‘Do not murder’: the theological rejection of capital punishment

28 Apr

Right now, Australians are sharing the horror of two convicted men in Indonesia who are about to be executed by firing squad. I find the very thought of it abhorrent.

God’s rejection of murder, in the biblical ‘Ten Commandments’, could not be clearer; and yet throughout history ever since people have tried to find ways to justify killing—whether in the so-called ‘just war’, or in capital punishment, or even the genocide of nations and groups of people considered somehow less worthy of life than themselves.

How can a legal authority begin to justify the punishment of someone by murdering them? If the purpose of punishment is to prevent crime, then it will be effective in the case of the person who is killed. But it is very unlikely that such judicial murder prevents or deters others from committing crimes, and in fact in some instances it may well incite further crimes, through sheer resentment.

Punishment might be justified as an element in restorative justice: society at large, or victims of crime in particular,  may well feel that the person who has caused them wrong must in some way suffer. It is, however, questionable whether this suffering achieves any purpose other than possibly satisfying the feelings of resentment or grievance on the part of the victims. It is also questionable whether in fact the victims are ever actually ‘satisfied’ by that so-called recompense, or achieve the ‘closure’ it is said to make possible.

In the worst cases of murder, terrorism and so on, people call for capital punishment as the only thing that will satisfy their sense of outrage and violation. These feelings are more than understandable. I have shared them, often. But will the feelings abate, when someone is executed? I doubt it very much. The sadness and hurt lives on. What we need is healing, not satisfaction.

Tomorrow, assuming these hideous murders do take place in Indonesia, there will be no more justice than there is today. In my view, there will be less.

It can be argued that effective punishment rehabilitates the criminals. It is on this basis that most aspects of a modern prison system are based, theoretically, along with  the demand to ‘keep  society safe’ by locking away those who are (still) violent.

Whilst it may well be that some prison terms do lead to such rehabilitation, there is a lot of evidence against it too. What is most distressing about the situation in Indonesia is that, after 10 years in prison, these two Australian men are indeed very clearly different people. They are remorseful about their crimes and have become kind and generous, caring people. One has become a pastor, and the other an art teacher. Both have spent much time caring for others and teaching other prisoners. What good purpose will be achieved by killing them?

Two hundred years ago, the German philosopher Kant argued that society owed it to a convicted person to punish them. Only in this way could they, the prisoner, move from guilt to release from guilt.

This kind of thinking has also strongly influenced Christian communities, who have at times been very strong supporters of capital punishment. Sometimes it is alleged that Christian theology actually encourages these ideas—through images of the atonement brought about by Jesus’ death on the cross. While atonement theology can be wrongly presented in this way, as if Jesus’ death is demanded by an angry God who demands a blood sacrifice, this is not what the New Testament actually teaches.

Sadly the human emotions which demand vengeance or satisfaction in the face of crime, so often expressing fear rather than faith, become confused with our ideas of God and we may project these emotions and fears onto God, thus creating a justification for all kinds of cruel actions, even capital punishment. The biblical assertion that God does not wish the death of any person (2 Peter 3. 9) seems to challenge such attitudes one hundred percent.

Do no murder. It couldn’t be any plainer than that.

Furthermore, as I believe the commands of God are always more than prohibitions, it is worth seeing what this one promises. The Ten Commandments provide a vision of life intended to protect the society and defend the freedom on which it is founded. God has led the people out of slavery and into freedom. God is the champion of their freedom.

In this context, murder is a fundamental challenge to a free community. Put it around the other way, God wills that everyone should live in freedom, and that inherently means live with everyone else, in freedom. It is essential therefore that we resist the very possibility of murder, by learning positively to live together, learning to value each other’s lives, not just our own. This is about living in peace. The values in the Ten Commandments are the basis of a society in which justice, respect, truth, peace and freedom all make it possible to live, to live well and long ‘in the land’.

I wish and pray that this could be true and real, for us all, especially just now for those facing ‘death row’. May God have mercy, even as humans have failed to have mercy.

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