Pastoral Perspectives

Can we be more just and merciful than God?

Recently, the Vatican made an announcement that Pope Francis has declared the death penalty inadmissible in all cases “because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person” and that the church will “work with determination for its abolition worldwide”. While this is not the first time that a Pope has spoken out against capital punishment – his predecessors such as Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI were also against it – the pontiff’s recent declaration signifies an official revision to the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Previously, the Catechism which is the compendium of Catholic teachings and beliefs, allowed the death penalty in some cases if it was “the only practicable way to defend the lives of human beings effectively against the unjust aggressor“.

As a Christian, what are we to make of such a claim that the death penalty is considered to be an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person? Furthermore, does it mean as the Pope seems to suggest, that Scripture mandates moral and political objection to capital punishment in all circumstances?

Interestingly, the explanation from the Catholic Church of Singapore on her official website is that she will not impose her position on any government. The church also made mention that she “respects the responsibilities of state authorities to ensure the protection of those under their care and, as in all areas, will continue to work with them to serve the common good”.

Within the Protestant tradition, that there are some who oppose capital punishment albeit with different reasoning. For example, those who hold a more pacifist view consider all killing as morally wrong under all circumstances. This view opposes not only capital punishment but also war or military action since it would invariably result in the death of others.

When it comes to the death penalty, there is room for Christians to differ on whether there is biblical justification to support or object to it. Although many believe that the Bible does mandate or at least permit capital punishment under certain circumstances, some have argued that the death penalty should not be meted out because of the New Covenant priority of mercy. Those who are in favour of capital punishment explain that God has ordained human government to act as his agent in applying justice to wrongdoers (Romans 13:4, 1 Peter 2:13-14). Others have a different conviction about how justice should be carried out without any seemingly retributive measures.

Apart from doubts about the effectiveness of the death penalty as a deterrent, some express reservations about whether any judiciary system can be trusted with such a severe responsibility. After all, there have been instances where innocent people were executed. However, the potential for the miscarriage of justice lies not only with the death penalty but also with almost every aspect of criminal justice, including prison sentencing.

Without going into further discussion about both sides of the argument, we can all agree that human dignity is a factor of tremendous significance in ethics. This is because Scripture is clear about the sanctity of human life as humans are made in God’s image. Nevertheless, thoughtful Christians need to bear in mind that while human dignity is of concern, it should not become an end in itself at the expense of confusing justice and mercy.  

In order to properly form our Christian ethics, Scripture must take priority over our human sensitivities. We must also learn to hear God’s Word both contextually and as a whole. Therefore, to discern whether it is true that the death penalty is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of a person, we must first turn to Scripture.

At this juncture, we need to make a distinction about the inherent morality of the death penalty and secondly, whether the death penalty should be applied. When we consider Scripture, it would seem that there is really no question about the inherent morality of capital punishment. In the covenant with Noah, God not only spoke specifically about the evil of murder but also made provision for the death penalty. In fact, it seems God grounded the shedding of blood by man in the dignity of human life (Gen 9:6). In other words, human dignity, as many Christian thinkers observed, is connected with justice.

Likewise, we find that the Mosaic law given by God also legislates the death penalty for various transgressions (Exodus 21-22, Leviticus 20, 24). This would indicate that human dignity is not inviolable where justice is concerned. It also means that the death penalty is not some vengeful human invention. Rather, it is a divine imperative and a pattern found in in the Old Testament.

As much as the presence of the death penalty in the OT does not automatically mean that it should also be meted out by our judiciary system, we note that in the New Testament, several passages imply its appropriateness. For example, Apostle Paul cautions his readers not to do wrong for the state is God’s servant and “does not bear the sword in vain” (Romans 13:1-5). The thief on the cross humbly acknowledged that his misdeeds were indeed deserving of the punishment he received (Luke 23:41).

Regardless of our conviction about the death penalty, Christians should be even more concerned with the state of the souls of those who end up on the wrong side of the law. As we minister to them and their family members, what we are trying to do is more than rehabilitating them to society and restoring their broken relationship with others. Our prayer is that they will ultimately be reconciled with the Creator who gave them their dignity. And on this note, we take heart and praise God who is so holy and gracious that the death penalty would hardly be an obstacle to him who desires all to be saved through the atoning sacrifice of His Son (1 Timothy 2:4, 1 John 2:2). 

Rev Edwin Wong

August 26, 2018