03 February 2008

This is a response email to a friend of mine who is for the death penalty and sent me an article from a scholar who defends the death penalty with the premise that religious societies have the death penalty whilst secular societies do not and since Americas is founded on Christian principles; we should have the death penalty (This is probably going to be my longest post of the year...)

It’s interesting to point out (me being a down the middle moderate/independent) that as most people assume that the Conservatives are the thinkers while the Liberals are the feelers, that I myself when hearing about a child rapist emotionally responds, “That man has to die!” and then later reasons out that maybe death is not the best alternative even for heinous crimes. Quite the reverse of what is typified between the right and the left.
However, being moderate to a fault, I cannot in good conscious say that 100% of the time the death penalty is wrong.
However also coming form a post-modern perspective, I also cannot make a list of what would justify the death penalty and what wouldn’t.

That being said, I am still much more opposed to the death penalty than I am for it. You could say that I line up quite liberally in this debate (although it’s interesting to note that most democrats also support the death penalty in some form or another).

First of all, it’s obvious that Walter Berns approves of the death penalty and he uses the argument that religious societies are much more likely to use the death penalty than secular societies because we have a higher sense of moral code and right and wrong.

I would present this question however: Would Bern’s also support the death penalty as it is enforced in places like Saudi Arabia? In most Muslim countries, where there is a strict moral code, the woman who is raped may be stoned to death. I’m sure Bern would agree that their moral code is different than that of the US constitution. Therefore, does pulling the moral code card an effective argument in supporting the death penalty? If it is, then who’s moral code? If it’s the Christian moral code than Bern needs to make that distinction in his article or his argument has the fallacy of generalization.

So let’s assume (safely) that Bern is talking of a good American Christian moral code and does not think that Muslim Nation States are relevant to this argument. My next question is, should Christianity be treated as a religion? Or should it be treated like a subversive relational organic movement?
That’s certainly a discussion for another time. Suffice to say, Christianity is a religion whether it should be or not. So let’s say, “Yes, Christianity should be treated as a religion.”

Then the point becomes; should Christianity be treated and lived out like all other religions? Christians try so hard at saying, “But were different!” when we want to express the grace and love of Christ – the only ‘religion’ where one is saved by grace and not by works. We are indeed different. But we are different when it suits us, and we are the same when it suits us as well. If we truly are different, should we not take a different approach to the death penalty than all the other religions which support the death penalty – which Berns claims. (I also take issue with this because it’s another fallacy of generalizations but I’ll give Bern the benefit of the doubt in conceding that many or most religious societies support the death penalty, which still brings me back to the point that Christian societies should be different anyway).

My last set of questions lies between Europe and America, since Berns uses Europe continually as a comparison and contrast.
First, is crime higher or lower in Europe than in America since they do not have the death penalty and we do (generally speaking)? Berns himself admits, (and it’s an old argument) that the death penalty is not a deterrent to crime. If we can all concede that in Western civilization at least, that this is so, why have the death penalty in the first place? Bern’s answers this by saying, “Punishment has its origins in the demand for justice…” I won’t go into the whole quote here as you can read it. It’s actually a very convincing conclusion that he makes, but even though it’s worded eloquently and articulately, it still boils down to one thing – “You’re guilty, you need to die.” It’s simple vengeance in the hopes that vengeance makes us feel better. However, have you ever heard a psychologist tell a patient, “You need to extract vengeance. It’s the only way.” Now I’m not counselor, but being in ministry for nearly 20 years I can safely say that this is the opposite of healthy advice. Even secular psychology will state that forgiveness is the healthiest way to move forward.

Now you can argue that you can forgive them while you watch someone stick a needle in their arm and argue that forgiveness is not letting someone get away with a crime and to a large extent I would agree with you. However Berns here is making the vengeance argument and I am simply stating that vengeance cannot and should not ever be reason to take a life. There may be other reasons, but this is not one of them. Isn’t vengeance reserved for the Lord?

And if the death penalty is not a deterrent (for if it was I would be more of a proponent of it) then can we not have law and order without the law supporting orderly death?

Lastly, Bern makes a comment about how Europe is involving themselves in our business buy saying that they should essentially butt out and leave their secular ways within their own borders. I completely agree that each country should determine her own laws regarding justice and law.
But it does beg the question – Should we then let the rape victim in Saudi Arabia die because that’s their law and we should butt out?
Social Justice knows no borders and I would rather allow Europe to have some of their butt’s in America, because you can be darn well sure that America will butt into other countries injustices…. Or at least they should!
In the world of globalization and information, it’s unavoidable. We are not longer isolated units but an entire planet and everyone’s noses will be into everyone else’s business whether we like it or not. Rather than telling the rest of the world to butt out, maybe we should listen first.


jovial_cynic said...

Something cab be both righteous and terrible at the same time.

The Old Testament law required that particular violations were punishable by death. And while the law was righteous, it's terrible at the same time -- it's not like God ever got a kick out of destroying His creation, and He begrudgingly does it with the flood, and carried on the destruction of wickedness by way of the law.

I support the death penalty, but I hate it. I think believers are supposed to hate it. And it disgusts me when I see people who support the death penalty and love it, because I think they've missed the point.

David said...

Well spoken. We can (mostly) land on different sides of the fence but I respect your position in this. :-)

Steve Hayes said...

Interesting, I blogged on the same article, or at least the same sentiment, here.

Perhaps we should have a synchroblog on it some time!

Tia Lynn said...

Excellent. I love the part about how Christianity should be different, not only when it suits us. You nailed it.

David said...

Excellent idea Steve!

Tia, I'm confronted with the same thing. Of course many Christians will say they are different because they don't watch rated R movies or drink beer...
But I'm not sure if that's what God had in mind...

Now just to be clear, if someone has that conviction, that's great. But don't put that conviction on others who don't have and don't expect others to say, "I want what you have, because I don't want to watch rated R movies either!"