Thursday, January 26, 2006
An Argument Against the Death Penalty
The purpose of this paper is to give rational arguments against the institution of the death penalty without leaving out the question of Christian faith in relationship to such political morality issues. Hopefully this will allow each of us to look at some of the figures and philosophical arguments concerning the death penalty. Finally, I hope that once each of us has reached a decision concerning this issue, we can use that decision to act either along religious or political lines toward the end that we have decided.
1. 1 in every 7 death-row inmates is later released after evidence shows that he or she has been wrongfully accused. If this is true, what is the price of justice? More importantly, is the murder of one innocent man worth the death of 6 guilty? If the US has executed 1,000 prisoners since 1977, and the above figures can hold for those executed as well, then we have killed about 143 wrongfully accused prisoners.
2. People claim the death penalty is a deterrent. Yet we have some of the highest crime rates in the world (and are one of the few remaining countries that still have the death penalty). Add to this the psychology of the problem. If a criminal is willing to get beaten to death or shot committing a crime, or lives in a constant situation where his life is in danger, why would lethal injection scare him? And if the death penalty is such a deterrent, why do we have one of the highest crime rates in the world? In fact, the states with the death penalty show no lower crime rates than those without.
3. People also claim that the death penalty is cheaper than life in prison. First of all, what the heck kind of an argument is that? What is the worth of a human life? Secondly, that’s bullcrap. Here are the figures: Texas (and in turn the Taxpayers) spends about $2.3 million on each execution, after all appeals are used up and state-appointed lawyers and all that. Life in prison, on the other hand, costs anywhere between $800,000 and $1 million per prisoner. That means to send somebody to jail for life will cost half as much as killing them.
4. While most countries have abandoned the practice, considering it either outdated or inhumane, the US trails behind only China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia with the most executions worldwide, these four countries comprising over 80% of all execution.
5. Not everybody in this country has to ascribe to Christian ideals. One of the great things about this country is its religious freedom. And it's a tough choice to balance one's faith with one's political views. But those who say that Christian-based law dictates the death penalty should look again.
Number 1, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, in fact the first 6 presidents, and many others of the founding fathers were not Christians (as most believe), they ascribed to a religion called Deism. This means they did not believe in the everyday intervention of God in human affairs, his personal relationship or wishes toward humankind, or in the miracles of Jesus. They instead believed only that he brought the universe into existence with its physical laws and in the morality codes presented by Jesus and other teachers in the bible (they saw him as a good teacher, not the son of God). So their law is not a Christian one, if anything it is a Deist one, with only similarities to Christianity.
Number 2, the institution of the death penalty described in the Bible is part of the 613 Judaic laws of the Hebrews (specifically those dwelling within the Kingdom of Israel under theocratic rule), and not one of the 7 detailed for Gentiles to obey. Now, there is the statement by God made in Genesis 9:5-6 where God states that He will require a reckoning for the blood of man that is shed. This is the principle behind "a life for a life". But this can be seen in two ways. In the first, it may be a command for us to kill anyone who kills, and the justification (while un-stated) would be that the blood shed would be on the head of him who first shed blood. This would require some kind of a justice system to carry this out. Now the problem with this is that up to this point, the only blood which had been shed (as recorded in Genesis) was Abel’s by Cain, and in return Cain’s. But notice there was no court or justice system which ensured this. Abel’s blood cried from the ground and God was the divine judge, who even gave Cain mercy. After a number of years, Cain was eventually killed, not directly by the killer to avenge Abel, but either by accident or an account of a different argument. Thus, when God says “He who sheds man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed.” This is less of a command and more of a statement. As God later says, Justice is His to repay (at least in reference to the Christian community) and that he prefers mercy over judgment, and if one will turn from his trespass, then God will allow him to live. When He makes the statement in Genesis, He is making a promise that His Justice will prevail. Another example of this is when Aaron’s sons enter the Tabernacle unclean. While it was a different offence, the penalty was the same, and God himself dolled out the Judgment as He saw fit (Leviticus 10:1-3).
And going back to the 613 laws commanded of Israel, Paul in the New Testament repeatedly states that a Christian Gentile need not ascribe to the laws given by God to the Jews, but only by those given to the Gentiles and by the example of Christ. This judgment is then defended by Peter and decided by James at the Council of Jerusalem in the Book of Acts, with the compromise that Gentile Christians hold to the Kosher law of abstaining of meat with any blood in it or from an animal that has been strangled (as opposed to the Jewish custom of severing the throat). If we look at the 7 laws to the Gentiles, no mention of the death penalty takes place and if we look at the example of Christ, He repeatedly takes actions that thwart the system of taking a criminal's life and in the end gave His life in exchange for the death we all deserve. He knew that the system in which the death penalty of that day existed had become corrupt and no longer relied on the Wisdom of God in judging cases, but in the pride of men.
We exist in a similar system today. We do not rely on the Wisdom of God, but instead on the pride of our own hearts. We justify our actions by thinking to ourselves, “oh, I [or we] haven’t done anything as bad as them.” Then with the same breath we spit on the One crucified for us. If you are a Christian, than you admit that we were born into a world flawed because of our actions from the very beginning and any judgment we give on our own apart from God will be equally as flawed. And if you are a Christian, then you admit there is no ‘us’ or ‘them’. We are all equally as flawed. Put in the right circumstances, with the right ingredients, any of us would rape or murder.
The fact is, every one of us is a criminal. ‘We’ do not judge ‘them’, ‘we’ do not have mercy on ‘them’, and ‘we’ do not evangelize to ‘them’. We are them! When we judge, we place judgment on ourselves, when we show mercy we show the mercy that Christ gave us (He even said that when we show mercy, when we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, or visit those in prison, we do all that to Him), and when we ‘evangelize’ we only are to give others the news that we are stuck in a world of our own filth, but Christ has given us the promise to make it all clean. That means he gave the promise to everybody who would just believe that He can do it. No matter what they’ve done. In the end, if it’s justice we ask for, believe me, God can give out more than any of us would want (and if we believe His word is true, He will). Do we think that God is so weak that He needs our help in administering justice? I’d much rather pray for His mercy anyway. This world needs that more than anything right now. Now this definitely does not mean that our nations should abandon the pursuit of Justice altogether. While I am confident that God could handle it, he did give the administering of Justice into our hands (as long as we submit to His leadership). But so long as we don’t submit to His leadership, our decision-making process will be flawed and so imprisonment for life still punishes the murderer and separates them from society. And in prison, God’s justice (if He requires the man’s blood) will just as effectively prevail.
6. Based on the idea that this is not a Christian nation, but a secular (or at best a Deist one) we must look at the issue from a democratic and legality stance, and not from a religious one. As far as international law is concerned, the UN Declaration of Human Rights states that every person has the right to life, and even though there is a clause temporarily allowing some nations to maintain the death penalty, it still clearly states the hope and goal that the death penalty be permanently abolished (Part III, Article 6). Also, no other UN law or code contradicts this, including the measures to which the US has signed on. The continuation of the practice is, therefore, considered a Human Rights violation. The reason no legal action against the US has been pursued is because the US has veto-power on the Security Council and every sanction proposed against the US has been vetoed by the US under that power.
From the democratic stance, the decision to support or abolish the death penalty must be made by its citizens in open discourse (which this paper hopes to be a part of). When we drag power politics, propaganda, and campaign finance into it, these only serve to corrupt a true discussion based on rational arguments and not on popularity pulling or mudslinging. If we wish to look to the example of other democratic nations, we can see that of the 192 nations in the world (as of 2000), 120 can be considered democracies (62.5%). Of these, almost all Western democracies have abolished the death penalty. And every year 2 more nations are added to the list. As of 1995 the figures stood at 97 countries that had abolished the death penalty. Even with all this, the sheer numbers of executions worldwide is increasing, meaning the few countries that still support it are stepping up the pace with the US just this month having executed its 1,000th prisoner since 1977.
7. Finally, in the United States, the practice is practiced in a way that favors White prisoners and is racist toward Black prisoners. Of all cases involving the possibility of execution, Blacks were found to be four times as likely to be sent to death row as Whites charged with equal crimes. What the heck is that all about? There’s no excuse for it.
So what are we to do with all this? The only reason I bring up Christianity is because so many pull the “I’m an evangelical Christian, so I believe the death penalty is right,” card. Hopefully the above made some of us rethink that position. That's not meant to be a bash against evangelical Christianity, there is a lot in the movement that is really great and that God is working through. But we shouldn't confuse our politics with our faith too much. The reality is that when a religion is used to justify any political stance, that religion becomes a tool of politics and becomes corrupt. The faith we claim in Christ is only given by His grace, through His sacrifice, and by the vehicle of the Holy Spirit. When making a political decision, especially in a country that claims complete secularization, we should make our decisions based on secular ideals. How we live and how we see things can still be shaped by religion, but our faith must use other means than politics to get things done. We’ve been trying to do this whole political thing to fix the world for thousands of years and we’re still just as screwed up as when we began. The answer isn’t in politics, and certainly not religion mixed with politics.
That means if you’re trying to decide whether to vote on behalf of candidates or ideologies that support the death penalty, don’t weigh religious arguments like the 5th argument I gave. Instead weigh arguments 1 – 4, and 6 - 7. If you feel that your actions should be based on your faith, don’t dummy it down to the level of politics (why do you think Jesus stayed out of that?) Instead live boldly in your faith, in the example of Christ himself. But don't just take my word for it, or even listen to my recommendations where your own action is concerned. i sure don't have any authority over you. instead weigh all these things for yourself, and pray about them, and then decide. but always be wary of statements like "God instituted the death penalty, so we should too" when they're not sufficiently backed up.
As an American, I need to vote and act according to my conscience. By accepting my citizenship in this country, I accept the responsibilities and freedoms given by it. With the above figures rolling around in my brain, I can no way responsibly support the death penalty. Whether I decide to act as an American or a Christian, I will try not to confuse the two (my country will eventually pass away, my faith will not). And in this case, to me both sides seem to agree that I cannot support the death penalty in any circumstance.
*All information concerning democracies is taken from the Freedomhouse.org website, all figures on executions and the death penalty are taken from the Amnestyusa.org website or the Prisonactivist.org website, and all documents concerning UN decisions can be found at the Hrweb.org website.
Death Penalty Facts & Figures. Retrieved from http://www.prisonactivist.org/death-penalty/dpfacts.html on Thursday, December 08, 2005.
Democracy’s Century: A Survey of Global Political Change in the 20th Century. Retrieved from http://freedomhouse.org/reports/century.html on Thursday, December 08, 2005.
Legal Support Network – Death Penalty. Retrieved from http://www.amnestyusa.org/lsn/death_penalty.html on Thursday, December 08, 2005.
United Nations Agreements on Human Rights. Retrieved from http://www.hrweb.org/legal/undocs.html on Thursday, December 08, 2005.
Other Related Sites
DNA Tests Free Man in Prison 25 Years - Yahoo! News
The Innocence Project.