Religion and (Capital) Punishment

Here’s a post by David Gibson which links to a piece by Christopher Hitchens, which in turn claims (in his usual free-wheeling style) that the reason that the United States continues to permit capital punishment is because of the country’s religiosity.  Gibson disputes the assertion by citing some numbers from other countries that aren’t particularly religious, but his point seems to be that whether religion and capital punishment are linked will depend on which religion one is talking about.

I suppose that’s true, but I think it may miss something much larger.  The most fundamental reason (historically, at least, though not only that) to punish people is retributivist — that those who commit crimes are morally culpable and so deserve punishment.  The contemporary rarification of punishment theory tends to obscure the fact that ideas of retribution are ancient and have at least a large part of their historical root in religious traditions and concepts — especially the monotheistic religious traditions which, again historically, have been most prominent.  So it should not be surprising that there is a connection between religious traditions and capital punishment, since there is a much broader and deeper connection between religion and the prototypical justification of punishment.   — MOD

One response

  1. Even within religions, capital punishment’s justification is in no way determined and probably never will be. In Christianity—both inter- and intra-denominationally—”eye for an eye” v. “turn the other cheek” debates abound. Two Christian, anti-death penalty arguments come to mind:

    Catholic social activist, Sister Helen Prejean, C.S.J. (the Tim Robbins film, “Dead Man Walking,” renders her memoir), adamantly opposes executing even those whose guilt is clear and whose crimes are undeniably horrific. Among other arguments, in light of the procedural requirements for its imposition, Prejean characterizes a death sentence in the contemporary U.S. as a form of prolonged torture.

    On the Protestant side, over sixty-years ago, Dietrich Bonhoeffer—the German Lutheran theologian ultimately hanged for his involvement in a botched assassination plot against Hitler—also opposed the death penalty. For him, executing a prisoner was not the same as killing, say, a combatant or lethal tyrant. Rather, he regarded it as an unjust killing of a human being already rendered incapable of doing harm—that is, not justifiable as self-defense or defense of others, but simple murder.

    Thus, any blanket claim that religiosity drives capital punishment—which it certainly does—has to contend with the clear fact that religiosity—as certainly—opposes it. (Of course, it should also address the fact that this issue is subject to much secular contention.)

    – – – – By way of post-script, perhaps John Prine expressed the logical extreme of the Christian anti-death penalty position when, in 1971, he recorded the lyrics, “Now Jesus don’t like killin’/ No matter what the reason’s for.”

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