Jesus was not trying to establish forgiveness as the guiding principle of government. He knew this was impossible. Forgiveness is an individual matter, and doesn’t even factor into governmental matters. Likewise, punishment, which is entirely a government domain, is not something individual citizens are tasked with doing. Jesus was instructing individuals, not writing a constitution. Judging a state’s laws by their forgiveness is like judging a fish for how well he rides a bicycle.
Religious Objection 2: We should show mercy and not execute people.
At the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew 5:7 Jesus says, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy” (Matthew 5:7). Later, when challenged by the Pharisees for His associations with sinners, Jesus says, “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are ill. But go and learn what this means, ‘I desire compassion, and not sacrifice,’ for I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matthew 9:12-13). Surely we can offer enough mercy to the murderer to grant him life in prison instead of execution.
Before dealing directly with this argument, consider what it inadvertently acknowledges: capital punishment is perfectly just. In urging a punishment reduction, mercy advocates are conceding that execution is the appropriate starting point. Reducing an excessive penalty to something proper is only remedying an injustice, not an expression of mercy. Mercy is someone doing less than he is justified in doing. Lowering the penalty for theft from hand amputation to imprisonment is just averting an injustice. Making it merely a fine would be an act of mercy. Thus, moving a murderer from death row to LIPWPP is only an act of mercy insofar as death row was the correct place for him for his crime. I mention this because many people who urge mercy also complain that capital punishment is barbaric, unfair, excessive or unconstitutional. Capital punishment could be inherently wrong, or it could be right but unmerciful. It cannot be both.
Still, shouldn’t we try to be more merciful? Well … more merciful than whom? I ask because I just spent two columns establishing that God the Father and God the Son both affirm capital punishment for murder. In fact, God specifically says He is offended by people being too lenient to murderers and thus failing to expiate the bloodguilt which the murderer brought upon the land (Numbers 35:31-33; see Part 7). Are we really to put ourselves in the position of claiming that we can and should be more merciful than God Himself? The arrogance of this insult to His character is astonishing.
The truth is that we already are fairly merciful to murderers. We allow them much greater mercy than they afforded their victims in that we give them time and counseling to come to repentance. We are merciful in that we kill them in the least painful way, far less painfully than they generally kill their victims. And we are merciful in that we prevent them from polluting their own souls with subsequent evils, as both Augustine and Aquinas taught. I’m actually quite proud of how merciful we are already, much to the chagrin of certain bloodthirsty sorts who think our appeals process is too slow and say charming things like, “Hangin’s too good fer ’em.” If our practice offends those who love justice without mercy as well as those who love mercy without justice, it’s likely we’ve found a healthy way to thread the needle through both values.
In my next column, we’ll continue our discussion of religious objections to capital punishment such as encouraging salvation, playing God by taking life and whether execution is loving.