The Death Penalty What Should Be the Christian Attitude?

And may God have mercy on your soul. The judge’s face is quiet and stern as his level voice ceases. Death. The words hang in the air. The courtroom is hushed. Dust motes dance in a bar of sunlight. The jury look down at their laps. A gray-haired woman weeps silently. Somewhere in the distance a car honks. The hard face of the young prisoner in the dock pales. He struggles to be tough. But death  — he, condemned to die — his neck broken by the hangman’s noose or his heart and nerves torn by the lightning bolt of electrocution. For an instant he sees the pleading face of the woman before he shot the boy and then her. She deserved it for getting in his way. But this—this is real—they are going to kill him. The shadow has fallen upon him. For weeks now—or years of appeals—he will live on Death Row under that dreadful shadow. Every time another man leaves Death Row never to return, the shadow will darken, until at last, inexorably, he must go forth to his own final doom.

Do you, reader, feel squeamish at that scenario? The squeamishness about the death penalty is in the very air of our century —unlike earlier ages. Are we, then, of finer stuff? We cry out that the death penalty is barbarous and revengeful, unworthy of an enlightened century. We must, then, feel that we are indeed enlightened, beyond all previous centuries. Also beyond all previous centuries is the twentieth-century body- count from war and murder and terrorism—not to mention the million and a half unborn babies done to death each year. Still, we ought not to add to that body-count by deliberately executing even a handful of murderers if indeed our doing so is merely unenlightened and uncivilized revenge.

What should be our attitude as faithful Christians, as followers of Christ? Before we consider that, let us consider what our attitudes should be as citizens of this enlightened nation. And let us make one important distinction at the outset: we must discriminate between the secular law of the state—of “Caesar”— which is concerned with order, and the Christian moral law, which is concerned with salvation. Both are necessary, Caesar and the Church. And one of the chief obligations of Caesar is to defend the citizenry, first against foreign enemies, and then against enemies at home: criminals. In the words of the Constitution: “to ensure domestic tranquility.”

The idea that the death penalty is savage revenge unworthy of an enlightened society is an assumption that depends, first of all, upon our being, in fact, a uniquely enlightened society. Are we? What is it to be enlightened? It is to have the light of truth and wisdom shed upon us. Let us grant at the outset that we know more of science than earlier ages, for scientific fact is cumulative. But science cannot help us with the moral question of the death penalty. In matters of morality — of virtue — what light is falling upon us, enlightening us? The light of Christ in shaping the moral behavior of Christendom is more obscured than at any other time since the triumph of the Cross under Constantine in about 312 A.D. As a society, we seem to have no moral light falling upon us at all. Without God — without a consensus that God is— anything goes, all is permitted.

Far from consensus, we seem unable to agree about anything at all; and we live in the most sex-obsessed society since the decadence of ancient Rome. This, after all, is the age of flourishing pornography, of the breakdown of marriage, of unwed mothers — and of unconstrained greed. We live under the shadow of the bomb, of terrorism, and of AIDS, none of which we can cope with. Practices that the Church has always condemned are at an all-time high: divorce, abortion, murder. And sodomy, which has spread AIDS among us, both directly and indirectly through contaminated needles and blood. Any previous age, however impressed by our technology, would be shocked at what they would see as a horrifyingly debased culture, corrupted values, and moral decadence. St. Francis would pray for us and Socrates would put some devastating questions to us. And what would Jesus say? After all, is enlightened precisely the word for us?

Chronological snobbery (the term comes from C. S. Lewis) is the attitude — the unexamined assumption — that whatever is modern and up-to-date, including opinions and values and morals, must be truer, better, wiser than anything in earlier ages. An example of chronological snobbery is the theologian who thinks he knows better than the Apostles what Jesus was up to. Or the churches that embrace modernity and disregard Jesus’ teachings on divorce. Or the homosexuals and their supporters who are quite sure that the stern condemnation of sodomy by Plato as well as by St. Paul has somehow been nullified by modern understanding. Chronological snobbery is not a reasoned position; it is a naive assumption based on feeling. Opposed to it is not only Lewis’s truth that “All that is not eternal is eternally out of date,” but what he called the common judgment of mankind: that which has been believed in all times and at all places. An example of this common judgment of the wisest thinkers of mankind is that there is a moral law — from God or the gods or built-in to the structure of the universe — one moral law reflected with astonishing similarity in the law codes of all the diverse peoples of ancient and later times. And by that common judgment, we are assuredly not the most enlightened and truly civilized society of all the ages.

There is no doubt that the Spirit of the Age (or Zeitgeist) — not uncommonly confused with the Holy Spirit by Christians, especially the clergy — has been proclaiming the death penalty to be a harsh and revengeful punishment, unworthy of our supposedly enlightened age. It is not, in fact, revenge, since it is a punishment laid down in advance. It may be harsh or barbarous. Believing so, England some years ago first limited and then did entirely away with the death penalty, as did other European countries. While not officially done away with in America, it fell into disuse for some years; but now it seems to be coming back. Indeed, the Spirit of the Age that proclaimed it to be unworthy revenge was really perhaps a slightly earlier Spirit; but many of the leaders of society, academics and ministers and bishops, hold to it still and oppose the death penalty, however muted their opposition to abortion, sodomy, and other ills. (Just in passing, it is interesting that academics, and perhaps clerics, while not the first to hear the Spirit of the Age, are always — despite the balance that history and philosophy ought to give them, and despite the wrongheadedness of earlier Spirits of the Age — among its last-ditch defenders.) At all events, it appears that the citizenry are now looking with increasing approval upon the death penalty.

As citizens ourselves, we need to think a bit about the development and purpose of criminal law. There was a time many centuries ago (more recently in certain backward areas) when it was taken for granted that it was up to the family of a murdered man to avenge him: thus the feud. In the history of jurisprudence it was considered to be a great step forward when a murder or a robbery came to be regarded as an offense against society, not just the family of the dead man. Society itself was injured; and it would therefore punish the offender through law. In order that potential law-breakers could know precisely what they risked, legal punishments were laid down for willful injuries, not only murder but mayhem and robbery, that injured the peace and order and well-being of society. To illustrate the truth of the view that society itself is injured, we may picture a tranquil, well-policed, and law-abiding community where citizens feel no need to lock their doors and women are comfortable walking somewhere at night. But then occur a couple of murders involving robbery with no arrests; and suddenly the once-tranquil society is having new locks put on the door, buying pistols, and fearing to venture forth at night. Trust and ease are gone in our imaginary society. Nothing like that could happen in our own enlightened society, of course.

The shift from private vengeance to punishment by law not only resulted in the potential law-breaker’s knowing exactly what punishment he risked but his knowing that the state had far greater resources for hunting him down. Before the death penalty was abolished in England, bank robbers would sometime carry a realistic wooden pistol: not a real one that might go off and lead to the death penalty. Society never doubted prior to this allegedly enlightened age that the criminal who damaged society deserved punishment, just as a disobedient dog or child does. The child who knows he will be spanked hesitates to misbehave. And while we know of the crooks who are not deterred by the law, we cannot begin to count the would-be crooks who are too fearful of the law to commit the robbery that is in their hearts. (Try to imagine, if you will, that one day each decade was set aside as Lawless Day, all laws suspended. No one could be arrested (or sued) for anything he did that day. How would you prepare for it?)

Our system of criminal justice is thought by some to be gravely flawed: too many crooks are not caught, too many who are caught get off on some pretext, and those convicted, commonly on a lesser, plea-bargained charge, are too easily paroled. In New York, I’ve read, nine crimes out of ten result in no arrest, and of the arrests few result in jail. In so far as this is true, it persuades the crook that he can get away with his crime. Perhaps, especially in large cities, we have lost the will or even the ability to cope. At all events, it does seem certain that if virtually all criminals were caught, swiftly convicted, and given the sentence that they deserve, there would be far fewer crimes.

The mother who slaps her little boy who, having been told not to, is attempting to stick his finger in the electrical socket is punishing disobedience: establishing in his mind that his breaking the law brings pain. She is also hoping that the just punishment will keep him from doing it again, thus perhaps saving his life. And she may hope that his little brother, witnessing the crime and punishment, will be deterred from trying it himself. Punishment, reform, deterrence.

The idea of justice (a moral idea) is to give the breaker of the law the punishment he deserves, no more and no less: his just deserts. Today we hear the word justice chiefly in the combination “peace and justice” from, politicians and clergymen; but they do not seem to have deserved punishment in mind. We need to be aware that the word basically means deserved reward or punishment. The mediaeval kings praised in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle were those that dealt such harsh justice to evil-doers that no man “durst misdo another.” God Himself is rather noted for justice. A: criminal law based on justice will ideally deal out punishment severe enough (painful enough) to make the law-breaker who experiences it decide not to risk it again. Efficient police and a court-system without loopholes greatly increase the risk. If punishment were set by the man who has been maimed or robbed, it might be excessive — drawing and quartering — but the law, reflecting the views of the average citizen, attempts to be just, not too little, not too much. As we noticed above, it is not revenge since the punishment is set in advance; it is, rather, the impersonal majesty of the law. As long as man has had civilizations, the principle of justice — one’s just deserts — has underlain the law.

But a new idea, hailed of course as modern and en-lightened, has appeared in the twentieth century: The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment (see C. S. Lewis’s essay of that name in God in the Dock). It is not, though, a theory of punishment, for it renounces punishment altogether, at least in name, and the idea of justice as well. The Humanitarian Theory, very simply, asserts that men who commit crimes are not criminals at all but are merely psychologically sick; and they should not, therefore, be punished according to their just deserts but handed over to the psychiatrists for healing or readjustment. Thus through the miracles of psychiatry or psychoanalysis the man who robbed the bank, the mugger, the rapist, the cold-blooded murderer — who are no more to blame for these manifestations than the cripple is to blame for limping — will be adjusted into virtuous citizens.

Needless to say perhaps, the Humanitarian Theory arose at a time, the earlier half of the century, when psychology was almost a religion with the psychiatrist as priest, and the faith in it was a good deal stronger than it has since become. It should not be supposed that the Humanitarian Theory is rooted in Christianity; after all, according to the Theory, greed and lust and pride and cruelty and hatred are not, as we Christians had always supposed, mortal sins but merely ill-adjusted personalities. But the Humanitarians did retain a glimmer of common sense in seeing that these sickman-crooks might remain dangerous to their fellow citizens until quite cured; and consequently they were to be confined (not, of course, “imprisoned”) in psychiatric hospitals until pronounced adjusted, however long that might take. The bank robber getting, not a known eight years in prison but an indefinite confinement and his mind tinkered with, might well regard it as cruel and unusual punishment.

Rather fortunately, the high-minded Humanitarian Theory has not become dominant, but it has at the very least confused our thinking about justice. Even a crook has rights: fixed sentence and no mind- tampering without his consent. Moreover, there is virtually no evidence that psychiatry can cure what ails criminals: sin and a monstrous ego. And a crook with any shrewdness will learn to fake the answers that will please the psychiatrists and get him out, while the stupider (or more honest) ones remain confined. But there is a far greater danger in the Humanitarian Theory. The moral idea of justice is not only fairer (more just) to the law-breaker; it limits Caesar: the rulers. They cannot hold a man who is not convicted by a jury, and they cannot arbitrarily give him more years in prison than the law allows. But if the Humanitarian Theory replaced justice, then anyone arrested for anything — demonstrating in the street, throwing a rock at a cop — could be sent off indefinitely to psychiatric readjustment. Rulers are human, and if someone is a thorn in their side, they might easily succumb to the temptation to remove him from the scene. There are people today who would be pleased to send Christians, especially Catholics, to be readjusted, benevolently of course. We all know of the Soviets sending certain rebellious writers and scientists to psychiatric hospitals. It would be dangerous naiveté to suppose it couldn’t happen here. We must never surrender the idea of justice.

Let us, then, proceed in our consideration of the death penalty with the idea of justice in our minds, but also let us remember that our thinking is likely to be a bit distorted by tatters of the Humanitarian Theory. One other thing we must keep in mind is the necessity of assured guilt. There is no justice if an innocent man is convicted. The possibility of innocence is often used as an argument against the death penalty: we cannot restore an executed man to life if he is later found innocent. But, of course, if he has been kept for twenty years — all his youth and middle age — in prison, we cannot restore those years of a ruined life either. The fact is, though, that with our system of adversarial trials, juries, and defense lawyers bringing out every shred of doubt — and with the almost endless appeals the condemned man is allowed, often stretching over years — the possibility of error becomes rather slight; and in most cases there is no doubt at all.

It often appears, especially to the families of murder victims, that public anguish at the execution of the killer far outweighs sympathy for his victim or outrage at his deed. To some extent, the anguish is an illusion: protesters against the death penalty use any execution to display sentimental anguish for the poor old murderer and stage death-watches outside the prison in hopes of getting the death penalty done away with. No doubt they are soft- hearted (and, just possibly, soft – headed), but what they seek is publicity. Their cry that the death penalty is “revenge” and “cruel and unusual punishment” is essentially false. As we have seen, a penalty fixed in advance cannot be “revenge,” which, in any case, implies a personal retaliation not impersonal law.

Nor can execution, done for thousands of years, be called “unusual,” and it is probably far less “cruel” than the murder that led to it. But the high-minded protesters may be a diminishing band. What most Americans think about murderers is perhaps better shown by the parole in California of a man who seven years ago first raped a girl and then cut off her arms and left her to die: town after town was up in arms at the prospect of having such a monster settled in their midst. We may suspect that had he been publicly hanged, thousands of citizens would have applauded and more than a few would have turned out to see it done. The common judgment of mankind that such men deserve death is far stronger and deeper than liberal theorists and perhaps the courts suppose.

Still, there are a good many people- -especially, as was noted earlier, academics and clergymen–who, having heard the earlier proclamation of the Spirit of the Age that the death penalty must go, remain set against it. For these high-minded folk whose concern is the murderer, perhaps I may be permitted to introduce a modern parable.

We all know the parable of the Good Samaritan who succored the bleeding victim after the temple priest and the Levite passed by on the other side of the road. This is the parable of the Other Samaritan, on the road not to Jericho but perhaps to Washington, where a man has been shot and left for dead or perhaps a raped girl with her arms hacked off. Here, too, a couple of people who didn’t want to be involved have passed by with averted eyes. And then comes the other Samaritan who stops. He looks with horror at the moaning victim. “Oh, my!” he murmurs. “Whoever did this terrible thing needs help desperately. I must find him and counsel him.” And he runs down the road.

Even if we have rejected the Humanitarian Theory and affirmed the idea of justice, it takes a conscious effort to clear our minds of the remnants of the Humanitarian Theory: what might be called the be-nice- to- the-poor-old-murderer impulse. This sentimental, not to say mushy, impulse tends to blunt the sword of justice: the idea of just desert. Still, it is possible to affirm justice and maintain that a life sentence is equally just, although, once the supposition of our being especially enlightened is disposed of and the weakness of the Humanitarian Theory is seen, the grounds for opposing the death penalty become rather shaky.

There is obvious justification for the death penalty. Justice. The murderer (or, if any spirited feminist insists, the murderess) has brutally and cold-bloodedly killed one or several of his fellow citizens; he took life; his life is taken. Oliver Goldsmith expresses the older attitude through his lovable clergyman, the vicar of Wakefield, who says of the death penalty: “[T]t is the duty of us all. . .to cut off [the murderer]. Against such all nature rises in arms. . . .” But there is a deeper justification. The great Catholic lover of freedom, Lord Acton, in a famous statement said: “All power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The murderer in the moment when his knife is poised or his finger is on the trigger has absolute power over another human being. If his lordship is right, the murderer is then absolutely corrupted. (This is perhaps why idealistic young revolutionaries become cruel tyrants.) Humanity, I think, has always sensed this absolute corruption in the deliberate, cold-blooded murderer- – the man who kills for gain or hatred — and that is why the common judgment of mankind has always been that he deserves death, that for him it is too late for reform. Having got the taste of corruption in his mouth, the taste of blood, he must never again be allowed to dwell among other human beings, neither in prison where he may become a hero and a role-model for young crooks nor out of it where he may kill again.

Moreover, his death — the death penalty if it becomes again the normal penalty for deliberate murderers — does deter others. While England still had the death penalty, along with efficient Scotland Yard and swift justice, English bank robbers carried only a wooden gun; a real one might go off and lead them to the gallows. They were willing to risk prison but not hanging.

C. S. Lewis says somewhere that, if he had murdered someone and then come to his senses and repented, he hoped he would be man enough to turn himself in and be hanged. Why? Why would anyone who was not even a, suspect and who had made his peace with God choose to turn himself in and take his punishment? This would not be a popular idea among murderers, caught or, especially, uncaught. The answer, I think, is that he would do so in order that society could see that justice had been done. To illustrate this, let us for a moment think of society as one small village. Murder has been committed, and no one knows who did it. For various reasons it is known that the murderer must be a villager. A pall of suspicion and fear creeps over the village; neighbor looks doubtfully at neighbor; trust is destroyed. Only if the murderer is caught can trust and peace be restored. Thus Lewis, entrusting his soul to God, hopes he would be valiant enough, just enough, to render up his body to Caesar. How many of us love justice that much?

Justice requires that the murderer be given the penalty he deserves, and what he deserves may vary with circumstances: perhaps with the degree of corruption. Someone who kills accidently as a motorist running over a child or kills in line of duty as a soldier in war or a judge pronouncing the death penalty according to law is not a murderer. A frantic, tearful woman who snatches up whatever’s handy, scissors or butcher knife, and stabs her faithless husband is surely far less corrupted than one who deliberately puts arsenic in his coffee in order to get his money and marry someone else. The concept of desert must never be forgotten.

Why, apart from the residual Humanitarian Theory and apart from sentimentality, do so many people cry out against the death penalty, regardless of the viciousness of the murders that lead to it? After all, the murderer given life will in twenty or thirty years cost the state hundreds of thousands of dollars that the citizen must pay in taxes. Worse, if paroled, he not infrequently kills again. Still worse, he is often a hero and role-model for younger crooks. But those who cry out against the death penalty do not care about any sort of cost, it seems, nor do they care about what the murderer deserves. They do not discriminate: death for this one, life for that. They are simply against death. This revulsion against the death penalty is not explained by the flimsy reasons (revenge, unenlightened, cruel, and unusual punishment) they give. And it is not explained by Christian reasons, for many of the chief opponents of the death penalty are not Christians in their faith. The twentieth-century revulsion against the death penalty is, in fact, rather a mystery.

After much thought, I have come up with what seems to me to be the explanation. To the secular mind (that is, the post-Christian mind that has lost the Christian hope) death is no doorway to eternity; it is the end of everything. It is the secret terror. It is horror of darkness. It is where philosophy fails. It is where hedonism ends. Science can’t do away with it. This horror, seldom spoken about yet underlying much that is said, is what, I believe, is the cause of the revulsion against the death penalty. And the Christians who cry out against the death penalty have, I believe, caught — been infected by — this secular horror of death, although they are not aware of its being an essentially secular attitude.

Here is a very strange thing. In the fifteen centuries, from the fourth through the nineteenth, the Christian world-view was dominant, most people were Christians in the West, and the laws were shaped by Christianity: and in all this time there was little or no protest against the death penalty (except for one or two of the philosophers who led the way to the French Revolution: and the guillotine). Now in the very first century to be called post- Christian, where the law reflects secular values and the older laws against divorce, abortion, sodomy, are done away with and where the media like the courts reflect secular values, the revulsion against the death penalty arises. Surely it is more than chance that the very first age to manifest the revulsion against the death penalty should coincide with the very first age to be essentially secular. Christians might well give this some thought. Deep thought.

Now, at last (at long last, some may say) we are ready to consider what the Christian attitude to the death penalty should be. By Christian I mean, of course, the ancient Faith: Incarnation and Resurrection. We could not, I think, have discussed what the Christian attitude should be without having first examined the death penalty from the citizen’s point of view, both secular and Christian. Christians, after all, are citizens, too; even St. Paul was a Roman citizen. We have looked at the death penalty in the common judgment of mankind, and we have examined twentieth-century attitudes and assumptions, as well as the secularism, that may affect our understanding of justice. Now we can look at it solely in the light of the Bible and the Church. There are Catholic and other voices raised against the death penalty, and in examining what they say we should bear in mind what has been said above of, the Spirit of the Age, of chronological snobbery, of the Humanitarian Theory, and of the infection of secularism.

The first thing we should look at is what Cardinal Bernardin has called “the Seamless Garment.” Or the sacredness of Human Life. Briefly, this is the idea that all the life issues — abortion, the killing of malformed babies, euthanasia for the elderly, killing in war, and the execution of murderers — are woven together into a Seamless Garment by the thread of the sacredness of human life. I very much believe in the sacredness of human life, but I don’t believe in the Seamless Garment. (See my “Seams in the Seamless Garment,” New Oxford Review, January 1986.) It appears to me to have very obvious seams, particularly where the innocent-life issues (abortion and euthanasia) are cobbled onto the guilty-life issues (killing in self-defense and executing criminals). I believe that the sacredness of human life means that each of us has an absolute entitlement to life, but that this entitlement can be forfeited by our own action. The most obvious forfeiture is that of the suicide: he surrenders his entitlement. So does the murderer. Knowing the consequences if caught, he deliberately cuts short another’s entitlement, thus forfeiting his own. In short, the sacredness of human life is one thing; the entitlement to go on living is quite another.

What guidance does the Christian have from the Bible? The very first thing that many cite is “Thou shalt not kill” from the Ten Commandments. I’m afraid it won’t do as a text against the death penalty. It clearly means that what is forbidden is murder. There is not the slightest suggestion that the Israelites supposed for one minute that the commandment had anything to do with killing in war or the death penalty. Indeed, the same books of the Bible that contain the “Thou shalt not kill” prescribe the death penalty for various crimes and abominations. Moreover, there is another verse in the Pentateuch that the Israelites would not have forgotten (Genesis 9:6, with my italics): “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for in the image of God has God made man.” There, in the last clause, is the sacredness of human life, and there, in the rest of it, is the death penalty for murderers. And finally Deuteronomy 19 says of the man who murders his enemy: “the elders shall hand him over … and he shall die …[to] rid Israel of the guilt of innocent blood.” Let us note that here the whole people of Israel would suffer blood guilt: not for executing the murderer but for failing to execute him. Very unenlightened, of course.

But the New Testament — didn’t Jesus tell us to forgive our enemies, among whom surely are the robbers and murderers? Of course. But forgiving the wolf who eats our sheep because he knows no better doesn’t mean we should leave him among the flock; he still forfeits his life. We must indeed forgive the murderer, especially if he asks for forgiveness; but in justice for the common good of society he must be given the punishment he deserves. Forgiveness is mandated by God’s law; punishment by Caesar’s law. Jesus, a woman said emotionally to me, would never flick the switch of the electric chair. She had no doubt the popular image of the “gentle Jesus” in mind — Jesus who was, in fact, so much sterner than St. Paul — but let us remember what the “gentle Jesus” said (Matthew 25:41) to all those who (exactly like the murderer) did not see and feed and shelter the Christ in others: “The curse is upon you,” said the Lord Jesus; “Go from my sight to the eternal fire.” The electric chair is mild by comparison. And the New Testament directly addresses the question of earthly justice or Caesar. St. Paul (Romans 13:4) said of those who enforce the law: “It is not for nothing that they hold the power of the sword [life or death], for they are God’s agents of punishment, for retribution on the offender.” The Bible offers small support to those who would do away with the death penalty.

What guidance, then, does the Catholic Christian have from the Church? The most authoritative pronouncements are those of the great ecumenical councils in harmony with the pope. The Council of Trent was firmly dogmatic that the death penalty, while not mandatory, is not forbidden. After (we must assume) the most searching examination of scripture, these bishops and the Holy Father laid it down that the death penalty was morally permissible. All the same, since the Council did not mandate the death penalty, the faithful Catholic is free to oppose it; but he is not free to condemn it as morally wrong, since the Church that is our teacher says that it is morally permissible.

If the Faith does not prohibit either position on the death penalty, are there any Christian considerations that will help us to prefer one to the other? It is sometimes urged that we are commanded not to judge, since judgment belongs only to God. But the judging that we are forbidden, surely, is the judging of the human heart, of sinfulness. It is not for us to say that another is doomed to damnation. But in earthly matters where we weigh the evidence to determine whether someone broke the law, we must of course judge. Our Lord Himself told us to “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s”; and there is no doubt that the maintenance of order through law and punishment belongs to Caesar: the “power of the sword” that St. Paul clearly approves of. Moreover, the court’s decision that a man must hang is no more and no less a judgment than the decision to send him to prison. Civil government could not function without the power to punish lawbreakers. In short, the death penalty is no more forbidden by the “Do not judge” than the mother’s deciding to slap her little boy.

There is another Christian consideration, though, that we ought to keep in mind with regard to the death penalty. As we noted above, death to the secular mind is a horror of darkness and wan hope. It is not so for us: we hope to meet Our Lord face to face in exchanged love, and we hope to see again all those dear faces that have preceded us into “the world of light.” The executed murderer must also meet his Lord. We cannot know how he will fare (here is where we must not judge) for we do not know his heart. But we must not allow our attitude to his execution to be darkened by the secular horror of death, for we know that God is merciful beyond all understanding. The earthly judge’s words, “and may God have mercy on your soul,” have a deeper meaning than he or we can know.

This consideration merely suggests that the death penalty ought not to be rejected by Christians because of the secular fear of death; it does not give us grounds for preferring the death penalty.

When we read in the papers that the jury, in a case we have been following, found a young man guilty of murder with sentencing to follow, what should be our prayer for him? What, above all, must we pray? That he will be spared the death sentence? No. Something far more important than life or death. The answer should leap like fire to the Christian mind.

We must pray that he will repent.

The essential Christian consideration is repentance. A prayer for prisoners in the Book of Common Prayer includes the words: “and bring the guilty to repentance.” That is why another name for prison is penitentiary, implying a place to bring crooks to penitence. An unrepentant murderer, in prison or loose among us, is in danger of damnation. But a truly penitent one, even on Death Row, is already forgiven by the ultimate Judge, and God’s priests will joyfully give him absolution. All is well with him, though he must die. Pray, then, that the murderer will repent and cast himself upon his Savior.

There can be no question that repentance is overwhelmingly the most important consideration; but it is the death penalty that we are attempting to weigh. But now the question of what should be the Christian attitude to it has been refined by the consideration of repentance. Now the question of the death penalty versus the life sentence has become: Which is the more likely to lead the murderer to repent?

We have seen reason to doubt that we are the most enlightened civilization since the world began; we have seen that punishment is not revenge but justice, which is a necessary function of Caesar; and we have seen that neither Bible nor Church forbids the death penalty. And now as Christians we see that our only logical basis for preferring either the life sentence or the death penalty is that one is more likely than the other to lead the murderer to repentance. That is our question: Which?

The life sentence is the gift of time. In order to come to repentance, the murderer, who is probably still defiant during his trial, needs time to reflect on what he did and perhaps to come at last to realization of the full horror of his act and to be sorry (penitent) that he did it. And indeed it may be so for some.

But the murderer who is given the life sentence must often feel that he has won a victory of sorts: he has, at least, beaten the death penalty; and in most cases he can look forward to parole. If he remained brazen and defiant inside during his trial, he may almost swagger into his life sentence: he is tough, the law is soft. And in the far from penitent atmosphere of our so-called penitentiaries there is little to turn his thoughts to God or eternal things. Death is remote. He, as a killer, is high in the prison hierarchy. Other crooks admire him as a tough killer. If any thoughts of really examining his act flit across his mind, they are easy to postpone indefinitely. A Jesuit prison chaplain said sadly that it is difficult to get young prisoners to think seriously about reforming their lives, let alone repenting of their sins; they have too many years ahead of them. Too much time and no inducement to repent in a brutal, depraved company of men who prey on their fellows. Too much time and no urgency.

What of the murderer who is given the death sentence: He, too, has time: usually years on Death Row while he exhausts every possible appeal. He has time, but it is, so to speak, heightened time. Crisis time. The death sentence itself is a sickening shock; he didn’t believe till he heard it that they could do this to him. Now he knows they can—and probably will. And he hasn’t won anything, not even the dubious victory of a life sentence. On Death Row he lives under the shadow of death, even while he tries to avert it through appeals. Every time an appeal is turned down, he dies a little: death comes closer. Every time a fellow prisoner on Death Row goes forth to death, death touches him also. Death looms over him every night and every morning. The soft-hearted will say this ordeal is cruel. It is not cruel, for it is he himself that draws it out with appeals. But it is a severe ordeal. And yet, if it turns his thoughts to repentance, it may be a severe mercy.

We observed above that the man given life has no urgency, no imperative, to reflect on what he has done. For the man on Death Row, there is nothing but urgency. His time is draining away. What could be a greater imperative to thoughtfulness than death? We have read accounts of AIDS victims, also under sentence of death, being reconciled to God and Church before the end. Is it not clear that for the man on Death Row, like the man with AIDS, the ordinary concerns of life (money, fun, the plans for tomorrow) are melting away: death inexorably draws near. The mystery of death: Does something come after? What? How shall I be received? The lifer may postpone such questions for decades. The man on Death Row cannot. Surely it is far more probable that the man on Death Row will come to repentance.

I talked to a guard at a prison where executions are carried out and later with that prison’s Catholic chaplain, and both confirmed my conclusion. The men on Death Row, the chaplain said, “want to say to someone, ‘I’m sorry for what I did.’ They want reconciliation.”

The Christian cannot escape the truth that repentance, which is reconciliation with God, is more important than merely sparing the murderer’s life. And I do not believe that logically the Christian can escape the conclusion that the death penalty is far more likely to lead the murderer to repentance. Therefore, the Christian attitude towards the death penalty must be favorable.

We must pray that a particular murderer get the sentence, death or life, most likely to bring him to repentance. But to pray this, there has to be a death penalty; and Christians, therefore, must resist moves to do away with it. To act effectively, Christians must know their own minds.

To make repentance still more likely, I should like to see the murderer on Death Row given at least two weeks of life after the last possible appeal has failed: a time in which there is no hope at all of a last-minute reprieve. Two weeks for sober contemplation of what lies ineluctably ahead. As Dr. Johnson said, it “wonderfully concentrates the mind” to know that one is to hanged in a fortnight.


Sheldon Vanauken (1914 — 1996) is an American author, best known for his autobiographical book A Severe Mercy (1977), which recounts his and his wife's friendship with C. S. Lewis, their conversion to Christianity and dealing with tragedy. He published a sequel, Under the Mercy in 1985.

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