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October 30, 2007

Forgive and Let Live or Forgive and Let Die?

Cheshire_2 Tragic events in a Connecticut town have fueled the ongoing controversy over the death penalty and even launched some advocates into uncharted waters. The United Methodist Church of Cheshire, CT has always been a politically active group of believers, but recently when three members of the congregation were brutally killed, the long-time capital-punishment advocates were shocked into silent deliberations.

The killings have not just stunned the congregation, they have spurred quiet debate about how it should respond to the crime and whether it should publicly oppose the punishment that may follow. It has also caused a few to reassess how they feel about the punishment.

One member's opinion:

“I think we’ve all rethought it because it’s pretty easy to believe something when it’s far away and then when something happens and it’s a real situation you have to examine what you believe,” said Dr. Brown.

First of all, as citizens of a democratic society, it's important that we don't abuse our power-of-opinion by cultivating uninformed convictions, but I think we likewise should be leery of allowing emotions to inform our views. One prosecutor quoted in the article (who is uninvolved with the case) hit the nail on the head:

“Our job is to enforce the law no matter who the victim is or what the victim’s religious beliefs are. If you started imposing the death penalty based on what the victim’s family felt, it would truly become arbitrary and capricious.”

Secondly, emotions aside, capital punishment remains a very challenging issue. And when believers look to the Bible for direction, they are often frustrated by what appear as conflicting passages...where should one even start?

A former colleague at Prison Fellowship, Dan Van Ness (now with Prison Fellowship International), once wrote a wonderful piece entited, "A Call to Dialog on Capital Punishment." I've searched high and low for an electronic version, but to no avail, so you'll just have to bear with me. Dan explained that many Christians feel the need to emphasize the Old Testament, while others focus on the testimony of Jesus' life here on earth and the call to forgive others (an element of restorative justice). In dealing with these challenges, Dan considered three questions:

  1. Does Scripture prohibit, mandate, or permit capital punishment? If Scripture prohibits it, the next questions are irrelevant. But if Scripture mandates or permits the death penalty, the second question must be raised.
  2. According to Scripture, under what conditions may a state exercise capital punishment? After exploring these conditions, those who hold that Scripture merely permits capital punishment must proceed to the third question.
  3. What principles should guide the state in determining whether to exercise the death penalty?

The rest of the publication fleshed out the Scriptures relating to each of these points. Since I can't provide you the text, you'll have to do your own Bible study. :-) But hopefully these questions are helpful in guiding you to discover the truth of your own convictions.

Once you've reached your own conclusion, feel free to check out PF founder Chuck Colson's views of the death penalty here. And for all you inquiring minds out there, my opinion on the subject is this: I'm am not opposed to the use of the death penalty, but I have numerous reservations concerning current applications of the practice. And that's it in a nutshell.

(Image courtesy of the New York Times)

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Sue Wright

A true example of why we need to thoroughly think through a position and be able to give concrete reasons why we take a particular stand, rather than base our stands on emotion or empathy. Particularly when the issue is as important as life and death. We need to base our stance on what is right and true, then have the fortitude to stick with it even when it is tough.

I believe that capital punishment is the most life affirming choice when human life is deliberately taken by someone, because it sets the highest standard on life itself. Obviously the decision to extend capital punishment must not be made capriciously, it is a grave and somber decision, but it does place a high value on human life, if a life is demanded in return for the taking of one.

Mike Perry

In one small area, murder, liberals are quite willing to have our society adopt a punishment that's much less than the crime. To see the contrast they want in our laws between crime and punishment, all we need do is compare a sudden, violent and painful death with free housing, food and medical care for life. Many people who would never even contemplate murder endure lives that, because of poverty and the burden of family responsibilities, are little if any freer than life in prison. Which is worse, working every day for forty years at a job you hate to feed your family or being confined in comfort in a large building for that same length of time, never having to contribute to your own or anyone else's upkeep?

I once heard a liberal speaker descend into venemous, irrational rage about someone who was a vocal advocate of avoiding taxes. He displayed no willingness to understand how that man might have felt about what was, after all, his money, earned by his labor. He demonstrated no desire to see the man get other than the maximum possible punishment for his crimes, despite the mind-numbing complexities of tax laws that make it almost impossible for anyone to determine what is legal or illegal.

Where's a similar forgiveness and willingness among liberals for tax evaders? Why can't the punishment there be less than the crime in equal proportion? It's not as if the loss of a million dollars is going to collapse the federal budget. Why can't someone who cheats the government out of a million dollars become free and clear by paying a ten-thousand dollar fine? In proportion to the punishment, he's still be punished far less than the murderer sentenced to life. Who of us, faced with a choice of losing money or losing our lives would take the former? And unlike a murderer, this let-off-lightly tax cheat really could have his tax statements so carefully monitored, he could never successfully cheat again.

There's also the bizarre illogic of harshly punishing 'hate crimes' that never go beyond words or symbolic but non-violent deeds, while displaying so much sympathy for members of approved victim groups who carry their racial hatred out in violent murders, such as the racially motivated murders (of whites and Asians) by a Kripps gang leader whose long delayed execution stimulated so much sympathy among liberals and the media.

Aside from other issues, opposition to capital punishment faces serious problems centering on the inconsistencies of its advocates. If they can't live by their rules, why should the rest of us be forced to do so?

1. Efforts to make prison a more pleasant place weaken any claim that life in prison is sufficient punishment. If there were special "Devil's Island" sorts of prisons for murderers, it might be possible to argue that life in such a place was worse than a quick execution, but our prisons aren't those sorts of places. They're little, if any, more unpleasant than many crime-ridden public housing projects.

2. Those who deny that punishing murder is ever appropriate, rarely seem to be consistent. There are numerous other and far less hideous crimes that they're quite eager to see harshly punished from taxes to thought crimes.

3. The claim that capital punishment doesn't matter because we can lock a killer up for life is doubly wrong. First, because it downplays the value of those killed before he was caught. They become merely an excuse to lock him up. Second, even if these killers don't escape prison or get paroled, they can still kill other inmates who have as much right to live as anyone else. Those who seem to care so much for not seeing a murderer die for his crimes in prison, seem unconcerned that someone who's done a far smaller crime may die at his hands in that same prison.

4. Finally, if the only permissible way to punish murder is life in prison, what further means do we have to deter someone who's already under such a sentence? He can kill at will inside the prison walls. And if he escapes, he can go on a massive killing spree, raping, torturing and killing children, knowing all along that the worst that will be done to him is to be restored to his former state in perhaps a bit more tightly guarded prison.

Those reasons and more are why many people regard anti-capital punishment arguments as mere smoke and shadows. Even those championing the ideology can't live consistently with their arguments.

Michael W. Perry, editor of G. K. Chesterton: A Criticism by Cecil Chesterton.


Genesis 9:6
Romans 13

Believe God.

Bill Brobst Jr.

I believe that Moses' Law demanded the death penalty.

I believe that Christ stated in the Sermon on that mount that 1) he did not come to replace Moses' law but to fulfill it and 2) That a better way to live (fulfilling Gods ultimate desire) is to turn your cheek and forgive even the most heinous crime. (boy is that hard to live by but what I am striving to do)

Therefore I believe that God gives the government (the assembly of the people) the responsibility to create a Fair Death penalty. If that Government would decide to not have a death penalty and attempt rehabilitation of each and every one then that would be even more blessed.


Many thanks to Dan Van Ness for sending me the electronic version of the "Capital Punishment: A Call to Dialogue" brochure. I've now made it available online for those interested in reading it: http://www.pfm.org/media/justicefellowship/Docs/Capital%20Punishment%20-%20Call%20to%20Dialogue%201994.pdf

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