Death Essay Penalty Religion

RELIGIOUS faith and capital punishment have always been intertwined. Christianity's primordial event was the execution of its founder, and the same fate was suffered by many of its early teachers. At the same time, putting wrongdoers (or sometimes just wrong thinkers) to death has generally been presented as a sacred imperative.  In English history, Thomas Cranmer (burned in 1556) is remembered as a Protestant martyr, and Thomas More (beheaded in 1535) as a Catholic one; in both cases the executioners, as well as the victims, claimed to be following the will of God. The sacred texts of both Judaism (also revered by Christians) and Islam mandate the death penalty in certain circumstances. A famous verse in the Koran lays down that "if anyone kills a person, unless it be [as a punishment] for murder or spreading mischief in the land, it will be as if he kills all people." In other words, it is permissible to take life as retribution for a terrible crime; and "spreading mischief" has been interpreted pretty broadly by Islamic judges, to include apostasy (leaving Islam) and homosexuality. But in one respect, Islamic law is more lenient than many Western codes: it allows the family of a murder victim to forgive, and hence spare from death, a killer. 

With all these sacred pronouncements on the subject of execution, we shouldn't be surprised that news stories about capital punishment are often tangled up with issues of faith. Turkey warned a few days ago that the whole Sunni Muslim world would be in turmoil if Egypt carried out a death sentence passed on ousted President Mohammed Morsi and more than 100 fellow members of the Muslim Brotherhood. Last month, when Indonesia executed eight people, including two Australian citizens, for drug trafficking, emotions in Australia ran especially high owing to reports that the convicted men sang Christian hymns as they faced the firing squad. Andrew Chan, one of the Australian convicts, had become a Christian minister during his incarceration.

At the trial that led to a death sentence for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who planted a bomb at last year's Boston Marathon, some memorable evidence was given by Sister Helen Prejean (pictured), a Catholic nun who campaigns against the penalty. She described the bomber as a contrite young man who was fully aware of the suffering he had caused. Contemporary Catholic thinking links opposition to the death penalty with a broader concern for the "sanctity of life". Pope Francis unconditionally opposes the death penalty. More liberal Christians cite the story in which Jesus stopped the stoning of an adulterous woman by challenging the person who was "without sin" to cast the first rock.

In America, however, most Christians still support capital punishment. Last year Albert Mohler, one of America's most influential evangelical figures, made an impassioned defence of the death penalty. Quoting the Book of Genesis as well as Saint Paul's injunction to respect earthly authority, he argued that "Christians should hope, pray and strive for a society in which the death penalty, rightly and rarely applied, would make moral sense." 

A poll by the Pew Research Center in March found that 56% of Americans back the death penalty while 38% oppose it. Catholics were slightly less supportive (approving it by 53% to 42%) than average, whereas Protestants were more keen. Among white evangelicals, some 71% agreed with execution and only 25% were against. Black Protestants felt differently; 37% agree with the death penalty while 58% oppose it.

But even in America, support for the death penalty is waning, falling from 80% in 1994. In Mr Mohler's world-view this mounting opposition is not merely mistaken, but a sign of the dark forces of secular thinking that are overturning established religious morals in every area of life. Yet Mr Mohler is surely mistaken on this narrow point. If the death penalty is eventually abolished in the United States, it will not just be secularists, misguided or otherwise, who bring about that decision. The successful coalition will include idealists like Ms Prejean who oppose capital punishment from the bottom of their God-fearing hearts.

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Capital punishment -- the death penalty

Basic reasons that people give to
support or oppose the death penalty

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Common reasons in support of capital punishment

The Bible: The Bible requires the death penalty for a wide variety of crimes, including practicing evil sorcery, adultery, some form of homosexual behavior, doing work on Saturday, women (but not men) who are non-virgins when they marry, people who try to persuade others to change their religion from the only approved state religion, murder, etc. It even calls for some criminals (e.g. prostitutes who are the daughters of priests) to be tortured to death by being burned alive. The vast majority of  Christians, with the exception of those in the Reconstructionist movement, feel that many of these grounds for the death penalty no longer apply to Christian societies. However, Bible passages are still used to promote the retention of capital punishment for murderers. A very few conservative Christians support the policy of six predominately Muslim states and advocate that sexually active homosexuals also be executed.

Justice/Vengeance: Many people feel that killing convicted murderers will satisfy their need for justice and/or vengeance. They feel that certain crimes are so heinous that executing the criminal is the only reasonable response. This belief even extends to some Christians where their need for vengeance overrules their ability to forgive, even though the concepts of forgiveness and mercy are expressed in 106 passages of the Christian Scriptures (a.k.a. New Testament).

Deterrence: Many people feel that the death penalty will deter criminals from killing. This does not seem to be confirmed by an analysis of the available data or by the opinions of leading criminologists. However, it feels intuitively correct for many people. 1 to 6

Respecting the value of human life: "It is by exacting the highest penalty for the taking of human life that we affirm the highest value of human life." (Edward Koch). Critics often ridicule this position by asking why the state is systematically killing people in order to demonstrate that killing people is the ultimate evil.

Cost: Once a convicted murder is executed and buried, there are no further maintenance costs to the state. This appears to be invalid; the cost to the state paying for multiple appeals is generally much greater than the cost of imprisoning an inmate.

Public safety: Once a convicted murderer is executed, there is zero chance that he will break out of jail and kill or injure another person.

Common reasons against capital punishment

The Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament): Some Christians feel that they are no longer bound by the legal codes of the Hebrew Scriptures, and that the death penalty is no longer required. Over the years since the Bible was written, society became more tolerant. We eliminated the death penalty for pre-marital sex, adultery, practicing a different religion, engaging in prostitution, homosexual behavior, blasphemy, rebellion by teenagers, etc. We should eliminate it for murder as well.

The Christian Scriptures (New Testament): Abolitionists often quote Jesus' treatment of the adulteress in the Gospel of John as support for their position. She had been sentenced to death by stoning, but Jesus used a cleaver ploy to gain her freedom. He suggested that the accuser who was without sin cast the first stone. None were free of sin and thus none could start the execution. However, many theologians believe that this story, John 8:7, was probably not written by the author(s) of the Gospel of John).

The beliefs of the early Christian church: Some theologians believe that the early church was closer to Jesus' teachings than are the present-day churches. They were unalterably opposed to the death penalty. Early Christians would not take a person to court if there were any possibility that they could be executed if found guilty.

Playing God: Executing a person kills him before the time of their natural death. Some Christians believe that God places people on Earth for a purpose. If we kill them prematurely, then we may be thwarting God's will.

Effect on society: Some feel that permitting premeditated murder is totally unacceptable, even if committed by the state. Capital punishment lowers the value of human life as seen by the general population and brutalizes society. It is based on a need for revenge. A Quaker group suggests that It "violates our belief in the human capacity for change....[It] powerfully reinforces the idea that killing can be a proper way of responding to those who have wronged us. We do not believe that reinforcement of that idea can lead to healthier and safer communities." 7

Lack of Deterrence: The death penalty has not been shown to be effective in the reduction of the homicide rate. There are some indications that executions actually increase the murder rate. 1 to 6

Cost: The costs to the state of funding almost endless appeals by convicted murderers would more than pay for their permanent incarceration.

Value of human life: Human life has intrinsic value, even if a person has murdered another individual. The death penalty denies the sacredness of human life. Live is so precious that nobody should ever be killed or murdered, even by the state.

Unfairness: The mentally ill, poor, males, and racial minorities are over-represented among those executed. One pilot study of over 2 dozen convicted criminals on death row found that all had been so seriously abused during childhood that they probably all suffered from brain damage. Women convicted of murder are almost never executed; that is a penalty that is almost entirely reserved for men. A 1986 study in Georgia showed that persons who killed "whites were four times more likely to be sentenced to death than convicted killers of non-whites." 8,9,10 The Texas Civil Rights Project

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