Should a person of religious conviction endorse capital punishment?
I asked this question of a few colleagues recently and received different answers, especially in the context of the jury’s recent decision to sentenced Charleston church gunman Dylann Roof to death. Some indicated they would prefer life without the possibility of parole while others said they were comfortable with the death sentence in this horrible story of a self-confessed murderer and self-professed racist.
But the question remains whether a person of faith can support the death penalty. Should any religion sanction the death of another human life?
In Judaism, there is a long history of rabbinic sages debating the permissibility of the death sentence. There are many examples of death sentences for crimes committed in the Bible with punishments ranging from strangling to stoning to hanging. Judaism as we know it today evolved from the teachings and laws of the ancient rabbis. They created sacred texts called the Talmud. In the section called Sanhedrin, the death penalty is debated.
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According to one report in theTalmud, the power of the Jewish courts to allow the death penalty ceased around the year 30 B.C.E. Another opinion suggest that the Jewish courts — called Sanhedrin — ceased to practice the death penalty after the Roman destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. Even in the period of Late Antiquity, Jewish religious sources are not in complete alignment regarding when the Sanhedrin was allowed to impose this kind of punishment.
It appears that in these religious texts, the rabbis knew that they had the right to impose the death sentence. At the same time, there were so many preventative measures in Jewish religious law against capital punishment that it was probably a rare practice. In fact in one famous statement, the sages said, “A Sanhedrin that puts a man to death one in every seven years is a murderous court.”
Today the modern state of Israel has grappled with this question as well. The Knesset, Israel’s parliament, abolished the death penalty in 1954 for the crime of murder. But the death penalty remains for and is applicable to crimes against humanity (Nazi war criminals) treason and certain crimes under military law in wartime. The last person to be executed in Israel was Adolph Eichmann, a Nazi war criminal, in 1962.
Roman Catholicism does not technically oppose capital punishment but the National Conference of Bishops declared in 1980 its discomfort with it. Pope John Paul II, for example, expressed his opposition to the death penalty on various occasions.
On the Protestant side of American Christianity, denominations such as the Southern Baptist Convention came out in support of capital punishment even though their document distinguished between the problem of how the death penalty is administered in America versus the legitimacy of the government’s right to execute a criminal. A majority of Christian Protestant denominations oppose the death penalty. Even within denominations of there are splits within various branches such as Lutherans, Baptists, and Methodists.
Islam allows capital punishment and Hinduism opposes it.
The scriptural text that Jews and Christians struggle with is Genesis 9:6;”
“Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made mankind.”
If God created us in the image of God, how do people of faith advocate destroying a life, no matter how heinous the crime of the human being? Does that not conflict with the basic and fundamental religious tenet to respect life as sacred?
This theological question is not about our role as citizens. It is, rather, about our morals and values as to whether our respective religions affirm the position that voting on a jury for the death penalty is consistent with our religious teachings.
The anger we feel when someone murders another can understandably and justifiably overtake us. We identify with compassion and love for the families of Dylann Roof’s victims who will never be the same. This trauma will alter them for the rest of their lives. Most likely many of us in South Carolina are satisfied with the jury’s verdict and the sentencing phase of the trial.
As people of faith we ask; “Does God want us as a society to condone capital punishment?”
At the end of the day, it is about not only what God wants us to do, but what we want on our conscience for the rest of our lives. Is that not as important to God as what we believe our sacred texts tell us? Scriptures can teach us the official position but these kinds of issues are intensely personal on an individual and societal level. When it comes to capital punishment, are we on our own?
How do we balance the teachings of our religious traditions, our own personal values and the fact the we live in a violent society? These are not easy questions but they require us to define the value of human life even when a person who has committed murder has no regard for human life.
At the end of the day it comes down to a test of our ethics and values.