What About Mercy and Forgiveness? Religious Objections to Capital Punishment

Andrew Tallman

5/1/2008 6:00:05 PM - Andrew Tallman

In the last two columns, I showed how the Bible consistently affirms capital punishment from Genesis to Revelation, including the teachings of Jesus. Nonetheless, many sincere Christians doubt this, and it is only fitting to consider their objections.

Religious Objection 1: We should forgive people, not execute them.

Since forgiveness is the core of Christianity, people often say we are obligated to extend forgiveness to the murderer. After all, in Matthew 6:12 Jesus taught us to pray, “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” And He added the emphasis in verses 14-15, “For if you forgive men for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions.” Such mandatory forgiveness hardly seems best expressed through execution.

One way to respond is by examining precisely what a justice system based on this interpretation of Jesus’ teachings would look like. If it is true that executing someone is unchristian, it’s hard to see which punishment wouldn’t have to go. Though Life in Prison without the Possibility of Parole (LIPWPP) is more lenient than execution, life imprisonment still seems to be unforgiving. It’s difficult to imagine a murderer sitting in jail after 40 years pondering the awe-inspiring forgiveness of his captors. Much shorter imprisonment would be more forgiving, but no imprisonment at all would be the zenith of forgiveness. Even community service, probation and fines are less than fully forgiving. Thus, not merely execution, but all possible expressions of a justice system are incompatible with the forgiveness people claim Jesus is advocating. LIPWPP advocates are showing the shallowness, not the depth, of their commitment to the principle of forgiveness.

I’m sure some would object that I’m being ludicrous here, but I would remind them of the clarity of the text. Its seemingly universal scope is not limited to merely capital crimes or execution. Moreover, Christian doctrine holds that we can be forgiven for any and all sins. Therefore, if the duty of the government is to forgive as much as God forgives us individually, we must not punish even a pickpocket or parking violator lest we forfeit our own forgiveness.

Now if someone seriously advocated anarchy for this reason, I would at least applaud his consistency. But one needn’t embrace such radical stupidity to honor Jesus’ doctrines. The problem is, obviously, not with what He taught, but with how His teaching gets misapplied.

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.