When it comes to capital punishment (commonly referred to as the death penalty), there’s often a great deal of debate surrounding morality and ethics.
The intriguing opinions that characterize the discussion become even more complicated when exploring how Christianity’s tenets can be employed to either support or debunk the legal practice. That being said, where does the nation stand on the whole?
In 2010, Gallup found that the majority (64 percent) of Americans support the death penalty for a person convicted of murder. Based on these polling numbers, only 29 percent oppose it. Since the 1930s, the issue has had some interesting graphical patterns, trending up, down, up, and then down again:
Additionally, 49 percent of Americans do not believe that the death penalty is imposed enough. And, when asked which option — capital punishment or life imprisonment with no possibility of parole — is better suited as a punishment for murder, 49 percent opt for the former, with 46 percent choosing the latter.
Needless to say, the majority of contemporary Americans support the death penalty, regardless of how the question is asked or framed. Now that we understand how public perceptions play out, one might wonder: How does faith impact personal opinions about the death penalty?
When considering the Christian interpretation of capital punishment, both supporters and opponents claim that the Bible corroborates their views. Of course, on the surface, there are elements present in the Bible that, taken independently, would backup both sides of the debate. But to start exploring where the faith community stands on this issue, let’s look at some 2004 data from Gallup:
Americans who attend religious services on a regular basis are slightly less likely to support the death penalty than those who attend less frequently. Although a majority of frequent and infrequent churchgoers support the death penalty, the data show that 65% of those who attend services weekly or nearly weekly favor capital punishment, compared with 69% of those who attend services monthly and 71% of those who seldom or never attend.
Protestants are somewhat more likely to endorse capital punishment than are Catholics and far more likely than those with no religious preference. More than 7 in 10 Protestants (71%) support the death penalty, while 66% of Catholics support it. Fifty-seven percent of those with no religious preference favor the death penalty for murder.
This in mind, among Protestants and Catholics, an intriguing trend emerges. The less often these individuals attend church, the more likely they are to support the death penalty. Opponents of capital punishment could seize upon this information to claim that, among Christians, church (and thus more Biblical teaching) tends to lower acceptance of the death penalty.
But majorities in both Christian categories still support the legal practice, regardless. And, there’s the unavoidable truth that people with no religion are less likely to support capital punishment than their Christian counterparts.
Liberal Christians like Rev. Jim Wallis have written to denounce the death penalty. On Wallis’ Sojourners web site, the organization says, “All life is a sacred gift from God, and public policies should reflect a consistent ethic of life.” The text continues:
A consistent ethic demands that our nation end capital punishment. We should not take life to punish wrongful death. There is no evidence that it deters murder. It is easy to make fatal mistakes, as DNA testing has shown. The death penalty is biased against the poor, who cannot afford adequate legal representation, and is racially disproportionate.
People like Wallis tend to believe that only God can decide when it’s time to take lives away (although Wallis also sees systematic issues which he decries). As About.com’s Tom Head writes:
The authors of the New Testament lived under Roman occupation and had no means by which to impose the death penalty, so it is difficult to know what their views on the matter would have been.
Head continues by explaining Jesus’ denunciations of violence in the Gospels. He makes it a point to note John 8:3-11, which shows Jesus stepping in to stop a would-be instance of capital punishment. Below, read this section of John for yourself:
3 The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group 4 and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. 5 In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” 6 They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.
But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. 7 When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”8 Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.
9 At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. 10 Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
11 “No one, sir,” she said.
“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”
The same divine law which forbids the killing of a human being allows certain exceptions, as when God authorizes killing by a general law or when He gives an explicit commission to an individual for a limited time.
Since the agent of authority is but a sword in the hand, and is not responsible for the killing, it is in no way contrary to the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill” to wage war at God’s bidding, or for the representatives of the State’s authority to put criminals to death, according to law or the rule of rational justice.
Further corroboration can be found in the Old Testament, where Genesis 9:6 reads, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.” BBC further explains the history of the death penalty in the Christian church:
For much of history, the Christian Churches accepted that capital punishment was a necessary part of the mechanisms of society.
Pope Innocent III, for example, put forward the proposition: “The secular power can, without mortal sin, exercise judgment of blood, provided that it punishes with justice, not out of hatred, with prudence, not precipitation.”
The Roman Catechism, issued in 1566, stated that the power of life and death had been entrusted by God to the civil authorities. The use of this power did not embody the act of murder, but rather a supreme obedience to God’s commandments.
Of course, this issue is a complicated one. Exploring the faith-based breakdowns seems to expose an intriguing dynamic. Most Christians do, based on polling data, support the death penalty. That being said, there are some believers who claim that the Bible does not support capital punishment. While the majority of Americans — and Christians — agree with this legal option, the jury may still be out and opinions could certainly change.
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