale is not just about two individuals; it is the story of our race, and it reveals that all blood unjustly shed cries for vindication and justice. All the foundations of the earth are shaken by such injustice (Psalm 82:5); they are only restored when the crying blood is answered by justice and equivalent retaliation is made against the murderer.
This acceptance of capital punishment as a grim element in society is found also in the New Testament. Paul acknowledged that the authorities which existed were established by God for the preservation of order and the restraint of evil and social chaos (Romans 13:1f). Paul specifically mentioned that the authority did “not bear the sword in vain, for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath upon the one who practices evil” (v.4). The use of the Roman sword, of course, included the use of capital punishment upon murderers, and Paul accepted this as part of God’s provision for societal order. It is true, I would suggest, that the Roman sword came down rather too often and generously, and that capital punishment was sometimes unjustly inflicted upon those guilty of lesser crimes. The Romans, after all, were the ones who refined crucifixion as a political technique for keeping the locals in line. And societies later than the Romans would sometimes hang not only murderers, but also those convicted of sheep-stealing. Not all uses of the sword were equally just. But the misuse does not invalidate its proper use—nor does it mean that mercy should not triumph over justice in certain circumstances. Murderers could sometimes be pardoned, without overthrowing the general principle of lex talionis found in Genesis 9:6.
In fact the granting of mercy presupposes the general principle of justice: the offender deserves death and fully expects it, but if penitent may sometimes be granted pardon. The refusal to ever execute a murderer does not represent mercy triumphing over justice, but rather a failure to rise as high as justice. If justice in this form is never administered, then mercy is no longer true mercy, but injustice. The heartfelt cry of some that mercy and charity should always be extended to the murderer—even the impenitent murderer—sounds spiritual enough, but it ignores the blood of the slain which also cries out from the ground. The voice of the slain is never heard in the often rancorous debate, and those who would refuse to avenge their blood never have to look them in the face and deny their plea for justice. They look at the television cameras instead.
Some people point out that injustice often prevails anyway, with many people sitting on death row for crimes they did not commit, their only real “crime” being that of race or poverty and the inability to find a good lawyer. That is true, and in my mind constitutes a valid argument against the current use of capital punishment in our society. But it does not overthrow the general principle that capital punishment itself is just. It is society that needs to be reformed, not the principle which needs to be jettisoned. And what about cases such as that of Paul Bernardo, who sexually tortured and murdered two young girls, about which no doubt exists regarding his guilt? Does the fact that some are punished for crimes they did not commit mean that he should not be justly punished for his?
What then, some others ask, of Christ’s teaching about turning the other cheek? It is important to recognize exactly what kind of non-resistance to evil Christ is here discussing—not the evil of assault, but of affront. To strike a person across the cheek in His day did not represent violent assault (that would usually come with a weapon), but public insult. Christ is not teaching that actual assault or murder should not be judicially punished, but inculcating personal benevolence to all, even to those who publicly violate one’s honour. He had no problem evidently with someone who murdered being “guilty before the court” (Matthew 5:21). He was not legislating for society, but deconstructing the individual zeal for vengeance that lurked in the hearts of His potential disciples. Those who followed Him must not “resist evil” by plotting revenge for insults and persecutions, but must bless everyone indiscriminately as did the sun, which the Father made to shine on both the evil and the good (Matthew 5:39, 44-45). To apply this teaching as if it were proscribing all judicial punishment of criminal acts is to misunderstand it entirely. It would also introduce the precise sort of societal chaos that Paul said the sword kept at bay, for then not only would capital punishment be abolished, but all judicial punishment and retribution. Thieves would no longer be subject to prosecution, fine, or incarceration when caught by the police, but rewarded with a cheque from the government for their crime, on the basis that Christ taught that the one who violently steals a man’s coat should be offered his shirt as well (Luke 6:29). Christ is not dealing directly here with the outer laws of the land, but with the inner movements of the heart.
But does this mean that Christ’s words have no relevance to the current debate about capital punishment? Far from it. For it seems to me that in this debate two groups face off against each other, staring uncomprehendingly and shouting loudly across a great divide. Some scream for the execution of the offender with hatred and a lust for vengeance in their heart, while others yell that such execution would be no better than the murder it would avenge. The yelling and the self-righteousness are signs that both groups have become entangled and lost in the heat of the moment. Justice indeed that demands that a murderer be executed (though mercy may sometimes be granted), just as it demands that violent assault or rape be punished by incarceration. But the individuals involved in carrying out such sentences as well as the victims of the crimes must take care to keep lust for vengeance far from their hearts. The person justly punished, either by incarceration or execution, is still loved by God. Hangmen may justly hang, just as soldiers and police officers sometimes may justly kill. But they may not delight in it. We all have seen the statue of Justice holding her scales and wearing a blindfold so that she cannot be subject to partiality or bribery. That blindfold should obscure her tears as well, for one may well shed tears even when administering just punishment. All punishment for crime, whether execution or incarceration, represents a defeat for society, and should be administered with sorrow—and for Christians, with prayer for all, perpetrator as well as victim.