Capital Punishment

by John M. Frame

[Originally published in The New Community, a publication of Community Orthodox Presbyterian Church of Blue Bell, PA, Sept., 1977.]


Is there a place for capital punishment in a humane, civilized society? Or is it a relic of our barbarous past, best left far behind us?

It is not hard to develop a case against capital punishment. Perhaps the gut-level argument is the strongest: emotionally, we hate to see anyone die, even a vicious criminal. No one, certainly no Christian, can take lightly the death of another person. And the media have encouraged this understandable — and good — revulsion. When Jimmy Cagney goes to the chair, we identify with him, not with the wardens or even the priest. We are the ones going to the end of the line. We want to save Jimmy because we would like to save ourselves. It is a case of the golden rule. And we sympathize, not only with appealing murderers like the one Cagney played, but even with the heartless characters of In Cold Blood. We don’t want to see anyone die.

The more “rational” arguments often push us in the same direction. What good does capital punishment accomplish? Statistics seem to indicate that capital punishment does not deter crime: where capital punishment applies to a particular crime, it does not appear that the rate of that crime is less than in places where lesser penalties obtain. So why should we do such a hideous thing? Is it finally a simple matter of revenge? And can there be any place for revenge in the laws of a com­passionate people?

Thus, for about ten years, there were no executions in the United States. To many, it must have seemed that our society had outgrown its vengeful spirit. Toward the end of that period, indeed, it did seem impossible that we would ever return to capital punishment. When Gary Gilmore begged the courts to let him die, it seemed to many of us that it would never happen; there would always be another legal loophole. And yet it happened! Gilmore did die for his crime. And suddenly, a return to capital punishment as a general procedure is not so hard to conceive. State laws, in fact, have been moving in precisely that direction.

What is this al! about? A failure of love? A national frustration over crime, leading to judicial vindictiveness?

Not entirely. There are some persuasive arguments in favor of capital punish­ment. If capital punishment has not been shown to deter crime, this fact may be due to the inconsistent, capricious way in which this penalty has been applied in the past. To many criminals, the death penalty has not been perceived as the certain consequence of their crimes. Further, there are some crimes for which it is hard to imagine any deterrent other than capital punishment: killing by someone already serving a life sentence, killing of witnesses to a crime, etc. And many have found this consideration to be a powerful one: even if executing a criminal does not deter othersfrom commit­ting the crime in question, it certainly deters him. An executed murderer will never kill again.

But is the emotional point that is hardest to overcome. How can we bring ourselves to tolerate a procedure which we really hate — without at the same time dulling that moral sensitivity which has led us to care for the murderer? Many have overcome that emotional objection by an equally valid emotional point on the other side: sympathy for the victim, and sympathy for possible future victims. Charles Bronson in “Death Wish” played a liberal who turned vigilante when his wife and daughter were attacked. And there is that old political crack: “A conservative is a liberal who’s been mugged.”

There is something to that. But we must be careful that our “sympathy for the victim” does not degenerate into the kind of autonomous vengeance so strikingly por­trayed in “Death Wish.” We need firmer ground to stand on.

Most of us have learned the ethic of love, directly or indirectly, from the Bible. Yet the Bible, remarkably enough, endorses capital punishment quite regularly. God himself prescribed the shedding of blood as a punishment for violent crimes (Gen. 9:6), and during the time of Moses God gave to Israel a long list of capital offenses. There is no tension in Scripture, either, between an Old Testament law of vengeance and a New Testament law of love. The Old Testament teaches us to love our neighbor as ourselves (Lev. 19:18) and specifically forbids illegal killing (Ex. 20:13), while the New Testament accepts gratefully the power of the sword exercised by the civil ruler (Rom. 13:1-6; Acts 25:11; Luke 23:41) — when used justly. Scripture knows no opposi­tion between love and capital punishment, or between “Thou shalt not kill” and the legal “shedding of blood.” And that is where the argument must end. The God of love, who taught us all we know about love, has also told us that in a sinful world a com­passionate society must take strong measures to protect the safety of innocent people, to prevent the violent from ruling by terror.

What is too often missing from our moral emotions today is the biblical hatred of sin, the realization of its horror, its utter ugliness in the sight of God. Scripture tells us that a// sin, not just murder, deserves death (Rom. 6:23); we all deserve to die. It is only God’s great compassion which permits any of us to go on living. When God ordains the capital punishment of murderers, this is not some extraordinary cruelty against them; it is merely a picture of what we all deserve in God’s sight. God’s full compassion is seen, not in any sentimental easing of laws against murder, but in sending his Son Jesus Christ to die for all of us who deserve death. To Jesus, even a dying criminal may cry for mercy (Luke 23:42f.) and receive forgiveness, with remission of that eternal punishment which is far worse than anything known on earth. The compassion of society is seen as it recognizes the reality of sin and the need to curb sin’s violent expressions, and as it holds out the gospel of Christ in love, even to those who have despised it. Thus, it will love the victim and the criminal, and it will have a firm foundation in divine justice for making the hard choices that our own sin has made necessary.


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