Each issue carries an
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
The Bible and the Death Penalty Today
The headline in the newspaper attracts readers'
attention: "Pro-killer crowd strikes again." The first sentence
immediately sets the tone for the whole article: "The bleeding
hearts are at it again." Another headline declares a very different
message: "A Good Friday Appeal to End the Death Penalty." These
two examples dramatically describe a deep division in our country.
Debate about the death penalty stirs strong emotions, impacts
people's lives, and so demands careful moral reasoning.
This issue ofScripture from Scratchoffers
an invitation to move beyond divisions by providing the opportunity
for thoughtful and prayerful reflection. We will first review
some key facts about capital punishment in our world. Then we
will turn to our Scriptures for guidance on this issue. Finally
we will pay close attention both to Church teaching and to frequently
raised questions about the death penalty.
Polls consistently show that a majority of U.S.
citizens, about 70 percent, approve of capital punishment. What
grounds are there for such a widespread conviction? Generally
people point to two reasons: retribution and deterrence. Some
people judge that some crimes are so horrible that the only appropriate
punishment is death. Some are convinced that the threat of the
death penalty will prevent people from committing crime.
People who oppose the death penalty challenge both
reasons. They claim that capital punishment is much closer to
revenge than retribution. There are other means, they hold, of
balancing the scales of justice than more killing. Similarly,
death-penalty opponents point out that most studies indicate that
the death penalty does not act as a deterrent. Decreasing rates
of violent crime are found in countries that have eliminated the
The Supreme Court has also been very involved in
the discussion. In 1967, it suspended all executions while trying
to resolve constitutional problems related to capital punishment.
This decision marked the beginning of a ten-year moratorium of
executions in the United States.
Two important Supreme Court decisions followed.
In 1972 the Court overturned all death-penalty statutes, judging
that the poor and minorities were executed far more often than
others. In 1976 the Supreme Court upheld death sentences imposed
under new statutes. Executions began again in 1977.
Nationally, 38 states have death-penalty statutes.
In 1994 the U.S. government enacted an anti-crime law that increased
the number of crimes subject to the federal death penalty from
two to more than sixty.
Globally, the United Nations International Covenant
on Civil and Political Rights opposes capital punishment. More
than 100 countries have abandoned capital punishment in law or
practice. The United States stands in contrast to all these countries,
but stands with such countries as China, Iran and Libya.
How can the Bible enlighten this profound dilemma?
Often we hear the Bible quoted as a justification for capital
punishment: "Eye for eye, tooth for tooth" (from Leviticus 24:20;
also Exodus 21:24). This follows a more direct passage: "Whoever
takes the life of any human being shall be put to death" (Leviticus
Numerous problems, however, arise from such an
appeal to Scripture. Those who emphasize these passages conveniently
ignore other similar passages in which death is decreed for one
who works on the sabbath (Exodus 31:15) or for one who curses
one's parent (Exodus 21:17) or even for a rebellious teenager
More significant problems exist, including the
proper understanding and interpretation of both texts and contexts.
The well-known "eye for eye" passage was originally intended to
limit violence by reducing the escalation of violence. In Matthew
5:38-42, Jesus disallows even that limited violence. This example
reminds us that culture and historical setting influenced the
biblical texts and that some biblical passages reflect an earlier
moral perspective no longer acceptable.
Vatican II'sChurch in the Modern World,
the pope's recent social teachings and the statements of the U.S.
bishops (for example,Economic Justice for All) not only
exemplify the methodology needed for using Scripture in the death-penalty
debate but also provide essential content. These documents listen
to the Bible contextually, paying attention to major themes, and
also scrutinize the signs of the times. Using these and other
wisdom sources, the documents then develop responses to contemporary
Some of the foundational biblical themes are creation,
covenant, incarnation, discipleship, death and resurrection. These
lead to a profound and special emphasis on the value and dignity
of every person and to insight into the kind of community needed
to promote human flourishing. Recent Church teaching has evaluated
the death penalty in this light.
A still deeper problem remains. Supporters of the
death penalty are accepting, perhaps unknowingly, the very ancient
religious belief that violence saves. This belief is older than
the Bible itself. The ancient Babylonian creation story (theEnuma
Elish) describes a rebellion among the gods, in which Marduk
kills the mother god, Tiamat, and then stretches out her corpse
to create the cosmos.
The heart of this ancient storythat our origin
is violence, that war brings peaceremains the central belief,
the dominant religion, of our modern world. Throughout our lives,
from cartoons and movies and TV to public policyincluding
the death penaltywe are taught that might makes right, that
Our Jewish and Christian Scriptures and religions
both contradict and reinforce the belief in violence. The first
creation story in the Bible is diametrically opposed to the Babylonian
view. In Genesis, a good God creates a good world. Good is prior
to evil; violence has no part in creation. However, belief in
violence, though often challenged by the prophets, gradually infected
Jewish convictions. Hundreds of biblical passages describe God's
own violent actions and commands to kill.
In the prophetic tradition Jesus rejected violence,
oppression and alienation. His life and teachings invited people
into a new style of living: the reign of God. Intimacy and trust,
compassion and forgiveness, concern for justice and nonviolence
were key aspects of this new life. (See "Talking about Scripture"
for some of the texts that provide the basis for this description.)
The early followers of Jesus were not able to sustain
this good news of God's love. In their attempts to make sense
of Jesus' horrible death, some of the followers returned to the
belief that violence saves. They changed the God of mercy revealed
by Jesus into a wrathful God who demands the only Son's death
on behalf of us all.
Christianity's tradition, both in its theology
and the application to social and political issues, embodies this
ancient tension between the unconditionally loving God revealed
by Jesus and a god with traces of Marduk.
The Christian Tradition
The Church's teaching about the death penalty,
reflecting this ambiguity, has changed several times. The early
Church generally found taking human life to be incompatible with
the life and teachings of Jesus. Later, after Christianity became
the religion of the Roman Empire, opposition to the death penalty
declined. Augustine recognized the death penalty as a means of
deterring the wicked and protecting the innocent. In the Middle
Ages, Thomas Aquinas reaffirmed this position.
There can be no doubt that for a long period the
Christian tradition supported the death penalty. In recent years,
however, there has been another change. The newCatechism of
the Catholic Churchexpressed the long tradition, stating that
the death penalty is possible in cases of extreme gravity. TheCatechismadded
that means other than killing should be preferred when these would
be sufficient to protect public order (#2267).
Pope John Paul II expressed a stronger position
against the death penalty in his encyclicalThe Gospel of Life.
He stressed that situations where its use is necessary to protect
society have become "very rare, if not practically nonexistent."
When visiting the United States in 1999, Pope John Paul called
the death penalty "cruel and unnecessary" and affirmed that the
"dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case
of someone who has done great evil."
The U.S. bishops have been speaking out against
the death penalty since the time of the moratorium. A longer 1980
statement,Capital Punishment, explained their position
in more detail. Four related values express the heart of their
First, ending capital punishment is a way to break
the cycle of violence. There are more humane and more effective
responses to the growth of violent crime, including paying attention
to the root causes such as poverty and injustice.
Second, abolition of the death penalty affirms
the belief in the "unique worth and dignity" of every person.
Third, abolition expresses the fundamental conviction
that God is Lord of life and that human beings are to exercise
good stewardship but not absolute control of life.
Fourth, ending the death penalty "is most consonant
with the example of Jesus." The God revealed in the life of Jesus
is a God of forgiveness and redemption, of love and compassion.
Since 1980 many individual bishops and state conferences
of bishops have expressed their opposition to the death penalty,
frequently appealing to the consistent ethic of life as the basis
of their position. On Good Friday, 1999, the administrative board
of the U.S. Catholic Conference remembered Jesus' own execution
with a bold call to all people of good will to work to end capital
punishment. "The death penalty offers the tragic illusion that
we can defend life by taking life."
What about the victims and their families? Following
the life and teachings of Jesus certainly leads to compassion
and care for these people. In a special way the Church can and
must stand with those who have experienced violence. Opposing
the death penalty in no way undermines this support. Nor does
it imply a willingness to let crime go unpunished.
What about justice and closure? Justice can be
achieved and the common good protected without more killing. The
testimonies of many victims' families affirm that authentic closure
comes through forgiveness and reconciliation, not more violence.
Are there other reasons for opposing the death
penalty? Mistakes can and have been made; recently a number of
prisoners on death row have been found innocent. The death penalty
is still applied in a discriminatory way: the poor and minorities
are more likely to be sentenced to death. Capital punishment further
contributes to our culture's conviction that violence is a way
to solve problems, as in abortion and euthanasia. Executions also
undermine our society by promoting hatred and revenge.
What to Do
The death penalty evokes strong emotions and profound
questions. What, then, can we do? Pray, read, and act.
Pray.Fears and gut-level reactions
may cry out for vengeance, but Jesus' example in the Gospels invites
us to develop a new and different attitude toward violence. So
we need to pray, even asking God explicitly for a change of heart.
Old habits and pre-judgments may be hard to remove.
Read.Despite our prayer and consultation
and attending to Church teaching, we may also need to hear contemporary
stories of ordinary people. Pick up a copy ofNot in Our Name,
published by Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation. See the
faces and listen to the stories, stories of people who have been
there, stories of pain, grief, faith, healing and forgiveness.
Act.Contact your diocesan office
of justice and peace to ask about local groups committed to working
for an end to capital punishment. Investigate the movement promoting
"restorative justice." Invite a representative from a group like
Amnesty International to speak to a civic group. Write letters
to your state and federal legislators.
Some people say that those who defend the sanctity
of life by opposing the death penalty are "pro-killer bleeding
hearts." A proper understanding of the richness of our Scriptures
and recent Church teachings point to a different description:
faithful disciples of Jesus.
Next: Roman Presence in Israel (by Elizabeth