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Bible Supports Death Penalty

Opinion Editorial
October 29, 1997

By Chris Little

On October 13, 1997 at 8:33 p.m., the State of Colorado executed Gary Davis, who had been convicted in 1986 for the brutal rape, torture and murder of Virginia “Ginny” May of Byers. Davis was the first convicted murderer to be executed in Colorado in thirty years, a hiatus that had resulted largely from court rulings on the constitutionality of capital punishment.

In the days and weeks prior to Davis execution, Colorados media were frequently offered as public forums for those setting forth the arguments on both sides of the capital punishment question. Speaking against it were representatives of the Roman Catholic Church, such as Archbishop Charles Chaput, and Father Jim Sunderland of the Colorado Coalition against the Death Penalty. They were joined by some liberal Protestant representatives, as well as secular groups such as Amnesty International and the American Civil Liberties Union. Arrayed on the other side — and representing the view of nearly 80% of the American people — were some conservative Catholics and many conservative Protestants, many of Colorados district attorneys such as Adams County DA Bob Grant, who prosecuted Davis, and, not surprisingly, Ginny Mays family.

“Thou shalt not kill” (Exodus 20:13) and the New Testament verses about forgiving ones enemies constituted the core of the argument against capital punishment from moral theology. The public policy argument advanced by death penalty opponents was centered around how it is not always applied with equality, and that to answer the crime of murder with “murder by the state” only further desensitizes our society toward violence. Death penalty advocates pointed to what they felt to be the inherent justice of the Old Testaments “eye-for-an-eye” principle, adding that the wisest public policy is a) one that ensures murderers never murder again, and b) helps to deter others from murdering.

Though the typical people advanced the respective arguments, it would be too simple to describe this debate as one that pits liberals against conservatives; some conservatives, such as Archbishop Chaput, are against capital punishment while many liberals favor it. Regardless of where one stands on this issue, however, logic demands that one of the positions is wrong. I believe it is the position of the “antis.”

First of all, the Hebrew word “ratsach” in Exodus 20:13 is more accurately translated “murder,” not “kill.” That law is therefore designed to speak to the potential Gary Davises of the world, not the state. The state may in fact kill under certain circumstances, and the ancient Israeli theocracy did just that as punishment for a number of crimes, including murder. The teaching of Jesus, when examined with exegetical care, did not change this. When Jesus taught his followers to love and forgive their enemies, he was clearly speaking about the individual Christians spiritual duty, not about public policy. St. Paul appears to support the right of the state to “bear the sword” against criminals (Romans 13: 4). In the final analysis, the New Testament nowhere supports the case against capital punishment.

In his famous book, Ethics, noted Protestant theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer affirmed that only “arbitrary killing” is wrong. He excluded both wartime killing and the execution of criminals from that category. Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr recognizes the love/justice dialectic in the New Testament, but adds that in affairs of state, justice rather than love must be the guiding principle, lest society and state succumb to the internal and external monsters who threaten the well-being of both. Only a victim or a victims family can forgive. The state cannot. Applied to the question of capital punishment, this means that Christians may support the state in ensuring that someone only murders once, and in applying the appropriate penalty to the crime.

True, the debate is to some extent over whether execution for the crime of murder is appropriate, but most Americans feel that, in very narrowly defined situations, it is. To blurt that capital punishment is “vengeance” or “murder” is to ignore that the jury weighs all mitigating factors and that the appeals process affords a further check. Thus, passion and arbitrariness, essential elements of both vengeance and murder, are removed.

Furthermore, capital punishment does not “cheapen human life.” It is precisely because human life is so valuable that those who would take it in cold blood should forfeit their own. To demand the death of someone like Gary Davis is therefore a principle of justice stemming from the highest pro-life view. Whether or not the death penalty deters potential murderers (and this remains an open question) is somewhat irrelevant. The main issue is its appropriateness in certain situations.

A life for a life is juridically appropriate; to ensure that a murderer never murders again is communally appropriate. Capital punishment is therefore a policy Colorado can live with.

Chris Little is a Senior Fellow at the Independence Institute, a free-market think tank located in Golden, Colorado. https://i2i.org.

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