On Capital Punishment
Is the Death Penalty Un-Christian?
The death penalty has been abolished in The Netherlands since 1870. It is even so that the constitution prohibits capital punishment, branding it as inhuman. Is it under such circumstances still sensible to discuss the death penalty? It would seem another one of those issues that has been overtaken by reality, about which only Reformed people and other backward groups get excited. But I venture to express my doubt that we can rightly ignore the principles involved in the question of the death penalty on the ground that it is indeed a very dead issue. Has this punishment not been part of human society from of old? Therefore a few remarks about this topic would seem in place.
Basic to our discussion of this topic is that not our opinions about the desirability of capital punishment or its abolishment should prevail, but that we be taught by the Word of God on the issue. However, before we do so, let us first listen to the arguments put forward by those who oppose capital punishment. We don't do that in order to let them influence us when we establish our own position, but rather to gain a clearer insight in the problem. Well, then, the opponents bring in three main arguments for their cause.
The first is, that the death penalty is irrevocable. If a judicial error results in an execution, there is no possibility to restore justice.
The second is, that the death penalty has hardly any effect in preventing crime.
The third one is, that the death penalty has no place in our system of justice because it is inhuman, and therefore unjust.
Judicial errors will be rare occurrences under proper conditions. Yet it does happen from time to time, that people end up in jail for sometimes a very long period as a result of a mistake in the judicial process. A most sensational case in Holland was the affair Giessen — Nieuwkerk. On August 23, 1923, the railway worker Jacob de Jong was killed with a hammer, close to his home at the railroad, in the neighborhood of Gorinchem. It was only in the course of 1924 that two suspects could be brought to trial after an intensive investigation by the police. Both steadfastly denied having committed the crime, and initially they had a plausible alibi. However, during the court hearings it appeared that all the witnesses had seen something that could implicate the suspects. Also their alibi was torn to shreds. The prosecution had demanded a life sentence, but the sentence meted out was fifteen years. Appeals were unsuccessful; both suspects, Klunder and Teunissen, were sent to jail. However, a zealous reporter for the socialist newspaper "The People" who had never doubted the innocence of the suspects, managed after four years to bring the truth to light. It was then revealed that police detective de Jong, the group leader of the investigative team, had put pressure on all the witnesses and had even instigated perjury among them. He himself had told lies in court too. All this in order to get the case resolved. After four years of wrongful imprisonment the two innocent men were finally freed.
There are more examples of people who were jailed for murders and other crimes which they had not committed. In such cases it was often difficult to obtain the evidence and what was furnished was not always very reliable. How unreliable the evidence sometimes can be was underscored by the trials of war criminals. During the month of May this year the court of Maastricht acquitted a suspect who was accused of having committed the most horrendous murders and tortures in concentration camps during World War II. Scores of witnesses had been heard. Many identified the accused as the guilty one. The prosecution had demanded twenty years! Events such as these should caution those on the bench to become extremely careful, because man can make mistakes!
Thus, the argument that the death penalty, once executed cannot be reversed, is not just a theoretical objection, but a very practical one. And yet this objection against capital punishment does not convince me as a valid principle. After all, wrongful imprisonment is no less irreversible, although in such a case restoration of one's honor is still possible during his lifetime. It remains a fact, the argument of irrevocability could be used against any form of punishment. It's more dramatic impact in the case of capital punishment does not make it more or less valid as an argument.
No Preventive Effect
Those who oppose the death penalty are apt to point at statistics which are supposed to prove that introduction of the death penalty causes no appreciable reduction of the crime rate. According to them the abolishing of the death penalty does not result in an increase in criminality either.
Advocates of the death penalty claim that this is not a valid argument either. Furthermore the statistics cannot indicate how many have refrained from committing the crime because of the death penalty.
In my opinion, the claim that capital punishment has little preventive effect is not a strong ground for those opposed. Again it is not a principled argument. One should realize that in such instances the criminal act is most often committed under extreme emotional pressure. As a rule the offender does not use cool and rational planning. Furthermore, also this argument against the death penalty, if valid, could be used with just as much logic to oppose imprisonment. How often is it not said that prison terms don't help! Neither proponents nor opponents of capital punishment will be convinced by this argument.
There are other, supposedly more principled arguments against the death penalty. Let us take a look at those. The first argument is that the death penalty is inhuman. This argument has become so commonplace that it is even mentioned in the constitution. What does that concept, inhuman, really mean? According to the dictionary it means cruel, barbarous, or savage. Caesar Nero was considered cruel, or inhuman. Also the German Fuehrer Adolf Hitler was undoubtedly inhuman in that sense. Thus the word inhuman assigns a very evil, despicable character to the institution of the death penalty. What are we to think about that?
It is a well-known fact that the death penalty has been a cause of much sensation in the past, and continues to be so in the present. During the French Revolution, around 1789, the guillotine worked to capacity every day and the heads were gathered up in baskets. Those executions always attracted large masses of spectators. There is even a story about women who took their needlework along to the executions, so that they could continue with their knitting while they "enjoyed" the spectacle of the knife that felt and the heads that rolled.
Among those who administered justice the opinion prevailed that the deterrent effect of the death penalty was desirable, and that it should be maximized by encouraging public interest. Executions in our times are also a source of sensationalistic attention. And we need not think of Iran only. The question surrounding the functioning of the electric chair in the USA does also "enjoy" an often unhealthy amount of public interest. When the Rosenbergs were placed on the "hot seat" in the fifties, the newspapers all over the world bulged from the stories about the event. Especially the initial malfunctioning and its consequences for the convicts was analyzed, dramatized, and described in almost lyrical terms. So much so, that a certain sentiment of pity for the condemned couple was stirred up, probably intentionally. However, the question remains: is the extremely fearful and serious nature of the execution of the death penalty a proper ground to conclude that it is so cruel that we must out of hand condemn it as inhuman?
The perception of something being inhuman as it is used in this context is nothing but an emotional argument, and as such not trustworthy. Along similar lines one could also object to present practices of egg production, to methods used in slaughter houses, and certainly to the ceremonial slaughtering of animals. The same emotional argument can also be used against imprisonment. Isn't imprisonment an extremely inhuman punishment? You take human beings, lock them up in a small cage and take away their social contacts! Doesn't that just as well clash with every sense of what is human? On the other hand medical knowledge and technology have advanced far enough that the death penalty can be executed in a responsible manner. It can even be done so that the convict suffers no discomfort. The public and the press could be excluded, so that all sensationalism can be prevented.
The emotional argument "inhuman" is therefore not convincing, certainly not in this present time, now that sadism, pornography, euthanasia, and suicide are considered acceptable. In our days violence is not just tolerated, it is actively exploited, for example in movies and on television. Why then reject the death penalty as inhuman? Furthermore, when you talk to people who were involved in the execution of War criminals, you will notice that they were indeed awed by the seriousness of the execution, but seldom by its inhumane cruelty. Also, it often happens that a convict who is guilty of a serious crime, prefers the death penalty over a long jail term.
Therefore, the concept "inhuman" is too much an emotional argument to have validity against capital punishment.
Inhumane or Non-Humanistic
Does capital punishment clash with human nature? Or rather, is capital punishment inhumane or non-humanistic? If we consider the issue from that point of view, we do indeed approach the heart of the problem. Because what is at stake here is a practical consequence of the humanist's view of the world.
The humanist approaches life from the concept of man's self-determination. Every person is free to arrange his life in accordance with his own insights. Starting with the presupposition that man is by nature good, the humanists come to the conclusion that criminality is a derailment, which can — and therefore must be prevented. Humanistic philosophers claim that a person who has stepped out of bounds, who has broken the law, must not be punished, but must be helped back on the track. In such a case that person must be taught to put his better qualities to good use in order to be truly free. To be truly man, is to be free and able to put that freedom to active use. Scholars of criminal law from the humanistic camp have made the analogy that life is a ballgame to which certain rules apply. Those rules make up the body of criminal law.
And indeed, we can regard justice as a system of rules for a particular society. But justice must be guided by a higher principle, a norm of righteousness. For the humanists that norm of righteousness is found in man himself. Man creates his own justice. It is a product of all of society. It contains therefore a certain element of hazardous chance, because according to this view, each justice system applies only to a certain era and in a certain area. People make up the norms for determining what is right and what is wrong, in accordance with the rules of democracy which are written in the heart of man. As the times change, so does justice. There is no such thing as a divine norm or an absolute law; there are only sets of rules and regulations to keep society functioning. Therefore, lawbreakers must not be punished, certainly not with the penalty of death. No, they must be rehabilitated. Capital punishment terminates the life of man who is good. It robs him of his self-determination. It presupposes an absolute law of righteousness. But that is non-human and therefore to be rejected. Such absolutism presupposes that evil man is confronted with a righteous God. It takes its point of reference in divine law. But that is barbarous superstition. Thus you can see: at bottom the penal system poses religious problems. And that is most certainly the case with capital punishment.
Christian Views on Justice
We cannot adopt the humanist views on justice, with their point of reference in man himself or in the majority of the people, the common consensus, on which the system of justice is than to be built up.
We take our starting point, our point of reference, in God's holy Word. But there is this problem, that the visions of Christian scholars have greatly varied, especially after the second world war. To some extent this will be the aftermath of the more critical approach toward the Bible and the Christian doctrine. As an example I may mention the very remarkable theory of penal justice developed by Prof. H. Bianchi, who teaches criminology at the Free University in Amsterdam. Summarized, his views are as follows: The Bible teaches righteousness (Isedeka). Therefore criminal justice must be aimed at achieving peace or reconciliation. It is the purpose of criminal justice to bring about peace through reconciliation. The practical application of this viewpoint is that not punishment, but rehabilitation becomes the means to oppose crime. Rehabilitation agencies must be used to try and save the law-breaker. Righteousness does not mean that evil is avenged, but that the sinner is brought to salvation. In that manner peace is restored.
The modernistic Reformed theologian professor H. Wiersinga propagates views which are closely related to this. He too believes that penal justice must be a means to shock people into making amends so that they become reconciled with society. The well-known jurist, Mrs. F.T. Diemer-Lindeboom is of the opinion that punishment must serve the good of the general public. According to her the death penalty does not do that, and it does not suit a government which is there "for your good" (Romans 13). She agrees with Bianchi that the Biblical concept of righteousness, also the one of the Old Testament, is directed towards the restoration of society. Its final purpose is to rehabilitate the offender. And how could the death penalty possibly fit in such a system? And by the same token, the deliverance brought about by Christ does not tolerate a justice system that has the death penalty either. Other scholars at the Free University produce similar utterances. Among them I may mention Prof. J. de Ruiter, who has had a term of office as minister of justice, and is known for his oration Justice and Prosperity. It must be said, however, that he did encounter some opposition within his own circles.
Is Capital Punishment Un-Christian?
If you would believe these Christian jurists, the conclusion would be that capital punishment, because it prevents rehabilitation, is incompatible with the teachings of Christ the Redeemer.
The main criticism against these ideas, based on a more careful reading of the Scriptures, must be that they all take too one-sided a view of God's righteousness. They completely gloss over the fact that the Bible speaks of God's punishing righteousness. Apart from the fact that Moses' laws mention more than twenty offences for which the death penalty is prescribed, the basic error they developed in their thoughts is, that they have lost sight of the real righteousness of God, and so of the just God Himself. God is not only merciful, He is also just. He has poured out His wrath for our sins upon Jesus Christ. We are reconciled with Him in Christ and not in ourselves. God avenged in Christ the evil which we committed. This is the heart of the Biblical concept of justice, which must be mirrored in our society. It is a society, furthermore, where we must recognize the working of satanic powers among sinful people. In that world the words of God spoken when He made the covenant with Noah has never been invalidated:
Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for God made man in His own image.Genesis 9:6
That is an institution for all of mankind, and especially for its governments. Romans 13 must be read in that light. It is stated there that the government as servant of God has been given the sword for the punishment of the wicked and for the protection of those who do well. From these and other parts of Scripture this minimal conclusion follows: Capital punishment is not only in place within a Christian world view, it is a penalty directly prescribed by God. The thesis that we live in a world broken by sin annuls the entire foundation of modern theology. The modern view is, that society has to come to terms with itself and that it is able to do so. Salvation, according to their interpretation of God's command must be brought about not in the here-after, but in the here and now. Thus the death penalty is not only useless, it even hampers the development toward a just society.
We have to do here with a renewed utopia. The denial that sin and evil are a reality is basic to this view. These people act as if the new heaven and the new earth can be achieved by human wisdom and by human endeavor. The difference with the socialist ideal of the welfare state, which is equally based on human capabilities has become minimal. It appears now that opinions pro — or contra capital punishment have become a touchstone to decide whether or not one holds a world view that still can be considered Christian.
Therefore, Reinstate the Death Penalty?
Many Reformed people are of the opinion that capital punishment was not only a Scripturally based institution, but also that it should be mandatory for every offence in which life was taken, and in any case for murder. Among those who promoted this view I can mention Dr. A. Kuyper, the political leader of the Anti-Revolutionary Party in the previous century, and Prof. D.P.D. Fabius, the first professor of penal law at the Free University. To a lesser degree, also Dr. A. Colijn can be considered to have belonged to them. Until World War II it was considered solidly anti- revolutionary to hold such convictions. The basis for this view was mainly Genesis 9:6. Most of them, however, considered the death penalty only justifiable in case of murder. Crimes like manslaughter and other offences which involved killing could more properly be punished by imprisonment.
The problem with this view of Kuyper and his followers is, that it can only be based on one particular passage of Scripture, and one that poses exegetical difficulties at that. There are other parts of Scripture which indicate a different approach to serious offences. One could think of the special prohibition which God proclaimed: no one was to lay his hand on Cain, the murderer. In John 8 we read that Christ let the adulteress go, although, according to the law of Moses, she should have been put to death. The conclusion is inescapable that the Bible does not command the automatic institution of the death penalty. To punish by death is indeed in harmony with the rules of the Bible, but if a government refuses to do so, it cannot be said that that per se violates God's law.
The reinstatement of capital punishment can thus be a proper part of the political program of a Christian party. Whether or not we must plead for capital punishment depends on the circumstances. A Christian will be less inclined to promote the reinstatement of the death penalty in a society which has become de-Christianized and sets its goals wrongly, than in a society which upholds the Christian values in its legal system. To that we must add the fact that there are effective alternatives for the death penalty. In the days of Israel's kings there was no jail system. All punishment, therefore, had to be corporal. In our present western world things are different. A lengthy jail term can be considered a proper response to a serious misdeed. It would seem that in times of war and revolutions there is less chance to avoid the use of capital punishment than in times of peace and quiet.