Wednesday, 25 July 2018



As debate rages about whether two captive ISIS Jihadis should be dispatched to the US, ‘How can you, a Christian, be in favour of the death penalty?’ I am asked. A hard question, fitting a hard, perhaps the hardest subject. Still, it demands an answer.

I recall Mr Abdullah al-Bishi, the suave, official executioner of Saudi Arabia, justifying his job by quoting the Qur’an – an impeccable procedure for a Muslim. The Christian revelation is more complex.

The Old Testament does permit, even enforce, capital punishment. Pacifists who quote the Decalogue, ‘Thou shalt not kill’, ignore that the same holy law demands death for a whole lot of offences. Further, the Lord of Hosts commands his chosen people to fight and kill in war. Hence the Anglican Prayer Book correctly translates the above injunction as ‘Thou shalt do no murder’ – it is unlawful killing, the killing of the innocent that the Bible forbids, not the terminating of the guilty.

My brother Cesare - a lifelong Communist atheist and ardent admirer of the Soviet Union – was against the death penalty. He once reproached me because the Creator forbids the slaying of mankind’s first murderer and fratricide, Cain.  Holy Scripture threatens a sevenfold vengeance on any slayer of Abel’s brother (Genesis 4:13). The punishment is to be ‘a wanderer and a fugitive upon the earth’. That Cesare’s beloved Marxist State rigorously enforced capital punishment in the name of the proletariat was a contradiction that, in pursuit of family concord, I refrained from observing. God has his reasons, however.

The New Testament does not destroy the Old but fulfils it and perfects it. St John the Baptist, the forerunner, does not tell soldiers to give up soldiering and killing, only to be content with their wages and to wrong no one. Jesus Christ incarnates and sublimates the spirit of the Judaic Law. His teaching may seem incompatible with any type of killing. Parables where the wicked suffer a violent ending are misunderstood if taken literally. And references to swords and violence – ‘the Kingdom of God suffers violence and men of violence take it by force’ – have nothing to do with earthly, judicial punishment.

The Book of Revelation offers some frightening and blood-curdling images but its dazzling logic is that of allegory and paradox, e.g. Christ the Lamb slain for the salvation of the world is also called the Lion of Judah – how can a lamb also be a lion, eh? Above all, Christ’s self-sacrifice on the Cross is the iconic, supreme example of an unjust execution - he was an innocent victim.

St Paul in Romans 13 enjoins his converts to obey the state authorities as God’s representatives. (That rules out Christian anarchism like Leo Tolstoy’s, by the way.) The Apostle invokes the power of the sword. NT scholars still debate whether it was a war sword or a police sword. Anyway, Paul is saying is that a judicially imposed penalty – even death – does not contradict divine law: it is actually permissible and just.

Christian revelation encompasses the teachings of Church Fathers. Saints and theologians like Augustine and Aquinas defend the power of the sword, meaning necessary killing in a just, defensive war. The example of Christ, however, is always there as a warning, hence St Thomas forbids prelates and clergy to shed blood – a sacramental argument now perhaps obsolete. The Doctor Angelicus conversely pulls no punches about the direct execution of sinners. Groan...medieval monks were tough.

The Church of England, when she was still serious and meant something, taught that ‘the laws of the realm may punish Christian men with death, for heinous and grievous offences’ (Article XXXVII in BCP). Today she seems to bleat the opposite but…who gives a damn? Similarly, old Catholic manuals of moral theology taught that capital punishment is sometimes necessary to protect society and that such is the State’s duty. Alas, like Anglicanism, Rome has collapsed to the spirit of the secular age. The End must be nigh!

The OT ‘An eye for an eye’ embodies a principle of justice, proportionality. Only one eye to be taken, not two. It looks simple but it is not. How do you punish someone guilty of rape, for example? Do you really want the brute to be violated in return? Or an arsonist? Will you have him burnt alive? But it depends. A court in Iran years ago sentenced a man to have acid poured into his face. He had thrown acid into a girl’s face, disfiguring and blinding her. The usual suspects, the ubiquitous human rights agitators, raised a protest and the sentence was suspended. Yet, looking at the destroyed face of the poor girl, do I really feel like condemning the Iranian court?

Here is a standard objection to capital punishment: what if a mistake is made and an innocent person is hanged? It has happened. The priest’s response invokes the analogy with war. The human rights fanatics clamour for humanitarian interventions. But they know how in any war the innocent get killed. Collateral damage is the euphemism for that. Yet, they believe their bombings are for a greater good. Similarly, the possibility of an occasional mistake cannot invalidate the argument for the death penalty.

Does fear of death reduce crimes by deterring would-be culprits?
Most terrorists won’t be deterred, of course, they would call it martyrdom. Is there danger that if the US hangs the two Jihadi guys they will become martyrs? Forget it. ISIS has already got plenty of ‘martyrs’. Nor does it the need the two assassins’ death to hate America more.

To conclude. All the empirical and pragmatic arguments pro or con capital punishment are undecisive. Objections invite counter-objections and so on. The crux of the argument, if there is one, is deeper. Namely, not physical but metaphysical. Is the loss of confidence in a life beyond the grave is at root of the problem? If life is only for this world, death is horribly final, ultimate. But if it is not, as Christ teaches, if there is another world, if Mors Ianua Vitae, if death is not the end, and if there is a Last Judgment, maybe another, transcendent light dawns upon the gallows...

Revd Frank Julian Gelli


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