Saturday, December 19, 2009

Abolishing the Death Penalty – The Ultimate Expression of Mercy

The quality of mercy is not strained, it droppeth like a gentle rain from heaven. W. Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice

On 15 December the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay called for a universal abolition of the Death Penalty.

As I stated in my new manifesto, ALL life is sacred. That means that punishment for any crime must never stoop to end the life of the accused even in cases of murder or genocide. Just because someone takes the life of an individual is not justification for taking theirs.

I can already hear many of my friends clearing their throats and getting ready to site all kinds of Judeo-Christian justification for the death penalty, eye for eye and all the hoo-ha.

Just think for one second and ask yourself why the United States is the only so called Christian Democracy still employing this barbaric form of punishment? Out of the most recent list of 26 countries still practicing the death penalty the United States ranks 5th behind China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and North Korea and well ahead of such human rights pariahs as Libya, Sudan and Syria. Other than the United States the only other so called developed societies on the list are Japan and Singapore which together still executed fewer than half the number of criminals.

How do Christians justify this position? There are two Old Testament laws that are most often referenced.

Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot. Deuteronomy 19:21

Whoever kills an animal must make restitution, but whoever kills a man must be put to death. Leviticus 24:21

At first glance it seems reasonable enough, equal punishment for an equal crime. But why then do we in the west recoil at reports of thieves who are sentenced to have their hands cut off while routinely sentencing people to death? We stopped maiming one another long ago but for some reason the death penalty persists.
In her statement High Commissioner Pillay said “I hold this position for a number of reasons: these include the fundamental nature of the right to life; the unacceptable risk of executing innocent people by mistake; the absence of proof that the death penalty serves as a deterrent; and what is, to my mind, the inappropriately vengeful character of the sentence.”

For me it’s that last part that really rings true. Revenge never solved anything. Where is the grace and mercy in all of this?

Jesus held mercy in high esteem, saying in effect that those who were merciful would get as good as they give. (Blessed are the Merciful for they will receive Mercy, Matthew 5:7) It is the highest form of mercy and grace to say to the man who murdered your family, “I am within my rights to kill you, as stated in Leviticus above, but instead I will restrain myself and let you live out your natural life.”

If God is a God of mercy and if we are to be his followers we too must be people of mercy. There is no mercy in the death penalty and I agree with High Commission Pillay that it must be abolished.


  1. You'd think "turn the other cheek" would be another good Biblical precedent.

  2. You assume that not taking life is mercy. I have a debate for you on this topic. But first I have a challenge for you. To
    establish the premise of my
    position, look up the references of life and death in let's say Romans. Paul goes deeply into life and death in Romans 5 and 6. Are the references in Romans referring to
    a.physical death
    b.spiritual death
    It just so happens that my best friend growing up is in jail for Murder1(premeditated murder). He got a plea deal where he avoided "old sparky" (what floridians call the electric chair) and got life with no parole so now he lives a tortured live in max securiity federal prison. I wonder if now wishes he'd have gotten the death penalty as forcing someone to live a life with no hope of ever doing anything, becoming anything, no future except one wher the strong prey on the weak both mentally and sexually is cruel and amounts to torture. When we as Christians are commanded to obey secular laws as long as the don't come between us and God, that means we must obey secular laws and we must pay the consequences of breaking
    those laws. So answer my question regarding "life" and death in Romans 5 and 6, and we'll debate this from there. My response my surprise you.

  3. I accept your challenge.

    But it may take me a while to get back to you. I think deeply, research, pray and think some more before I respond. I will say this, before having done any of that though. I did not intend to start a debate about the prison system. The fact that your friend's continued existence is perhaps torturous is still not a justification for what would amount to a state sanctioned premeditated murder.

  4. An interesting commentary Lauren. For once, we actually agree on this. I don't agree with the death penalty for pretty much the reasons given here.

    OTOH, I have to admit, there are certain crimes that make my skin crawl, and, is there not a point after which we can definitely say, "No, you have given up your right to live with this act"?

  5. Nope. God is the only "being" in the universe with power over life and death. I'm not God and neither are you. Sorry.

  6. Must resist urge to declare my dietyhood. :p

    This of course then begs the question: What is the function of incarceration then? Is it simply a paternalistic "Time Out" or is the purpose of punishment to teach the incarcerated the proper way of behaving?

  7. Society's have struggled with that one for a very long time. I tend to lean toward the latter.

  8. I've often wondered what part of the 6th commandment christians do not understand. We agree on much...