Strange cohort of capital punishers
The Blog of Nathan D. Smith

Gallup has released a new poll on American public opinion on the death penalty in cases of murder. Sixty-four percent of Americans favor the death penalty in general terms, and the recent trend is fairly flat. The last time that public opinion was against the death penalty was in the 1960s (you can see details in the charts published in the Gallup link).

Here is some interesting context flagged by Andrew Sullivan:

The use of the death penalty has been declining worldwide, with most of the known executions now carried out in five countries – China, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the United States.

Now that is a strange cohort. These are four countries which are often associated with the phrase "human rights violations" within the US media. I am not aware of any case in which any of these nations is held up as an example to aspire to. Yet on this one issue, we are with them and against our friends.

And we are with them in a big way. Nearly two thirds of Americans support the death penalty, so its not just a partisan divide. I found a telling illustration of this in an article by CNN focusing on the jury in the case of a gruesome triple murder:

Jurors who convicted a man of three murders in a 2007 Connecticut home invasion and recommended he be put to death for his crimes said Tuesday that serving on the case changed their lives – and took an emotional and sometimes physical toll.

"This has strengthened my faith," Paula Calzetta told In Session on the truTV network. "We all came together. It was amazing, how it worked out, and we came to the right decision. I know that this is, for me, God's plan, and I think I'm honored to be a part of that."

That is, the administration of the death penalty is, for at least some people, a spiritual experience. I am not particularly surprised by this sentiment. After all, America is a Christian nation, and many Christians in this nation support the death penalty insofar as it was instituted by divine command.

This is a difficult issue for believers. I think there is solid scriptural support both for the legitimacy and illegitimacy of capital punishment for Christians. I think a Lutheran "two kingdoms" theology is probably the easiest way to reconcile the fact that Jesus commanded us to turn the other cheek while Paul admonished us that government is right in executing God's judgment.

I have two inherently Christian objections to capital punishment. First, Jesus said "let he who is without sin cast the first stone." I'm aware of the textual controversy surrounding this passage, but I think it is irrelevant, since it is in the canon nonetheless. The point is that Jesus halted the judicially righteous and justified execution of a guilty person. Furthermore, he challenged those carrying out the sentence as hypocrites. There is an interesting interpretive question of whether he was challenging them on the grounds of the particular sin of adultery (i.e. "judge not lest ye be judged") or all sin in general. However, it seems unlikely that so many righteous stoners would implicitly admit to adultery by backing off, so I am going with the "all sin" interpretation. Capital punishment may be justifiable, but I can't carry it out. If I can't carry it out, I can't ask someone else to.

Secondly, capital punishment in our society lacks divine assurance. I don't care if the unanimous jury has 12 or 100 members - I don't trust that we can make a judgment accurate enough to warrant death. In Israel, it was apparently possible to appeal to divine wisdom for an answer on these matters. I know that was not the final standard in every capital case, but I think it is important.

Because of these reasons (along with some others), I do not support capital punishment in the United States. The perpetrators of that terrible crime in Connecticut deserve death, but I am not going to give it to them.

Date: 2010-11-10 18:02