JANUARY 23, 2002
Justice, Religion, and the Death Penalty
-- John Carlson
The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life at the University of Chicago Divinity School is sponsoring a conference entitled "A Call for Reckoning: Religion and the Death Penalty" to be held on January 25, 2002. For more information, please visit: www.pewforum.org/deathpenalty.
Those who doubt religion's relevance to the death penalty might wish to take stock of some salient features of public life today. A Pew poll taken last March found that forty-two percent of those who oppose the death penalty for convicted murderers cite religious belief as the greatest influence on their position, while among death penalty supporters only fifteen percent cite religious belief. For the two groups combined, nearly a quarter of the population (23%) saw religion as the chief determinant of their positions.
Religious vernacular often unwittingly pervades capital punishment debates. Ten of twelve jurors chose life imprisonment over "martyrdom" for terrorists convicted in the 1998 embassy bombings. Many invoke "an eye for an eye" to demonstrate Biblical, if not intuitive, support for the death penalty. Even "practical" arguments about the death penalty do not defy theological reflection. The case for deterrence, for example, coupled with an understanding of just how corrupted the sinful human will can become, accounts for why evil intentions will not be deterred by even the gravest threats. Nor is the criminal justice system free from the noetic effects of sin; we know too well that it has been fraught with human failings, unavoidable at best, unconscionable at worst.
These religious observations alone do not help us frame moral arguments. Nor do woolly slogans and vexing justifications. Take the plea that Jesus would never execute a prisoner. This is true, but Jesus was not a state official charged with preserving peace and dispensing justice. (And we know that "WWJD?" has never been the only resource of Christian ethics.) Others note that Jesus preached forgiveness, not vengeance. Right again, but the New Testament message of forgiveness should not be misconstrued as an appeal for "tolerance" or the forbearance of justice. Death penalty opponents are obliged to muster more compelling arguments to explain the relationship between their faith and their views.
Whether the death penalty constitutes an apt measure of justice is another matter, still. Given the relatively few retentionists who invoke religious belief as the mainstay of their views, a hefty onus falls upon them to substantiate why their religious beliefs affirmor, at least, do not conflict withtheir support for capital punishment. Retentionists should demonstrate why a "no-kidding" sentence of life without parole insufficiently meets the demands of justice, and why execution must be pursued instead? Just this month the Supreme Court upheld Oklahoma's decision to seek the death penalty for Terry Nichols, a sentence above and beyond his current life sentence (without parole). Is such a decision congruent with religious sensibilities? Scriptural evidence can easily be marshaled to show that capital punishment is permissible. Less apparent, though, is the reasoning why the death penalty must be pursued. (Augustine also acknowledged the state's authority to impose the death penalty even while urging clemency and restraint.)
Justice remains the terra firma on which death penalty arguments must be contested. Justice has many dimensions, some of which lend scant clarity to this debate. "Closure" is one such idea, evidenced by those who felt cheated by Timothy McVeigh's easy death. One survivor of the Oklahoma City bombing lamented, "Killing Timothy McVeigh 168 times wouldn't fill the void in my heart." As awful as such victims' pain must be, to ask government to render McVeigh what may be his due is not only to seek more from politics than it can achieve (at least if we cherish living in a humane society that refrains from torture and cruelty) but also to ask government to quell a pain that perhaps only the founts of faith can still.
An essential dimension of justice is that of necessity. Necessity assumes a fallen world in which preserving minimal order within communities is exigent. One test of necessity might ask "Are there criminals who, for the protection of other citizens, simply must be executed?" Such a test of last resort would involve exceptional cases -- perhaps certain terrorists, Mafia bosses, or dangerous convicts who pose lethal threats despite incarceration.
A second important dimension of justice seeks to restore order to a community when disorder prevails. Retribution is an important way of correcting the imbalance of relations that crimes inflict upon individuals and communities. The opportunity for a wrongdoer to make amends offers a complimentary way to mend badly broken relations, and restore limited harmony and wholeness to a community. Many of us shed no tears for Timothy McVeigh, but the possibility that his apologies might repair some of the harm and disorder he caused was forever foreclosed by his execution. It is not the task of government to endeavor for such amends in its pursuit of justice. Government can, however, leave room for human gestures toward transcendence -- the seeking and granting of forgiveness -- and the possibility that, over time, such amends might help restore rightful order to a community. For numerous cases unlike McVeigh's, where the guilt of the offender is less certain, the possibility of amends cuts the other way. By seeking life without parole society preserves the chance to correct wrongful convictions and attempt amends for the damage that such convictions inflict upon individuals and their communities.
One might also argue that certain crimes are so egregious and affect citizens on such a wide scale that government's mandate to restore order to a wounded community trumps all other claims, and can only be achieved through lethal punishment. We could call this the "Eichmann principle" after the famed Nazi war criminal -- the only person in modern Israeli history to receive the death penalty.
Let us deliberate well upon such cases, but let us not confuse the Eichmanns and McVeighs of the world with common criminals for whom the possibilities to encounter redemption and transcendence promise more justice, more restitution to the community, than executions can hope to achieve. The debate about capital punishment urgently requires a casuistry of moral reasoning that proffers lucid categories of justice, even when division exists over their particular applications. For citizens and people of faith, clarity about justice cannot be forsworn.
-- John Carlson is a doctoral candidate in ethics at the University of Chicago Divinity School.