Thesis penalty. But the standard ofjudgment is
Thesis One: In principle a case can be made on moral grounds both supporting andopposing capital punishment. Thesis two: Concretely and in practice, compellingarguments against capital punishment can be made on the basis of its actualadministration in our society.Two different cases can be made. One is based on justice and the nature of amoral community. This leads to a defense of capital punishment. The second isbased on love and the nature of an ideal spiritual community.
This leads to arejection of capital punishment. A central principle of a just society is thatevery person has an equal right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit ofhappiness.” Within that framework, an argument for capital punishment can beformulated along the following lines: some acts are so vile and so destructiveof community that they invalidate the right of the perpetrator to membership andeven to life. A community founded on moral principles has certain requirements.The right to belong to a community is not unconditional. The privilege of livingand pursuing the good life in society is not absolute.
It may be negated bybehavior that undermines the nature of a moral community. The essential basis onwhich community is built requires each citizen to honor the rightful claims ofothers. The utter and deliberate denial of life and opportunity to othersforfeits ones own claim to continued membership in the community, whosestandards have been so flagrantly violated.
The preservation of moral communitydemands that the shattering of the foundation of its existence must be takenwith utmost seriousness. The preciousness of life in a moral community must beso highly honored that those who do not honor the life of others make null andvoid their own right to membership. Those who violate the personhood of others,especially if this is done persistently as a habit must pay the ultimate penalty.This punishment must be inflicted for the sake of maintaining the communitywhose foundation has been violated.
We can debate whether some non-lethalalternative is a fitting substitute for the death penalty. But the standard ofjudgment is whether the punishment fits the crime and sufficiently honors thenature of moral community.LOVE AND AN IDEAL SPIRITUAL COMMUNITYChristian love, is unconditional. It does not depend on the worthiness or meritof those to whom it is directed. It is persistent in seeking the good of othersregardless of whether they return the favor or even deserve to be treated wellon the basis of their own incessant wrongdoing. An ideal community would be madeup of free and equal citizens devoted to a balance between individual self-fulfillment and the advancement of the common good.
Communal life would be basedon mutual love in which equality of giving and receiving was the norm of socialpractice. Everyone would contribute to the best of ability and each wouldreceive in accordance with legitimate claims to available resources. What woulda community based on this kind of love do with those who committed brutal actsof terror, violence, and murder? Put negatively, it would not live by thephilosophy of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, and a life for a life.”It would act to safeguard the members of the community from further destruction.Those who had shown no respect for life would be restrained, permanently ifnecessary, so that they could not further endanger other members of thecommunity. But the purpose of confinement would not be vengeance or punishment.Rather an ideal community would show mercy even to those who had shown no mercy.
It would return good for evil. The aim of isolation is reconciliation and notrevenge. never gives up. It is ever hopeful that even the worse among us can beredeemed so that their own potential contribution to others can be realized.Opportunities for confronting those who had been hurt most could be provided toencourage remorse and reconciliation.
If a life has been taken, no fullrestitution can be made, of course, but some kind of service to the communitymight be required as a way of partially making amends.EVALUATIONSuch, in brief, is the argument for and against capital punishment, one foundedon justice and the nature of moral community, the other resting on love and thenature of an ideal spiritual community. If we stand back from this descriptionand make an attempt at evaluation, one point is crucial. The love ethic requiresa high degree of moral achievement and maturity. It is more suitable for small,closely-knit communities in which members know each other personally and in somedepth. Forgiveness and reclamation flourish best in a setting in which peoplecan participate in each other’s lives.
If you press the motif to its highestmanifestation, it becomes an ethic of non-resistance to evil, unqualifiedpacifism, and self-sacrifice in which self-interest is totally abandoned. Thenon-resisting Jesus on the cross who surrenders his life to save others is theepitome of at this level. Love at this point becomes superethical. It isgrounded in a deep faith in God that surrenders any reference to earthly justice.That is the reason for speaking of love and the nature of an ideal spiritualcommunity.
Love of this kind abandons the right to kill another in self-defenseand will refuse absolutely to kill enemies even in a just war. If made into asocial ethic, it requires the poor to sacrifice for the rich, the sick tosacrifice for the healthy, the oppressed to sacrifice for the oppressor. Itallows the neighbor to be terrorized, brutalized, and slaughtered, sincerestraint of the aggressor is forbidden. All this is indefensible on moralgrounds. To make sense of this, it is helpful to distinguish between anethical dimension of love and an ecstatic dimension. Love as an ethical idealseeks a community based on mutuality and reciprocity in which there is anequality of giving and receiving.
Mutual love has a justice element in whichevery person has an equal claim to fulfillment and an equal duty to beresponsible. Ethical love is unconditional and will reach out to others evenwhen they lack merit. But it will resist encroachment upon its own equal claimto fulfillment and will repel if possible any denial of ones own right to befully human in every respect. Against the pacifist, ethical love would justifykilling in self-defense and killing enemies in a just war when non-lethalalternatives are unavailable. They are necessary and tragic emergency means hereand now to stop present and ongoing violence. Capital punishment is opposedsince the crime has already been committed, and isolation can protect societyagainst future violence.Love in the ecstatic dimension becomes superethical.
In ecstasy one isdelirious with impetuous joy in the presence of the other and totally devoted tothat person’s happiness and well- being. In ecstasy we do not count the cost toourselves but are totally self-giving, heedless of our own needs. In this moodsacrifice for the other is not an ethical act of self-denial but thesuperethical expression of what we most want to do. Ecstasy involves theunpremeditated overflow of boundless affection and the impulsive joy ofexhilarating union with the loved one. The ecstatic lover dances with delight inthe presence of the beloved. Sensible calculations balancing rights and dutieshave no place.
Rational ethics has been transcended by spiritual ecstasy.Ecstatic love expresses itself spontaneously in a certain frame of spirit. Loveexpressed in ecstasy gives all without regard to whether the recipient has anyclaim on the gift. It is pure grace. Consider the story of the woman who pouredexpensive perfume on the feet of Jesus (Mk. 14:3-9). She was displaying love inthe ecstatic dimension.
Some present were thinking ethically. They complainedthat this perfume could have been sold and the proceeds given to the poor. Onethical grounds they were right. What the woman did was indefensible as a moralact. It was irrational and superethical.
This deed flowed spontaneously fromecstatic love. Love has both an ethical and an ecstatic or superethicaldimension, and we should not confuse the two. It is quite clear, however, thatecstatic cannot be the norm of large, impersonal societies. A corporation cannotexist on the basis of forgiving seventy times seven an incompetent employeewhose repeated ineptness is costing thousands of dollars. Ecstasy is not eventhe mode in which we can live all the time in the most exemplary family lifewith spouses and children.
Ecstatic love is an occasional, fabulous, wonderfuloverflowing of spectacular affection that adds immeasurably to the joy of life,but it cannot be the day to day standard for ordinary life even in the family orthe church. Can Christian love in the ethical sense be an appropriate norm fora large, secular, pluralistic, civil society? Can unconditional love for theother that regards the welfare of the neighbor equal with ones own be the idealexpected of the citizens of New York or the United States? Surely, to agree withReinhold Niebuhr, that would be to hope for an “impossible possibility.” Ethicallove is a description of ideal life in the family, in the church, and othersmall communities in which unconditional regard for each other can be lived outin face-to-face relationships. Even in these settings, we will often fail, butwe can hold it up as the criterion by which we are judged and to which we aspireeven in our shortcoming. In this sense, ethical love is the supreme norm thatserves as both goal and judge of all conduct. Realistically, however, we canhope only for some rough approximation with decreasing levels of attainment aswe move away from intimate communities toward larger collectives.
Nation statesare not likely, even occasionally, to become ecstatic in their devotion to eachother! Mutual, not even to mention sacrificial, love is hardly the guiding ruleof relations between General Motors and Toyota, nor does either have aspirationsin that direction. A workable ethical standard for the state and the nation willappeal to the ideals defined by justice and the requirements of a moralcommunity. To say it otherwise, ethical love expressed as social policy forlarge, impersonal societies takes the form of justice. What that norm involvesfor New York or the United States as secular, pluralistic societies cannot bespelled out here. Within this framework a strong but debatable case can be madefor capital punishment. Pragmatically and politically, of course, Christianshave to work within the framework of justice as defined by the secular societyin which they have their citizenship and seek to transform it in the light oftheir own ideals.PRACTICAL CONSIDERATIONSThis brings me to thesis two.
The most compelling arguments against capitalpunishment can be made on the basis of its actual administration in our society.I will list five of the usual points.1.The possibility of error.
Sometimes a person might be put to death who isinnocent.2.Unfair administration.
Capital punishment is inflicteddisproportionately on the poor and minorities.3.Weakness of the argument from deterrence.The claim that the threat ofcapital punishment reduces violent crime is inconclusive, certainly not proven,extremely difficult to disprove, and morally suspect if any case.4.The length of stay on death row.
If there were ever any validity to thedeterrence argument, it is negated by the endless appeals, delays,technicalities, and retrials that keep persons condemned to death waiting forexecution for years on end. One of the strongest arguments right now againstcapital punishment is that we are too incompetent to carry it out. Thatincompetence becomes another injustice.
5.Mitigating circumstances. Persons who commit vicious crimes have oftensuffered from neglect, emotional trauma, violence, cruelty, abandonment, lack oflove, and a host of destructive social conditions. These extenuatingcircumstances may have damaged their humanity to the point that it is unfair tohold them fully accountable for their wrongdoing.
Corporate responsibility somehow has to be factored in to some degree. Nogreater challenge to social wisdom exists than this. The conclusion of thematter is that the present practice of capital punishment is a moral disgrace.The irony is that the very societies that have the least right to inflict it areprecisely the ones most likely to do so.
The compounding irony is that theeconomic malfunctions and cultural diseases in those same societies contributeto the violence that makes it necessary to unleash even more repression andbrutality against its unruly citizens to preserve order and stave off chaos. Tothe degree that society provides opportunities for all citizens to achieve agood life in a sensible culture, it is reasonable to believe that the demand forcapital punishment will be reduced or eliminated. The fact that our prisons areso full is the most eloquent testimony imaginable of our dismal failure tocreate a good society.
Massive incarceration indicates the bankruptcy of socialwisdom and social will. It points to the shallowness of our dedication tosolving the basic problems of poverty, moral decay, meaninglessness, and socialdiscord. Meanwhile, our leaders divert our attention with the alluring fantasythat capital punishment will make our citizens more secure against violent crime.THE CHURCH AND CHRISTIAN WITNESSWhat, then, is the role of the church? It is two-fold.(1)Ideally and ultimately, followers of Jesus are the salt of the earth,light of the world, leaven in the secular loaf.
As such, Christians go into theworld with the aim of moving, lifting, and luring society in the direction ofethical love. The vocation of Christians is to hold up ethical love as “atranscendent gauge exhibiting the moral defects of society and thus spread theinfection of an uneasy spirit” (A. N. Whitehead).
In particular, Christiansshould work to overcome the larger injustices, social disarray, and culturalillness that create an atmosphere conducive to violence. This work will involveboth political action and cultural transformation.(2) Pragmatically and immediately, Christians will translate ethical love intomandates of secular justice and work for the best approximation of the norm thatis possible under given circumstances.Hence, Christian witness may be but is not necessarily directed against capitalpunishment on moral grounds in principle. The choice is a matter of practicaldiscernment and social wisdom in a particular situation.Christians shouldinsist that if capital punishment is to be practiced, it must be administered ina just way. On this count, present-day society fails miserably.
My prediction isthat a society that becomes sensitive enough to make sure that the deathpenalty is administered in a just way will then do away with it altogether infavor of more humane practices such as life imprisonment with no possibility ofparole. In short, for the moment the Christian witness to society is this:first demonstrate that capital punishment can be administered in a just andefficient manner. Then we will debate with you as to whether capital punishmentis in principle necessary, fitting, and right or whether a humane society willfind non-lethal alternatives to protect citizens from persistently violentcriminals. Until then the church should say “no” to this extreme measure. Category: Law