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Capital punishment -- the death penalty

Opposing views on the death penalty:
Allegedly invalid techniques of biblical analysis.

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An article by a retired federal judge opposing the death penalty:

In 2011, Retired Federal Judge H. Lee Sarokin wrote an article in the Huffington Post 1,2 urging Pat Quinn, the governor of Illinois, to sign a bill passed by the legislature that would repeal the death penalty in that state. His arguments were: 

  • Deterrence: In my view deterrence plays no part whatsoever. Persons contemplating murder do not sit around the kitchen table and say I won't commit this murder if I face the death penalty, but I will do it if the penalty is life without parole. I do not believe persons contemplating or committing murder plan to get caught or weigh the consequences. Statistics demonstrate that states without the death penalty have consistently lower murder rates than states with it, but frankly I think those statistics are immaterial and coincidental. Fear of the death penalty may cause a few to hesitate, but certainly not enough to keep it in force, and the truth is that there is no way of ever knowing whether or not the death penalty deters.

  • Costs: Because of the growing number of reversals, new trials and exonerations, the appeal process has become slow, long and expensive. The death penalty is final and irreversible, and as a result, counsel are aggressive and courts are thorough. I cannot say whether or not the costs associated with appeals exceed those of life-time incarceration, but cost should certainly not be a determining factor in whether or not a person lives or dies.

  • Discrimination: Race plays a role in who becomes eligible for the death penalty and against whom it is imposed. I would suppose that this is a factor that could be corrected prospectively, but it is a risk that we should not be willing to undertake based upon past history.

  • Morality: This issue likewise has been discussed for years. After a lifetime of watching the death penalty at work, I believe that despite our understandable desire for revenge, retribution and even death for the most horrendous of crimes, the state should not be the carrier and enforcer of those emotions. I recognize and respect the opposite view, but I just cannot accept that the intentional killing by the state of an individual is moral.

  • Exonerations: However, the most compelling argument for me is the fact that we have executed innocent persons and others are scheduled for execution and others undoubtedly will be in the future. Thanks to the Medill Innocence Project and others like it, and persons like Barry Scheck and his work with DNA, innocent persons have been snatched from lethal injections or other forms of execution, sometimes just moments before they were to die. If none of the forgoing arguments are persuasive, this should and must carry the day. If we permit innocent people to be executed are we any better than the man who took that little girl's life in Tucson. I suppose one could argue that the comparison is not apt because he was acting knowingly and intentionally in killing an innocent person, and the state is not, but in both cases the victims would be innocent and that is something no civilized nation should allow or tolerate.

Later that year, the Illinois Legislature passed a bill abolishing the death penalty and the governor signed it into law.

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A comment by a professor of political science in favor of the death penalty:

John McAdams, professor of political science, at Marquette University, stated:

"If we execute murderers and there is in fact no deterrent effect, we have killed a bunch of murderers. If we fail to execute murderers, and doing so would in fact have deterred other murders, we have allowed the killing of a bunch of innocent victims. I would much rather risk the former. This, to me, is not a tough call." 3

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Allegations of misinterpretations of biblical passages to oppose the death penalty:

Dudley Sharp, the Death Penalty Resources Director of Justice for all -- an advocacy group promoting the death penalty -- wrote a report in 1997 titled: "Death Penalty and Sentencing Information in the United States." 4 He concluded that commentators "... often make fundamental errors in citing biblical text. Those errors are usually found within the following categories:"

  • "Confusing the obligations of individuals with those of the government: Example: Matthew 5:38-39: 'You have heard that it was said, ‘an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist who is evil; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also.' Strangely, opponents cite this as proof of Jesus’ abandonment of capital punishment. If one were to assume that this text referenced the actions of the governing authority and not individual obligations, then one would clearly find that government could not enforce any law which sought to protect the lives and property of its law abiding citizens. There is no reference to capital punishment in the text. Therefore, all wrongdoers, be that robbers, rapists or murderers could act repeatedly, with impunity, if the text was an obligation on the governing authority. This text is directed at individuals and has no application to the governing authority or its right and duty to execute. ..." 5

  • "Isolating specific biblical text from the broader context of the discussion: Example: Ezekiel  33:11: 'As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back your evil ways; for why will you die, O house of Israel?' Let’s review [an analysis by] Dr. Bailey: 6 'To some readers, that may be seem clear enough! God not only takes no 'pleasure' in the death (execution?) of the wicked (criminal?), but prefers that they 'turn back' (be rehabilitated?). Such understanding might indeed be justified if one could read the Bible atomistically, that is, one verse at a time, with the understanding that the verse has a self contained eternal truth. However, if the prophet is speaking to a specific audience about a particular problem, and if his response covers several verses (or even a chapter), then the modern interpreter must hear him out and look for the central idea. That is, what a verse says may not be what the context (and thus the prophet) means.   . . .the words are addressed to the ‘house of Israel’ (specifically the Judean exiles of Babylonia), in response to their lament. (And) Who are the wicked? The exiles whose betrayal of the covenant has led to exile. What is meant by their 'death'? Both their political situation ('we waste away') and their dwindling faith in the ancient concept of election. God takes no 'pleasure' in the death of the wicked (i.e., does not see it as necessary that the exiles have this attitude and forever remain in Babylonia). The Deity desires repentance, change of priorities, renewal of ancient values, life as it was intended by this community {'turn back'} . . . and return to the promised land. Thus, the text is not concerned with the fate of anyone who has been sentenced to death by the judiciary (or even per se with individuals who face death), and it does not therefore suggest what the religious persons response should be in that case.' ... 'It is a faulty exegesis to take a verse of Scripture out of context and interpret it without regard to its qualifying words'. "

  • "Believing that Christ abandoned the Law of the Hebrew Testament and instituted a new  ethic in the New Testament, based solely on mercy: There are 20 chapters, within the 28 chapters of Matthew, which discuss destruction, hell, unquenchable fire, and/or differing forms of  punishment and exclusion by God (see Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:22, 29-30; 8:12; 11:23-24; 12:30-32; 13:41-42, 49-50; 18:8-9; 22:2-14; 23:33, 25:40-46) and/or honor the Law of the Hebrew Testament (see specific references Matthew 5 and 15). 'For this you know with certainty, that no immoral or impure person has an inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.' Ephesians 5:5. 'When the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from Heaven with His mighty angels in flaming fire, dealing out retribution to those who do not know God and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. And these will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power.' 2 Thessalonians 1:7b-9. And so it is throughout the New Testament. See also  Mark 3:29; Luke 13:24-28; John 5:24-29, 15:6; 2 Peter 2:4-9; Jude 1:5-15: Revelation 13:10. 7

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. H.L. Sarokin, "Is it Time to Execute the Death Penalty?," The Huffington Post, 2011-JAN-16 at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com
  2. H.L. Sarokin's article also appears in the Death Penalty Information Center's website at: http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/
  3. Quoted on the home page of the advocacy group Pro-Death Penalty.com at: http://www.prodeathpenalty.com/
  4. Dudley Sharp, "Death penalty and sentencing information," Justice for All, 1997-OCT-01, at: http://www.prodeathpenalty.com/
  5. G.A. Carey. "A Bible Study," in T. Robert Ingram, ed., "Essays on the Death Penalty," (1963-1992) Page 122.
  6. L.R. Bailey, "Capital Punishment: What the Bible Says," (1987), Pages 42-43.
  7. From the New American Standard translation of the Bible

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Copyright 2011 and 2012 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally published: 2011-FEB-07
Last updated 2012-APR-25

Author: B.A. Robinson
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