Capital Punishment


On February 29th I was invited to speak at Temple Beth Am on the subject of Capital Punishment and the United Methodist perspective*. Below is the talk I gave:

If someone were to murder one of my loved ones, I am certain that my emotional response to the crime would be a desire to see the murderer die. At least initially, overwhelmed by my grief, I’m sure I would want revenge. I think that this goes without saying.

I don’t think, however, that our laws should be determined by our emotional responses; rather, our laws should express the kind of society we aspire to be.

Most of us have aspirations for our nation that it be a place where human life is cherished.

As a society we have every right to protect ourselves from those persons who have demonstrated a proclivity for committing murder by placing them behind bars for potentially life-long captivity, and indeed, we have the right to administer punishment — to enforce consequences to actions that are evil.

Capital punishment, however, opens the door to human beings making the judgment that
certain peoples’ lives no longer have value.

I am not sure how I would argue this position if I were not a person of faith. There was a Broadway play a couple of decades back with the title, “Whose Life Is It Anyway?” that dealt with the issue of the right of a person receiving life-sustaining medical care to choose to forgo such care. This is a quite different issue, but what struck me is the way the question was phrased in the play’s title: “Whose Life Is It Anyway?”

From a secular point of view, the answer to the question is obvious. Duh!? The life that exists inside my body is my life. If this is indeed so, then you could argue that persons who haven’t responsibly lived their lives — specifically, people who have used their life to take away the life of another; such persons have forfeited their right to life itself.

But what if, in the deepest possible sense, this isn’t my life at all? That the life I am privileged to live in this body is God’s life, not mine? The Biblical image of the creation of human beings in Genesis involves God breathing divine breath into a pile of dust. Apart from God’s divine breath, we are nothing more than a pile of dust. It is God’s life that inhabits our bodies, and we are stewards of this life. We can be good stewards or we can be bad stewards, but either way, it is still God’s life, and therefore sacred.

Well, what if the murderer shows no remorse whatsoever? What if the person commits this heartless, cruel assault upon another’s basic right to live, creating endless torment for the loved ones of the murder victim, and the murderer sits there smirking throughout the trial? Wouldn’t it be right, then, to take his or her life?

This, of course, would be what we would all want to do. But, if what I am saying is true — that the life that lives in the body of the murderer is not really his or her life at all, but rather God’s life, then whether or not he or she appreciates the inherent value of life is, in a certain sense, beside the point.

As I said before, I think the issue of capital punishment involves the question of, what kind society do we aspire to be? Capital punishment gives mixed messages in this regard. An advocate of capital punishment would say that it gives a powerful message that murder is WRONG: kill someone and you will pay the ultimate price; you yourself will die. On the hand, the practice of capital punishment implies that some people do indeed deserve to die.

If that is so, then how exactly does one determine who deserves to die? The husband who plots his wife’s murder could take the point view that he understood this woman in a way no one else understood her, and he alone saw how evil she was — that she was one of those people who deserved to die.

If capital punishment is in practice, then society has already agreed with the man that some people do in fact deserve to die. The wife killer could always simply argue, “Well, you just didn’t know her the way I did; if you did, then you would agree with me — she was one of those ones who deserve to die.”

Some might argue that as a general rule capital punishment should not be practiced, but that there are exceptions. Terrorists, for instance, who callously take multiple lives; serial killers, or people who torture their victims before taking their lives, for whom the sentence of death should remain an option.

Again, this creates inconsistency. This particular murderer deserves death, but the murderer of my family member did not deserve to die? Are you telling me that my loved one’s death was any less significant?

I now want to approach the question before us from another direction.

Generally speaking, there is a consensus among people regarding the importance of holding individuals accountable for their actions. When we say that a person has no responsibility for his or her actions, we believe we are diminishing them.

From a Biblical Faith perspective, to say that we human beings were created in the image and likeness of God is to say, among other things, that there is always within us some measure of freedom; that we are not merely a product of our environment and our genetic make up, and that we bear some measure of responsibility for our actions.

I believe this to be so as well.

I think, however, that our tendency is to see our freedom and accountability as being greater than it truly is.

The reason that I support gun control laws is that I question the sharp distinction often made between essentially “good” people and “bad” people, between criminals and law-abiding people, or even between “sane” and “insane” people. Opponents of gun control laws would say, “Keep guns out of the hands of people with criminal records and of those who have been hospitalized for psychiatric conditions, and allow the rest of us to have free access to guns to protect ourselves.”

I would argue, however, that we all have moments of insanity, when rage and delusion temporarily overtake us, which is why I don’t think there should be a lot of guns hanging around. Most of the time it would be safe for me to have access to a gun; but there are moments when it would not be. Best NOT to have guns lying around the house because of such moments.

From my faith perspective, there is both saint and sinner in all of us, and this realization requires a certain humility.

My understanding of the light and darkness, the saint and sinner that lives within myself is quite incomplete. My understanding of the light and darkness in others is even more limited, although on a routine basis I am inclined to think I do know about such things. God alone has complete knowledge of what is within our hearts — what motivates our actions — and for me to claim such knowledge reveals arrogance on my part.

In the Scriptures that Jews and Christians share, we hear of how King David orchestrated the murder of Uriah in order to cover his sin and to steal Uriah’s wife. When Nathan the prophet confronts him, at first the self-deception at work in David’s pysche keeps him from taking responsibility for his evil actions and identifying himself with the rich man in the little story Nathan’s tells him who stole and the poor man’s lamb so he would have something tasty to serve his guests. David’s response is to condemn the rich man to death.

Nathan’s reply, “You are the man.”

Scripture often embraces more ambiguity about the human heart than we are willing to accept. King David, the greatest of all Israel’s kings and instrument of much good in this world, was also a murderer. Can we embrace such a paradox?

Consider Job’s three friends as they claim knowledge of exactly how God acts in human affairs. “You are suffering,” they tell Job, “because you have sinned. Accept the punishment that God has justly delivered to you.” Why do Job’s friends feel so compelled to hold on to this point of view? Is it not because they find comfort in this neat and tidy but ultimately delusional view of how good and evil and the experience of suffering plays out in this world? “Job is getting what he deserves, and if we can simply keep our noses clean, we will avoid Job’s terrible fate.”

There is something comforting about the notion that we ourselves would never commit murder; that we are essentially different from the murderer. When we sentence others to death, we reinforce this view, which, I would suggest, involves a subtle kind of arrogance. Until we find ourselves in the place of severe temptation, how do we really know for sure how we would respond?

In the Christian scriptures, Jesus teaches his followers to pray a daily prayer that includes this line: “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil,” which I take to be an acknowledgement of our basic frailty and our dependence upon God’s sustaining grace.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus implies that a person who has felt lust in his heart is no different from the person who commits adultery, and the person who has felt anger is his heart is, in essence, no different from the murderer, which is precisely why I don’t keep guns in my house.

There is a story in the Gospel of John about a woman who has been caught in the act of adultery, and on the way to take her to be stoned, the men who are about execute her ask Jesus what he thinks, “Should we stone her to death or no?“

Jesus says, “Let him who is without sin throw the first stone.”

To sin in one part of our lives indicates a capacity to sin in other places as well, given the right set circumstances. An interesting detail that John includes in the story is that the crowd gradually disperses, beginning first with the older members of the stoning party. The tendency is, the longer we live on this earth, the more opportunity we have to know something of the sinner that yet lives within us.

In Luke’s Gospel, one of the things that Jesus is portrayed as saying on the cross as capital punishment is being carried out upon him is, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” We think we know the reasons we do what we do, but do we really? We often justify our actions with a noble reason, in which there is, perhaps, a degree of truth. But more often than not there are multiple motivations driving our actions, and we habitually delude ourselves about the power of the darker motivations at work within us.

Now, what I have argued here may strike some as discouraging. We long for more clarity in life than I am suggesting is possible.

But this, I think, is where compassion is found — in the realization that we are all — every single one of us — in this thing called life together. It is only when we face squarely the possibilities of both light and darkness within ourselves that we can begin to have compassion upon others.

*Now although I do not always agree with every “official” position of the United Methodist Church, in regards our stance towards the death penalty, I am in agreement. Although Methodist opposition to capital punishment dates back to the 1920s, it was in 1946 that the General Conference of what is today called the “United Methodist Church” officially adopted a stance opposing the death penalty. Recently, United Methodists were actively involved in the movement that lead to the abolition in 2007 of capital punishment in New Jersey.

For the first time in U.S. history, more than one of every 100 adults is in jail or prison, according to a new report documenting America’s rank as the world’s No. 1 incarcerator.

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