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Respect Life:
The Bible and the Death Penalty Today

by Kenneth R. Overberg, S.J.

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.

Current Context

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 death penalty.

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.

Biblical Vision

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 24:17).

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 (Deuteronomy 21:18-21).

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 ethical questions.

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.

Competing Stories

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 story—that our origin is violence, that war brings peace—remains the central belief, the dominant religion, of our modern world. Throughout our lives, from cartoons and movies and TV to public policy—including the death penalty—we are taught that might makes right, that violence saves.

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 position.

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."

Questions and Concerns

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.

Kenneth R. Overberg, S.J., is professor of theology at Xavier University, Cincinnati. Among his award-winning books and articles are: Conscience in Conflict (revised) from St. Anthony Messenger Press; "A Consistent Ethic of Life," Catholic Update, July 1998; and "Choosing Life: The Bible and Euthanasia," Scripture from Scratch, October 1994.

Next: Roman Presence in Israel (by Elizabeth McNamer)


Living the Scriptures  

Celebrate Respect Life Month (for any month) by helping to organize a discussion in your parish. Help others understand the death penalty in the larger context of the Church's teaching on a consistent ethic of life.



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