Arkansas executed a fourth prisoner on death row Sunday night. Three days prior to that, the state had done two back-to-back executions by lethal injections in Lincoln County, Arkansas. Four other executions have been blocked by court order.
As a Catholic scholar who writes about religion, politics and policy, I understand how Christians struggle with the death penalty – there are those who cannot endure the idea and there are others who support its use. Some Christian theologians have also observed that capital punishment could lead to the conversion of criminals who might repent of their crimes when faced with the finality of death.
Is the death penalty anti-Christian?
The two sides
In its early centuries, Christianity was seen with suspicion by authorities. Writing in defense of Christians who were unfairly charged with crimes in second-century Rome, philosopher Anthenagoras of Athens condemned the death penalty when he wrote that Christians “cannot endure even to see a man put to death, though justly.”
But as Christianity became more connected with state power, European Christian monarchs and governments regularly carried out the death penalty until its abolition in the 1950s through the European Convention on Human Rights. In the Western world, today, only the United States and Belarus retain capital punishment for crimes not committed during wartime.
In the Hebrew Bible, Exodus 21:12 states that “whoever strikes a man so that he dies shall be put to death.” In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus, however, rejects the notion of retribution when he says “if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.”
While it is true that the Hebrew Bible prescribes capital punishment for a variety of offenses, it is also true that later Jewish jurists set out rigorous standards for the death penalty so that it could be used only in rare circumstances.
Support for death penalty
At issue in Christian considerations of the death penalty is whether the government or the state has the obligation to punish criminals and defend its citizens.
Saint Paul, an early Christian evangelist, wrote in his letter to the Romans that a ruler acts as “an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.” The Middle Ages in Europe saw thousands of murderers, witches and heretics put to death. While church courts of this period generally did not apply capital punishment, the church did turn criminals over to secular authorities for execution.
Thirteenth-century Catholic philosopher Thomas Aquinas argued that the death penalty could be justified for the greater welfare of society. Later Protestant reformers also supported the right of the state to impose capital punishment. John Calvin, a Protestant theologian and reformer, for example, argued that Christian forgiveness did not mean overturning established laws.
The case against
The deterrence value of capital punishment remains an issue of debate. In the United States, there are also strong arguments that capital punishment is unfairly applied, especially to African-Americans.
Among Christian leaders, Pope Francis has been at the forefront of arguing against the death penalty. Saint John Paul II also maintained that capital punishment should be reserved only for “absolute necessity.”
Pope Francis observes that the death penalty is no longer relevant because modern prisons prevent criminals from doing further harm.
Pope Francis speaks of a larger ethic of forgiveness. He emphasizes social justice for all citizens as well as the opportunity for those who harm society to make amends through acts that affirm life, not death.
Jesus’ admonition to forgive one’s enemies is often thought to do away with the “law of the talion,” or an “eye for an eye” retribution – a standard that goes as far back as the prebiblical Code of Hammurabi – a law code of ancient Mesopotamia.
For many, the debate is about the relationship between Christ’s call for forgiveness and the legitimate powers of the state.
Those Christians who support capital punishment argue that Jesus was talking about heavenly realities, not the earthly matters that governments have to deal with. Christians who oppose the death penalty say that being Christian means bringing heavenly realities to the here and now.
This debate is not just about capital punishment, but about what it means to be a Christian.