By Revd Frank Gelli, an Anglican priest, activist, and cultural critic. He has read philosophy and theology at London and Oxford Universities, served in parishes in London and also as a chaplain to the Church of St Nicholas, British Embassy, Ankara, Turkey. He has published several books on spiritual subjects available on Amazon, and lectured on religious/interfaith dialogue at many academic conferences in the UK, the United States, Switzerland, Qatar, Iran, and Italy.
None of the empirical and pragmatic arguments for or against capital punishment is decisive. America and other nations retain the ultimate sanction, but it’s unlikely we’ll restore it. It is too repugnant to today’s generation.
“Most Americans favour the death penalty,” a Pew Research public opinion poll discloses. And in 2011 a survey by Angus Reid showed that 65% of Brits supported reinstating capital punishment for murder. Might the gallows be back, then?
Mr Abdallah al-Bishi, the official executioner of Saudi Arabia, gave a calm and sensible rationale for his job. He quoted the Qur’an – an impeccable procedure for a Muslim. The Christian revelation is more nuanced. The Old Testament permits capital punishment. Pacifists who quote the Decalogue, “Thou shalt not kill,” ignore that the same holy law demanded death for many offences. And the Lord of Hosts commanded his chosen people to fight and kill in war. Hence the Anglican Prayer Book translates the injunction as “Thou shalt do no murder.” It is unlawful killing, the murder of the innocent that the Bible forbids, not the dispatching of the guilty.
My dear departed brother – a lifelong Communist atheist – once reminded me that immediately after creation God forbade the slaying of mankind’s first murderer and fratricide, Cain. A sevenfold vengeance is threatened on any slayer of Abel’s brother (Genesis 4:13), whose punishment is to be “a wanderer and a fugitive upon the earth.” Thanks, brov! I pray for your immortal soul.
The New Testament fulfils and perfects the Old. St John the Baptist doesn’t tell soldiers to give up soldiering, only to be content with their wages and do no wrong. Jesus Christ never killed anyone. Parables where the wicked suffer a violent ending are misunderstood if taken au pied de la lettre – that is not how parables work. And references to swords and violence – “the Kingdom of God suffers violence and men of violence take it by force” – have nothing to do with earthly judicial punishment.
The Book of Revelation paints some gory scenarios, but its dazzling logic is that of allegory and paradox, e.g. Christ the Lamb slain for the salvation of the world is also called the Lion of Judah – how can a lamb also be a lion, eh? Above all, Christ’s self-sacrifice on the cross is the iconic, supreme example of an unjust execution – he was an innocent victim.
St Paul in Romans 13 enjoins obedience to the state authorities – they are God’s representatives to execute vengeance on evildoers. By invoking the power of the sword, Paul is saying that a judicially imposed penalty – even death, perhaps – does not contradict divine law: it is actually permissible and just.
The Church of England, when she still meant anything, taught that “the laws of the realm may punish Christian men with death, for heinous and grievous offences” (Article XXXVII in the Book of Common Prayer). Today she seems to bleat the opposite but then… who gives a damn, really?
“Heinous and grievous offences.” That must include the rape and murder of young girls. A monster so guilty once got a life sentence. It prompted the distressed sister of one of the victims to proclaim on TV that justice had not been done. She spoke of “an eye for an eye.” Cries for the culprit to be ‘unofficially’ punished in jail were heard. That emphasises how Britain is today a sub-Christian, even a non-Christian, society.
“An eye for an eye” embodies a principle of justice, proportionality. Only one eye to be taken, not two. It looks simple but it isn’t. How do you punish someone guilty of rape? Do you really want the brute to be violated in return? But it depends on the case. An Iranian religious court sentenced a man to have acid poured into his face – he had disfigured and blinded a girl’s face with acid. The usual suspects, the ubiquitous human rights activists, made a stink and the sentence was suspended. Yet, looking at the destroyed face of the poor girl, I didn’t feel like condemning the Iranian court. I couldn’t.
A standard objection to capital punishment: what if a mistake is made and an innocent person is hanged? It has happened. I would invoke an analogy with war. The human rights brigade often clamour for humanitarian interventions, but they know in any war the innocent get killed. ‘Collateral damage’ is the euphemism for that. Yet, they believe war is for a greater good, like, say, in the case of the bombing of Libya. Similarly, the possibility of an occasional mistake cannot invalidate a general argument for the death penalty.
Does fear of execution reduce crimes by deterring would-be culprits? Terrorists won’t be deterred, of course; they would call it martyrdom. But potential rapists and violent killers? Not so sure. Islamic countries under Sharia are said to have low crime rates.
America’s history is filled with violence. Extermination of Redskins, the Wild West, lynching, class war, gangsters and so on. Hence capital punishment becomes the Yanks. England has turned snowflakey, feminised and effete. Her people couldn’t take the death penalty. That’s that.
None of the empirical and pragmatic arguments pro or con capital punishment is decisive. Objections invite counter-objections, and so on and so forth. Is the crux of the argument deeper? Not physical, but metaphysical? The loss of confidence in a life beyond the grave is at the root of the problem. If life is only for this world, death is horribly, finally ultimate. If it is not, as Christ teaches, if there is another world, if death is the doorway to another life, maybe another, transcendent and eternal light dawns upon the gallows.