(Date of submission)
Christian Ethics and Death Penalty
Christian ethics or Christian moral law defines the moral principles by which Christians adhere. Christian ethics can be also called a theory of Christian action. Human behavior is based on Christian vision of nature, predestination and his relationship with God which can be expressed by a certain way of life, diverse in its manifestation among individuals as well as social Christian groups. While maintaining eternal basic values, each age and different Christian confessions offer their own particular understanding of specific ways of realization of Christian principles. Further definition of the meaning of Christian moral teaching can be influenced by the changes in social paradigm, mentality, value system, the adoption of philosophical heritage of antiquity or the development of theology. However, there is no doubt that value of human life is of the utmost importance and is considered to be sacred. In the contemporary world there are several very disputable from the point view of Christian ethics questions that cause stormy discussion for decades and even centuries as it is impossible to pass an unequivocal judgment on them. Among those are homosexuality, suicides, euthanasia, abortion and death penalty. Over the history of Christianity homosexuality has been always viewed as one of the manifestations of sinful human nature, incompatible with Christian dogma and way of life. Reevaluation of traditional views on homosexuality has taken place in some Protestant confessions over the last decade although acuteness of the discussion is ever relevant among both the faithful and non-believers. Attitude to suicide over the history of humankind has also been rather ambiguous depending on the performer and the circumstances under which the act has been performed. This attitude in different ages and cultures could vary from absolute condemnation (Christians) to reverence (in Japan). Religions could symbolically divided into anti-suicidal where moral and psychological taboo against suicides are extremely strict and the ones where suicide is not considered to be pure evil. Christianity belongs to the first ones. The word euthanasia originates from Greek eu- good and thanos- death and means a deliberate act leading to a quick and painless death of a terminally ill and suffering patient so as to put a stop to unbearable pain and agony. Euthanasia is put into practice of contemporary care of public health under the influence of several aspects, one of them being a change of value system that makes the respect for human rights the priority. This practice gained a lot of support all over the world due to the fact that if the pain is irremovable than death can be viewed as an act of humanity and mercy. However, Christian ethics rejects even the possibility of the termination of life no matter the condition of the patient and treats the act as a murder or a suicide depending on the patient’s degree of the awareness. Abortion is an issue of the day of modern social life in the USA. It is such a burning question that some researches go as far as predicting that it endangers the very foundation of the pluralistic system intended to reconcile different approaches towards moral and ethical issues. Nothing has divided American society like this since the issue of slavery. According to Christian ethics, abortion is the termination of an embryo’s life and therefore is a murder of an unborn human being. One more vexed for Christian ethics question is capital punishment. This punishment goes back to pre-Christian times but for the most part of Christian history, the church considered the death penalty to be a necessity. However, nowadays the opinions of Christians are vastly different. Some support it referring to the Old Testament whereas the others oppose it as an inhuman practice and their opinion is seconded by one of the Biblical ten tables ‘Thou shalt not kill’. As a matter of fact, death penalty is the most drastic measure of revenge on the part of the government against the person who violates social imperatives. It is necessary to keep in mind that it is the state’s prerogative power aimed at maintaining basic moral and ethical values as well as legal regulations set by the government. If a person deprives another one of life without the court decree it is considered to be a murder but the paper signed by a judge makes it a just punishment for committed crimes. As a rule, death penalty is used as a punishment for the most heinous crimes such as some kinds of murder but some countries also sentence criminals to death for high treason, some kinds of fraud, adultery and rape. Numerous reflections on the issue in philosophy, ethics, religion, law and politics try to answer only one question: whether the death penalty has the right to exist in the contemporary society. There are a lot of works out there where the authors try to get all the possible angles on the problem and we will try to do the same and see what Christian ethics say about it. Early Christians were against death penalty referring to Jesus Christ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount: Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; Later, in the age of persecution of Christians, apologists developed the teaching against wages. They did it not only because of the sense of self-preservation but as their aim was to revolutionize the world of paganism by Christian message and saw death penalty as the violation of the commandment. To prove it Lactantius who lived in 3c. A.D. can be cited: …when God forbids us to kill, He not only prohibits us from open violence, which is not even allowed by the public laws, but He warns us against the commission of those things which are esteemed lawful among men. Thus it will be neither lawful for a just man to engage in warfare, since his warfare is justice itself, nor to accuse any one of a capital charge, because it makes no difference whether you put a man to death by word, or rather by the sword, since it is the act of putting to death itself which is prohibited. Therefore, with regard to this precept of God, there ought to be no exception at all; but that it is always unlawful to put to death a man, whom God willed to be a sacred animal. While Christians were persecuted by the state it was impossible for them to object to death penalty legally. The problem became relevant only after Constantine the Great stopped the persecution and made Christianity the established religion. It became possible for them to have positions of power and they began follow the words of Paul the Apostle: For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. Therefore, Christians started to believe that death penalty is justifiable for the sake of justice, for policing and the way to prevent violence. However, they never viewed death penalty as a rightful deed but as a necessary evil in the world far from perfect. The disputes about the allowability of the capital punishment still last and both opponents are ready to support their opinion with arguments for and against it. One of the most commonly used arguments against death penalty is the sanctity of a life as any life is sacred even if it is a murderer’s one. It is natural as Christianity is a religion of life salvation and the life itself is one of the fundamental concepts, it defines and supports the whole structure of the religion. The concept of life is connected with typological peculiarity of Christianity in relation to historically close religions such as Buddhism and Judaism. Hence, Christians’ attitude towards capital punishment as a barbaric and cold-blooded offence against sanctity of life as only God decides who lives and who dies. By the way, the same argument is used to protest against abortion and euthanasia. Christianity relies on forgiveness and compassion, which is why death penalty is incompatible with its principles. Another argument against death penalty is the fact that it satisfies the base instinct for revenge that cannot be justified from the point of view of morality – so capital punishment is a wicked deed. One of the founding principles of Christianity is the theory of non-resistance to evil which means there should be no place for revenge in any Christian’s heart. One more reason to oppose capital punishment: it is not a legally rightful act as in law a principle of reducibility of punishment is to be observed which allows for reversibility in case of judicial error. The thing is, human judgment unlike divine justice is not faultless and in case of death penalty any judicial error can lead to irreversible consequences and definitely oversteps the limits of jurisdiction of men. This fact alone should be enough for abolition of capital punishment, in some people’s opinion. Moreover, capital punishments are detriment for the moral values of a society; it corrupts the society either directly – through people accessorial to the death of a person, or by implication as it strengthens the idea that killing can be justified. However, pro-death penalty Christians see it as a means divine justice conducted through the government which in this case acts as a conductor of God’s will. This argument is seconded by St. Augustine: The same divine law which forbids the killing of a human being allows certain exceptions, as when God authorises killing by a general law or when He gives an explicit commission to an individual for a limited time. Since the agent of authority is but a sword in the hand, and is not responsible for the killing, it is in no way contrary to the commandment, 'Thou shalt not kill' to wage war at God's bidding, or for the representatives of the State's authority to put criminals to death, according to law or the rule of rational justice. Certainly, those are not the only arguments supporting the continued existence of death penalty. There are Christians who think of it as a just punishment and there is nothing immoral about it as it is a punishment for murder and the Bible teaches that: Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man. Hence, capital punishment frees the society from the existence of dangerous criminals and nothing can change the fact- for the sake of justice the person who took another’s life is to lose his life as well because this is what he deserves and it will save his other potential victims as if the criminal has killed once he would not hesitate to do it again. Furthermore, it is natural for people to fear death, so they claim that the mere possibility of capital punishment serves as a deterrent for offenders and prevents murders. And even if it doesn’t what the society has to lose but the life of a hardened criminal. Besides, some people believe that some criminals are irredeemable and correctional service will be of no use as they are wicked and will never stop committing crimes. That, in their opinion, means society has to get rid of them for its sake. St. Augustine expressed the opinion that capital punishment is necessary not only for the sake of society, but the criminals themselves: . . . inflicting capital punishment . . . protects those who are undergoing capital punishment from the harm they may suffer . . . through increased sinning which might continue if their life went on. Some people go further and claim that death penalty is human towards the criminal as it is much worse to spend the whole life in custodial which is cruel. And the most cynical argument is that they believe it is much cheaper to execute the convict than to spend taxpayers’ money on their upkeep. Some pro-death penalty believers try to shed a philosophical light on it. They say that capital punishment makes people cherish the sanctity of life more. These opinions do not depend on any particular confession but among their supporters there are a lot of Christians despite the fact it is in contradiction with the principles of Christian ethics. After having done the research for my paper, I came across a lot of information that helped me to harden to the view that death penalty is necessary no matter the disputes. My personal opinion is based on different arguments but the first and the most important one is: a punishment must correspond to the crime. I do not believe life sentence without parole is an adequate punishment for committing a murder of innocent people, sometimes more than one. There are a lot of reflections on the human attitude towards the offender but it looks like no one wants to talk about victims and the fact that their lives were taken without a shimmer of regret or about their families whose lives have changed irreversibly as they will have to continue living with the memories of their loved ones being murdered. Meditations about sanctity of murderer’s life seem to be disrespectful toward victims: what about their sanctity of life which was violated. Besides the death of the criminal, no matter how barbaric some people consider it to be, gives the victims’ families a sense of closure that, I believe, help them move on. Secondly, I consider death penalty to be a powerful deterrent. Despite the general opinion of the Catholic Church, one of the Cardinals – Avery Dulles was vehemently pro-death penalty and he advocated the capital punishment as an effective way of preventing possible crimes and protecting the society from them. An interesting fact: in China a punishment for corrupt practice is death and it is considered to be one of the least corrupted states in the world though there is no information about the quantity of executions there according to amnesty.org. Moreover, numerous criminological researches prove that capital punishment has the highest preventive rate – as the instinct of self-preservation is one of the strongest ones and fear of death can ‘save’ a criminal from committing a murder. There are known cases when a criminal after an assault helped the victim as he feared the consequences if he/she died. Hence, fear of violent and premature death from the hand of the executioner prevents potential criminals from taking fatal steps. It is not surprising that public executions were common in former times. I definitely do not call for public executions as I consider them barbaric but it gives some pabulum for reflection. Thirdly, although this kind of punishment is not conductive to rehabilitation of the criminal, the sentence can lead to penance and turning to God. There is a great number of Christian literatures for criminals sentenced to death and in cases when the offender is incapable for or undeserving of rehabilitation and reintegration into the society death penalty can at least be a way to achieve reconciliation with God. Fourthly, the ways of execution in the contemporary civilized world are human and are supposed to be quick and painless (incidents that sometimes happen are rare) whereas life sentence without parole means life in inhuman conditions. No matter how comfortable a prison is, it does not change the fact that it is a prison. That is why I believe death penalty to be much more merciful. Finally, I do not want to come off a cold- blooded cynic, but the last argument in support of death penalty – it is not as expensive as a life sentence. I do not understand why law-abiding citizens are to be burdened with the upkeep of dangerous criminals. Recently people started talking that execution is more expensive than life sentence and they support their opinion with numbers but these numbers are for a year’s worth and it is really true: it is cheaper to keep a criminal in prison than to execute him short term. However, they do not take into account the fact that an average term that sentenced to death criminals spend in prison is about 6 years (including appeals and re-trials) whereas life sentence implies a much longer period of time. They do not think of geriatric care of convicts, their treatment for possible chronic ailments and other living expenses that will drastically change the picture. In conclusion, let us have a closer look at the aims of any criminal punishment. They are: rehabilitation, defense against the criminal, deterrence and retribution. It is clear that death penalty achieves all but the first one as rehabilitation is impossible in this case; however, life without parole does the same and taking into account other abovementioned arguments I believe that death penalty is preferable. The only reason that makes me doubt is a possibility of judicial error that can place an innocent person on the death row but it means that it is necessary to improve the system, not abolish capital punishment. Bibliography
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