Crime, Punishment, and the Death Penalty

Posted on September 16, 2011 at 11:19 am,

This is the next in the series of articles critiquing Wayne Grudem’s book Politics According to the Bible. Today we look at the section on the death penalty. This is the only point where Grudem looks at the principles behind the criminal justice system (which is the wider context in which we have to look at this issue), so let’s start by looking at his arguments about that, before diving into the death penalty itself

Should we punish criminals?

There are a wide range of opinions about what our criminal justice system should aim to do. Should it be there to extract revenge on behalf of the victims, to punish criminals for what they’ve done, to deter them from doing it in the first place, to keep them locked up and away from the rest of society, or to reform and rehabilitate them? Most people consider it to be for most or all of those purposes at once, and the balance varies from country to country.

Grudem starts with some verses in Romans. Romans 12:19 says that Christians should not seek revenge – instead we should forgive those who wrong us. This carries on in Romans 12:20-21 by encouraging us to give good things to those who do us wrong, and to overcome evil with good. Then, a few verses later, Romans 13:4 says that government exists, in part, to avenge wrongs and carry out God’s wrath against wrongdoers. Grudem’s conclusion is that, as Christians, we should want government to carry out God’s vengeance against criminals.

He basically divides the two differing statements in this passage into, on one hand, showing personal kindness towards criminals (including praying for their salvation), and on the other wanting the legal process to pay the criminal back for what he (or she) has done. In arguing that Christians should want to see crimes avenged, he also cites Revelation 6:9-10 – where Christians in heaven (who are no longer sinful) express this desire.

Whilst these passages do seem to weight the criminal justice debate far more towards the punitive end of the spectrum than I would like, they do also offer considerable scope for Christians to push for more restorative forms of criminal justice. The theme of the verses that finish off chapter 12 is best summarised in Romans 12:14, “Bless those who persecute you, bless and do not curse”. And this appears to be the main thrust of verse 21’s command to “overcome evil with good”. This kind of approach is crucial to the rehabilitation side of criminal justice, and, in my view, we should try to ensure that there is enough of that in the system.

So, does the Bible endorse capital punishment?

Grudem starts with the Old Testament, going back to Genesis 9:5-6, where God – speaking to Noah – demands the death penalty for murder on the basis that we are made in the image of God. Because this was a command to Noah, Grudem believes that it applies to all of humanity. He also cites Romans 13:4, where government is described as “bearing the sword”. He says that this must mean the death penalty (rather than being symbolic of authority) because of various other Bible passages that refer to it as the instrument of death. He also cites Peter 2:13-14, which talks about government punishing the criminal, but does not say anything about the means.

Grudem also deals with a number of Biblical objections to his view. He points out that Exodus 20:13 (often translated “you shall not kill”) refers to murder, and not necessarily to all killing. He says that Matthew 5:38-39, where Jesus advocates going beyond “eye for an eye” (limiting the punishment to be proportional to the crime) to “turn the other cheek” refers to the actions of individuals, not to those of governments. He dismisses the idea that Matthew 22:39 (love your neighbour as yourself) is an argument against the death penalty, because it also appears in the Mosaic law, which endorses the death penalty. He dismisses arguments from Matthew 26:52, where Jesus tells Peter to put his sword away, because Jesus was ensuring his arrest (and hence the crucifixion), rather than making a general point.

He also dismisses the argument from John 8:2-11 about the woman caught in adultery on three grounds – firstly, that the woman was guilty of adultery, not murder. Secondly, that the question was a trap. If Jesus said “execute her”, he’d be inciting rebellion against Rome – who didn’t allow the Jewish authorities to execute criminals themselves. If he said “spare her”, he’d be telling Jews to break the law of Moses (which would have sentenced both the woman and her lover to death). And thirdly, that there is some doubt about whether the passage was in the original text.

Grudem also notes that the pardoning of some murderers (notably Cain in Genesis 4:8-16 and David in 2 Samuel 12:13) illustrates the freedom of God to pardon people. It is interesting here that Grudem does not suggest that civil government has the freedom to pardon people from its own authority. Finally, he argues (again) against the “whole life ethic” suggested by many others – notably Jim Wallis and Pope John Paul II. He says that a Christian approach should instead be a “whole Bible ethic” and be faithful to what the Bible says on any given issue.

There are, however, some Christian arguments against the death penalty that Grudem does not consider. Firstly, he does not consider the possibility of being for the death penalty in principle, but against it in practice (an approach that was most notably taken by Augustine – unquestionably one of the most important Christian theologians of all time). He also doesn’t question whether the cross should alter our view. In God’s eyes, the penalty for all sin is death (Romans 6:23), but Jesus’ death satisfies God’s wrath for our sins (1 Thessalonians 5:9-10). This isn’t definitive either way, but it does raise questions about the extent to which the death penalty is still appropriate.

Does the death penalty actually deter crime?

Grudem also argues that the death penalty acts as a deterrent to crime. His main argument is a graph that shows a decrease in the murder rate in the US at the same time as the number of executions went up, and some citations by a few researchers who say that there is some deterrence effect. Grudem’s graph, however, does not prove anything. In order to prove that the correlation is statistically significant (and, hence, the link is more than co-incidence), we need a lot more data. And even then, we need to prove whether the link is direct (executions prevent murders, or murders reduce the number of executions) or indirect (something else is causing both a rise in murder rate and a drop in the number of executions).

And, although Grudem appears unaware of it, there is plenty of other statistical evidence suggesting the contrary (here’s a decent summary). The most quoted evidence against deterrence are comparisons of the murder rates between US states with and without the death penalty (summarised here). States which execute consistently have a higher murder rate than those that don’t.

Even taking this extra information into account, it’s difficult to be sure which way the evidence points, as the low number of executions makes it difficult to determine their effect, and there are a lot of other factors which are almost certainly more significant. From what I’ve read, the chance of getting caught affects the decision to murder somebody far more than the penalty the murderer will pay if he or she is caught.

Can the death penalty be just and fair?

Grudem argues that there are no known examples of an innocent man being put to death since the death penalty was brought back to the US in 1976, although there have been cases of death-row prisoners being released due to DNA testing.This latter fact is worrying, because these people shouldn’t have been there in the first place. Cases like that of the Birmingham Six, where the police committed perjury (including forging forensic evidence) in order to ensure the conviction of suspected terrorists make me worry that the standard of evidence isn’t high enough to prevent this.

There is also an inconsistency in Grudem’s approach here – he appears to support a strong appeals structure (which, inevitably, will take a lot of time), but in arguing that the death penalty should be a deterrent, he argues that execution should be carried out swiftly to increase the impact (citing Ecclesiastes 8:11 – which supports sentencing in general being swift).

Grudem argues that “racial and economic disparities in the death penalty” (a euphemism for the fact that almost all of the inhabitants of death row in the US are black and/or poor – rich and white murderers almost always get a life sentence instead) does not constitute an argument against the death penalty, but an argument for reform of the sentencing system to ensure that it is fairly and equitably administered. He does not say how this can be achieved, but he’s right in saying that it’s not really an argument against the death penalty.

Finally, he argues that instances where the death penalty has been abused (such as historic executions for heresy) do not invalidate what he sees as the rightful use of execution.

Why is it important?

Grudem finishes by saying that this issue is important for four reasons. That God teaches that governments should carry out the death penalty at least for the crime of murder. That it “satisfies a deep human sense that just punishment is required” when somebody is murdered. That it satisfies God’s requirement for just punishment in such cases. That it acts as a deterrent to murder.

Is he right?

Whilst I can’t disagree with Grudem’s conculsion that the Bible teaches the death penalty, I have to say that the idea of it makes me uneasy. My instinct is the same as Augustine’s – to agree that the Bible supports it, but to oppose it in practice. The statistical evidence appears to point towards it not being a deterrent, and the chances of somebody being wrongly executed simply seem too high to take the risk. I can’t support the simplistic “it’s barbaric” argument of many anti-death-penalty campaigners, but I am persuaded by their more sophisticated evidence-based arguments.

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