Capital punishment and why does the Church (Christianity) oppose it so much Essay
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Man is a sacred and precious creature created by God. When God has created the Universe, light, the birds, animals, the trees, water and the earth, he had given a lot of importance to man. Evidence from the Bible suggests that God had left creating man as his final task, and after he had created man, God was so amazed, satisfied with himself and fulfilled with his own creation, that he decided to rest (on the Seventh day). Through his creation of man, he had provided a reflection of himself (The Old Testament: Genesis 1). In deed God has given a lot of importance to man, and no one has the right to take away or destroy the life this very special and beautiful creation of God.
Countries throughout the World are beginning to understand the importance of capital punishment and are slowly outlawing such laws. However, certain developed countries such as the US are still encouraging Capital punishment. The US had stopped capital punishment for some period of time (from 1972 to 1977).
However, the practice resumed again following Gregg V. Georgia case (Horigan, 2004). Most of the states in the US permit Capital punishment only in very specific instances. However, the very existence of such an option in the judiciary system, does suggest the States Support to this inhuman act. The rate of execution in the US has dropped since the 1930’s, but this has no fully ended.
The largest number of executions is performed by the State of Texas, and the highest percentage of the population executed by the State is Virginia (Robinson, 2006). The response of the US public to capital punishment is somewhat mixed. However, the reaction of the Canadian people to capital punishment was also similar, but the Country has abolished capital punishment. Depending on the seriousness of their crime, the crimes are imprisoned even for indefinite periods (Robinson, 2006). Canada has also shown that imposition of capital punishment does not necessarily result in a drop in the crime rates. The Japanese on the other which permit capital punishment have a crime rate much below that of the US.
Hence, it can be demonstrated that capital punishment may not play an important role in crime (Robinson, 2006). In the US, many people who have been executed by the law, were found not even to be given a proper lawyer during their trials.
Several states in the US that have capital punishment in their legal systems seem to have a higher criminal rate than those which do not have capital punishment (Robinson, 2006). People may feel that by incorporating capital punishment in their legal systems, the State is cheapening the value of human life. Hence, the crime rates in such states are on the rise. Several other factors such as poor socio-economic status, low educational levels, poor living conditions, etc, may be related with an increase in the crime rates.
The Church has seriously opposed the use of capital punishment in case of serious crime. Pope John Paul II has opposed the imposition of death penalty by the State (Dulles, 2001). Christians give a lot of importance to life and have opposed any action that could result in the ‘violation to the right to life’ such as murder, abortion, suicide, euthanasia, etc. Christians usually feel that as God has controlled life, no one including the Governments and the Courts can take away a human life.
In the Old Testament, death was specifically suggested to those who had sinned or committed offences (such as murder and adultery). The Sacred Covenant during Noah had mentioned that anyone who offenders and disobeys God be stoned or hanged to death. Several episodes in the Old Testament such as those of with Korah, Dathan, and Abiram (Numbers 16), have given instances in which capital punishment was performed to penalize sinners. People who helped to execute the will of God by ending the life of the offenders were considered as Agents of God. Many Countries of the World still follow the Old Testament of capital punishment in penalizing serious crimes.
However, things have changed since the New Testament times. Although Jesus Christ had not spoken much about the use of capital punishment by the state, indirect instances are present in the New Testament which may suggest that Jesus was against the practice of capital punishment. One of these instances included the Stoning of a woman who had sinned. Jesus did not allow his disciples to pronounce curses of destruction of death on people who did not have feelings of love towards others.
In John 19:11, Jesus told Pilate that he had the authority to sentence anybody who had sinned against God, and that Pilate had the right to fulfill God’s intentions. In Matthew 26:52, Jesus told Peter to put back his sword when he was arrested. Jesus even put back the soldier’s piece of ear, after Peter had cut it with his sword. In Luke 23: 41, Jesus tells the thief crucified on his side, that they were receiving punishment for the sins that they had committed on earth.
Christianity believed in the concept of ‘love thy neighbor as thy self’, and Jesus in his preaching expressed that this feeling should be extended to every aspect of life. We could potentially extent its application for use to prevent capital punishment. In the New Testament after Christ, there may be several instances in which capital punishment was encouraged. However, these instances may not directly support capital punishment. In Acts 5: 1-11, capital sentences were imposed because they disobeyed Simon Peter. The Letter to the Hebrews also encouraged the Mosaic Laws on capital punishment.
St. Paul told the Romans that death sentence was a mean of expressing God’s intentions against sinners. However, there have also been instances in the New Testament in which the Church and Christians have opposed death sentence. During the early Christianity period, the Church did not approve Christians to function as executioners of death sentences (Dulles, 2001). St. Augustine felt that the Fifth Commandant should be utilized even to prevent execution of death sentences and killing of criminals. He wrote an entire book about Capital punishment named The City of God.
The idea of capital punishment changed a bit during the Middle Age. Christianity had some influence on the people, and the Courts were told to impose capital punishment only for people who committed serious crime. This was mainly as a self-defense mechanism to prevent the criminals from committing further crime and to ensure that the society was safe. Some of the theologists felt that capital punishment was more of a hatred act against the criminal than one to enable him to reform in the future (Dulles, 2001). Even though the Church opposed death sentence, it constituted a body to pronounce and capital punishment.
The Church even conferred the State the power to issue death sentences in the later part of the 16th century. It derived this power from the Commandant “thou shall not murder”, and it was performed in several instances. Slowly the Church began to approve capital punishment only in the case the criminal committed a serious crime. Slowly the attitude of the Church towards capital punishment began to change as they felt that life was a precious gift given by God and it was morally wrong to take one’s life for sins committed. The Italian thinker Gino Concetti, wrote a Book L’Osservatore Romano in 1977, demonstrating the importance and sacredness of God-given life. He said that humans could not destroy the life of another human, and even the criminals who had performed serious crimes should not be punished with death sentence.
He said that there should not be any circumstance in which capital punishment was justified as no person had the right to take the life of another and destroy one of God’s precious creations. We should be able to respect the view that God is expressing himself in man. This work had really changed the attitudes of Christians and the Church towards capital punishment.
Many people felt that the Church itself did not respect or identify this view of life before. There was a uproar against capital punishment in the 20th century in Europe. Several European countries who believed in Christianity began to incorporate the latest teachings and beliefs of the Church in their Legal systems. The Governments began to underhand the importance of life (Dulles, 2001).
Since, the criminal is also a human being; he is a precious creation of God and has a reflection of God in himself. His actions have an element of God expressed in it. Hence, it would be morally wrong to even punish the most serious criminals with capital punishment. In the Old Testament, the view that a criminal action should be punished with a similar action by the law-enforcement agency existed. However, a person may be expressing the Will of God through his actions.
Christianity has developed over a long period, and now it does not permit both, direct destruction (taking the life of a specific person) and indirect destruction (actions performed without the intention of killing another person). In some instances, taking the life of another person by mistake may be pardoned by the Church. The Church is also against any individuals taking the life of another on the advice of the State (Pesenke, 1981).
God does not allow one human to take the life of another because God is the creator of the human beings and can create or destroy a life. Any person who takes the life of another with a mental intention is sinning against God. A Human life is the most precious work of God, and destroying it would be against the Will of God. No political or legal body in the World has the right to interfere with God’s creation. It is not justified for any Court or King to take the life of any individual including a criminal.
Many countries feel that capital punishment should be permitted at least to end the life of criminals who committed serious crimes. They may also be considering that it would be a cheaper option to end the life of such criminals than to punish them with life-imprisonment. However, the legal and the political systems should not cheapen human life, and should consider them as important to God. Having capital punishment options in the legal system is not going to reduce crimes. It is essential that the Government provides a socio-economic environment that may permit development and reduce frustration of the people.
The Jews believed firmly in capital punishment and permitted it following murders, adultery, worship of idols, war crimes, and kidnapping. They feel that capital punishment would ensure that the society is safer from the actions of the criminals in the future. They also feel that anybody who destroys God-given creations should be punished with death sentence. A counsel usually issues death sentences in Jewish courts. The court will examine the criminal during the trial and 2 neutral witnesses should provide evidence for the case. As the process of issuing capital punishment under Jewish laws is very stringent, such sentences may usually occur less frequently.
In several situations (such as wars, emergencies, dealing with non-Jewish criminals, etc), the stringent process is relaxed and death sentences are issued more easily. In such situations Noah-Laws are usually applicable. Usually just one neutral witness is required (FAQ, 2006). During the later part of the 20th century, Jewish thinkers began to oppose the use of capital punishment by the legal system. The ideas of Christian theologists are now being followed by the Jewish thinkers with regard to death sentence. Only in extremely serious crimes are capital punishment allowed by Jewish courts (FAQ, 2006).
Capital punishment is not only an ineffective way of dealing with crime (as it does not reduce the crime rate), but is also an immature way (as hatred and revenge are spread). It also cheapens the importance of God-given life. The Government should look at alternative to punish or reform the criminals.
Dulles, A. C. (2001). “Catholicism & Capital Punishment.” First Things 112, 30-35.
FAQ (2006). Question 12.21: What is the Jewish position on Capital Punishment? Retrieved on April 8, 2007, from FAQ.org Web site: Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance from Web site: http://www.faqs.org/faqs/judaism/FAQ/06-Jewish-Thought/section-22.html
Horigan, D. P. (1996). Buddhism & Capital Punishment. Retrieved on April 8, 2007, from The Engaged Zen Foundation from Web site: http://www.engaged-zen.org/articles/Damien_P_Horigan-Buddhism_Capital_Punishment.html
Pesenke, H. C. (1981). Christian Ethics: Volume II – Special Moral Theology in the Light of Vatican II, Bangalore: TPI.
Robinson, B. A. (2006). Facts about capital punishment: Part 1: data & trends. Retrieved on April 8, 2007, from Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance from Web site: http://www.religioustolerance.org/execut3.htm
The Bible Gateway (2007). Genesis 1 (New International Version). Retrieved on April 8, 2007, from The Bible Gateway from Web site: http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=genesis+1