Capital Punishment Is Still Pro-Life
By: Robert E. Meyer
“Kill them all, let God sort them out.” That was the saying displayed defiantly on the T-shirt of the ex-Marine I was working with. Obviously, that is well beyond an extreme position in terms of respect for the sanctity of life.
However, objections have been raised, originating from both the secular and religious camps, which go to the opposite extreme in an attempt to repudiate the death penalty for even the most extreme cases.
Many secularists would appeal to the use of the “cruel and unusual punishment” clause of the Constitution, as an argument against capital punishment. Their world view often brandishes what British philosopher Mary Midgley dubs, “the Escalator Myth,” in regards to the assumed progressive direction of human discourse. This idea is best embodied in a ruling by the late Chief Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren, who said that the meaning of “cruel and unusual” punishment in the Constitution is in a state of flux. According, the definition reflects the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society. That is taking quite a bit for granted.
Likewise, many Christians, in endeavoring to maintain a consistently pro-life position, have taken a perspective that is equally unbiblical and fundamentally false. While I respect their intent to preserve life, the idea that the state never has the right to take the life of another person, is theologically, constitutionally and historically flawed.
A big problem arises from the misuse of the commandment in Exodus, “Thou shall not kill.” Virtually every modern translation of the Bible, renders “murder” in place of “kill,” to better reflect the meaning of the original Hebrew text. Furthermore, executions by the state, killing in legitimate warfare, accidental deaths and appropriate self-defense, are not considered to be murder.
Genesis 9:6 ought to have gone far in settling the matter. “He who sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.” This illustrates several principles. First it provides that God has indeed delegated authority to human institutional authorities to take the life of another. According to Romans chapter 13, the state has the authority and duty to use the sword of wrath against the evil doer. So execution is the duty of the state, but only God has the right to determine eternal rewards or punishments. Many sincere religious folks confuse the jurisdictions of the temporal and eternal domains.
They might argue that Christ repudiated capital punishment with his command to forgive others. Forgiveness is an act of charity between two or more parties; the one who in some way was offended, and the offending party. Grace and forgiveness come from the individual and from the church. The function of the state is to execute remedial justice. While a court may show leniency due to some extenuating circumstances, they have no general obligation to set aside the punishment of one who is found guilty. Thus, the true understanding of church/state separation, embodies the grace versus justice dichotomy. It is consistent with biblical teaching, that one could be forgiven by a victim or their family, and be forgiven by God, yet suffer punishment from the state in this life as consequence for their transgression. That could and should include capital punishment when necessary.
A perfect example is the thief who hung on the cross next to Christ. He repented and received assurance of his eternal state from Christ (I say to you this day thou shall be with me in paradise). However, this act of contrition didn’t save his physical life. The thief, in fact, admitted that he was getting what he deserved in suffering his death sentence.
Sometimes the claim is made that capital punishment is not forgiving or compassionate. It is very compassionate to the “would be” victims, that often become statistical tragedies due to the will of lenient courts. How is capital punishment any less forgiving then putting someone behind bars for life?
People frequently claim that capital punishment has no effective deterrence quality, as though that should be the only objective of criminal punishment. The execution of a murderer provides, however, that such a malefactor will never kill anyone again–the ultimate deterrent.
Capital punishment is pro-life because it defends the right of the innocent by mandating the life of the guilty offender be taken. Those against capital punishment for the sake of consistency, while sincere, are simply misguided in their theological or philosophical perspective and principle.