The Death Penalty and Christianity: 
A Conceptual Paradox

Barry W. Hancock, Ph.D. 
School of Public and Environmental Affairs 
Indiana University at South Bend
South Bend, IN 46634

Paul M. Sharp, Ph.D. 
Department of Sociology 
Auburn University at Montgomery
Montgomery, AL 36117

From: PSCF 48 (March 1994): 61-64.                                             Response: Siemens

Public sentiment in the U.S. over capital punishment has undergone tremendous shifts over the past three decades. From 1966 to 1976 a complete moratorium on executions was observed. In 1966, forty-two percent of the American people supported the death penalty, but that number had risen to over 72 percent by 1988 (Walker, 1989). As public opinion shifted, so did the number of persons awaiting execution and the number of people actually being executed. After the 1976 reinstatement of the death penalty there were only six executions until 1982, when five persons were executed. This was followed by the execution of 21 persons in 1984 alone. The general trend in the 1980s was an increased use of the death penalty. The population of Death Row more than tripled over this same period, with close to 2500 people awaiting execution in 1988 in the 35 states which utilize the death penalty (NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, 1988; Greenfield, 1989).

Many believe that over the next ten years the number of death sentences and executions will continue to increase due to several 1980s court rulings and the exhausting of many appeals (Pulley v. Harris, 1984; Barefoot v. Estelle, 1983; McClesky v. Kemp, 1987).

These dramatic changes lead us to wonder what has changed about the public sentiment regarding capital punishment. Are society's members more thirsty for vengeance? Have the moral and ethical underpinnings of society been radically altered because of the fear of crime and the states' utilitarian agenda? (See Kappeler 1993 and Walker, 1989.) As academicians in sociology and criminal justice, we frequently encounter students, colleagues, the media and close associates with questions about the issues surrounding capital punishment. Our experience suggests that many people have opinions about capital punishment based on their own feelings, experiences, knowledge and present situations. Though those who hold these opinions have a diverse set of what are, to them, salient reasons to criticize or defend capital punishment, often times their justification and/or rationalization is based on precepts that have no relationship to the issue of executing human beings.

The major arguments for and against the death penalty have included philosophies based on economics, retribution, deterrence, irreversibility, discrimination, cruel and unusual punishment, brutalization, and public protection (Inciardi, 1990). Walker (1989) argues that capital punishment is generally debated in one or all of three major areas.

1) The constitutionality; concerning state utility and judicial processing.

2) The deterrent effect of capital punishment both specific and general; a scientific question of whether one action (execution) brings about a desired reaction (a cessation of killing by the individual and the generalized dissuasion of the public to commit similar acts).

3) The morality of capital punishment; whether putting a person to death is, under any circumstances, morally just. (pp. 96-97)

The Supreme Court has not ruled on whether the death penalty is right or wrong for society, but only whether with regard to due process guarantees in the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution it is "cruel and unusual punishment" and/or discriminatory (Furman v. Georgia, 1972; Gregg v. Georgia, 1976). In a related case, Baldus, Pulaski and Woodworth (1983) found discriminatory sentencing continued in Georgia, where black defendants were eleven times more likely to be sentenced to death for killing whites as whites were for killing blacks. In the case of McKlesky v. Kemp (1985), the court was asked to invalidate Georgia's capital punishment statute based on the new research evidence. The Supreme Court ruled that if discrimination was present, that it was at a "tolerable level." Thus, the questions dealing with the issue of capital punishment from a judicial and legal perspective do not address whether capital punishment is right or wrong, but only whether legal guarantees have been judiciously implemented.

Instead, the individual states have been left to decide the moral issue of right or wrong. The states, with the exception of just a few, have also failed to address the moral issues of capital punishment, except to further justify its application on constitutional legality. The legal arena is not a suitable forum for addressing the moral ramifications of capital punishment, and it is unlikely that it ever will be.

Proponents of the death penalty argue for its deterrent effect. They believe that not only can we evoke specific deterrence (that is, the offender will never be able to kill or otherwise offend again) but that, most importantly, the general public, after witnessing or having knowledge of an execution, will understand the state-imposed consequences for certain heinous behaviors and will therefore rationally choose to remove such actions from their behavioral repertoire. This argument is based on the theory of utilitarianism (Bentham, in Harrison, 1967, p. 26) which assumes that all of our decisions are calculated, and based on their likelihood of bringing happiness (pleasure) or unhappiness (pain). This theory claims that people weigh the relative probabilities of present and future pleasure against present and future pain as they make decisions. Described as "felicitous calculus," it argues that humans are constantly and rationally calculating their behavioral decisions. Economist Ehrlich and his colleagues made this argument (Ehrlich, 1975), which fell on responsive ears in the Supreme Court in 1976, where the Gregg decision (Gregg v. Georgia, 1976) was upheld. Ehrlich and his colleagues concluded that one execution would prevent seven or eight murders. Even though the Court was not deciding the merits of crime prevention, no doubt Ehrlich's research had a great impact on the Court's decision (Walker, 1994).

However, this line of reasoning only holds true if we assume that humans are totally rational beings and that those who take the life of another human being have, through premeditation, carefully weighed the consequences of their behavior. On the contrary, however, the majority of murders perpetrated in this society are not committed under rational circumstances. Instead, they are committed in anger, under the influence of drugs, under stress, retributively and psychotically (Walker, 1994).

Rather than deterring heinous crime, capital punishment may actually encourage some to kill. Bowers and Pierce (1980) contend that:

 ...the effect [of executions] is felt among a limited group of people who, independently, have "reached a state of readiness to kill," in the sense of having an intended victim already in mind. The legal execution conveys the message that vengeance is justified. (p. 483)

The deterrent effect is at best a weak argument for the death penalty. Even if we specifically deter an individual offender from committing crime through imprisoning them for life, in general the deterrent effect of capital punishment simply has little or no effect on "potential" murderers (Bowers and Pierce, 1980, Sellin, 1980). Furthermore, we would not have achieved any improvements in crime prevention or reduction.

 Eliminating one offender who happens to get caught "weakens" public security by creating a false sense of diminished danger through definite remedial measure. Actually, it does not remedy anything, and it bypasses completely the real and unsolved problem of "how to identify, detect, and detain potentially dangerous citizens" (Menninger, 1977, p. 108).

Let us then move to the more central theme of this discourse which addresses the moral underpinnings of our society with regard to the death penalty. More specifically, how does supporting the death penalty square with a Christian value system which, for many in America, is the system that provides a moral framework for their social and individual choices?

A Conceptual Paradox

Our position is that the debate about the death penalty should be a debate of morality. The debate on the constitutionality of the death penalty is perennial, and the evidence to support the penalty's deterrent or preventative effect, with respect to crime, is questionable. Morality, however, is "concerned with the goodness or badness of human action and character" (Morris, The American Heritage Dictionary, 1975). Furthermore, how do the notions of vengeance and retribution equate with fundamental Judeo-Christian ethics and doctrine? Many who profess a Christian value system concurrently express their support for executions. According to Pollock-Byrne (1989):

 Religious ethics have been used to support and to condemn capital punishment. Old Testament law supporting the taking of an eye for an eye is used by retentionists, while the commandment, "Thou shalt not kill," is used by the abolitionists...It is a telling commentary that for as long as society has used capital punishment to punish wrong-doing, critics have defined it as immoral. (p. 140)

The idea of vengeance is not new, nor is it unique in any fashion. Roughly four thousand years ago the Hammurabi Code (1750 B.C.) prescribed specific punishments for Babylonia. Examples include:

- If a man knocks out the tooth of a man of his own rank, they shall knock out his tooth.

- If a son strikes his father, they shall cut off his fingers.

- If a man destroys the eye of another man, they shall destroy his eye.

- If a man of higher social rank destroys the eye of a man of lower rank, the man shall pay a fine.

(Allen & Simonson, 1989, p. 6)

Here it is interesting to note that the degree of vengeance was based on social standing (pick on somebody of a lower social class, and money would buy your pardon). This sounds strikingly familiar to our modern judicial system (Bonger, 1969, Quinney, 1970, 1974, 1980; Chambliss, 1975). We know of no theistic genesis to these Babylonian codes, only that they were created to mitigate family feuds. Feuds, however, escalated as increasing numbers of appendages were lost.

There are numerous examples throughout history of codes designed with vengeance in mind, whether the codes had secular or sacred beliefs as their basis ó for example, the Koran or Roman Law (Allen and Simonson, 1989). Modern American society was more influenced by the Laws of Moses, the Old Testament rules of conduct and penalties. These laws were specific and vengeful, recommending executions and restitution, even for conduct that today may seem less than serious. (See Exodus 20-22.)

Do doctrines of Christianity support the retributive "eye for eye, tooth for tooth, tit-for-tat" remedies for addressing human problems? Present day Christian doctrine relies on the teachings of Jesus as recorded by his immediate followers. If patterning our lives after Jesus is basic to a Christian belief system, then his fundamental teaching would supersede previous Mosaic pronouncements. This is what was particularly problematic for the leadership of orthodox Jewry at the time of Jesus. The Jewish religion's elite were critical of Jesus' teachings because they claimed that he was striking down the existent scriptures and blaspheming God by contradicting Abraham, Moses and God's other mouth-pieces. Nonetheless, Christ's response to the criticism was not to destroy the existing legal system (that is, to bring about a religious and political coup), but instead to introduce principles to fulfill the law. The Christian faithful should now "turn the other cheek," relegating the judgment of sinners and criminals (historically synonymous) to post-mortal judgment. Vengeance would no longer play a role in human interaction. Rather than espousing vengeance, which belongs only to God, Jesus introduced an alternative approach as a template for dealing with the human condition.


- Love one another and enemies. (Matt. 5:43-48, Luke 10:27)

- Go the extra mile. (Matt. 5:41)

- Do unto others as you would like others to do to you. (Like 6:31)

- Forgive. (Matt. 18:21-35)

- Killers will be in danger of God's judgment. (Romans 12:17-21, Hebrews 10:30, Matt. 5:19-22) (All references from KJV.)


To our knowledge, nowhere in the New Testament is there any reference to taking another human being's life as a prescriptively acceptable response to various infractions of Christian doctrine. Though public stoning, maiming and executing were the prescription of the Orthodox Jews and the Roman state, Christian precepts and doctrine are antithetical to these modes of recourse ("ye that are without sin cast the first stone"), because transgressions will receive judgment and processing by God after death.

What then of the individuals and organized sects of Christianity that today espouse support for state initiated executions and yet also profess a fervent belief in the teachings of their versions of Christian doctrine? Are these principles conditionalóthat is, relative with regard to social history, increasing crime rates, prison overcrowding, deterrence or constitutionality? Is capital punishment in diametric opposition to a Christian belief system? Looking at the New Testament, it seems to us that it is difficult, if not impossible, to be a proponent of both.

Why then do so many support the death penalty? Of the over 72 percent of the population (Walker, 1989) in favor of the death penalty in the United States, how many simultaneously profess a Christian belief system? It is difficult to know, though it is interesting to observe that many individuals structure their mental framework for making sense of the world to reconcile this paradox in their mental constructs. Perceiving themselves as principled, and indeed with good intentions, they nonetheless may be cognitively dissonant (Hoffer, 1951, Festinger and Schachter, 1956). You see what you want to see, hear what you want to hear, and then call it truth. Humans have an extraordinary capacity to neutralize cognitive conflicts so that they may ceaselessly continue to justify a wide array of behaviors while condemning these behaviors in others (Sykes and Matza, 1957). Rather than adhering to any particularly concrete principle which may be difficult to follow, humans would typically prefer to re-interpret their principles and beliefs to square with their existing lifestyles and mental structures of reality (2 Corinthians 10:12-13). That is, instead of altering their beliefs and morals to conform with a pre-defined doctrine, many people would rather redefine the situation so that distressing personal change can be avoided and their present attributes of attitude and behavior may consistently be retained. Thus, individuals rid themselves of personal responsibility for injustices and institutionally violent behavior by rationalizing and assimilating conflicting values. Proactive growth and dynamic processual change are abandoned for value-altered dogma. This self-serving, myopic dogmatism is the very stuff of which prejudice, hate, fear, and violence are made.

 What is behind such vindictiveness? Certainly not Christianity, not Judaism, nor indeed any religion! And yet certainly not specific hatred! And surely not an expectation of eliminating crime!...Today criminals rather than witches and peasants have become the official wrongdoers, eligible for punitive repayment. Prosecuting attorneys have become our agents, if not God's, and often seem to embody the very spirit of revenge and punition. They are expected to be tough, and to strike hard. (Menninger, 1977: p. 193)

We suppose as a nation and society that we have the prerogative to engage in any conduct held to be for "the good of society" while dissonantly we espouse vengeance and justify this by "saving grace" as our forgiver of poor decisions. Punishment of any form is a moral issue, not a political, judicial or scientific issue (Menninger, 1977). If the problem of society is a lack of moral fiber, perhaps we should consider not relinquishing the greatest portion of our socialness, with commensurate social bargaining, to political, judicial, and sectarian authorities who have a vested interest in usurping power, control, and death over others (Mills, 1956; Chapman, 1971).

Our existence as social beings is dependent on our ability to actively filter and critique social and legal conventions. However, we have stopped choosing to try to resolve community and social conflicts and making moral determinations, giving these responsibilities to our legal system. This is evidenced by the tremendous backlog of cases pending because time is spent by a legal system attempting to solve moral and ethical issues (e.g. class actions, affirmative action, abortion, gambling, pornography issues, and small claims actions among individuals who are unable or unwilling to settle minor disputes which are basically grounded in a lack of honesty or integrity by one or both parties).

The legal system does not and cannot address morality, nor can morality be legislated, unless a large social consensus already exists. The legal system of any nation may only reflect social morality in an attenuated fashion to social realities, and very probably can never keep pace with social morality. Should a legal system attempt to dictate morality, it will be destined to fail, because legal systems do not inherently deal with right and wrong, but only with legal and illegal matters. The morality of society's social norms is actively changing. The law should reflect these changes. However, if the law attempts to dictate these norms rather than serve them, it will become ineffective and brutal.

It is unfortunate that many of society's participants ask only if a given behavior omitted or committed is legal, reasoning that if it is legal, then it is right and justified. It is clear to us that to maintain a consistent belief in Christianity is antithetical to supporting vengeful punishment and capital executions. These two positions cannot conceivably be joined together, except by a re interpretation of the positions to rectify the cognitively dissonant conflict.

Each of us are continually at the crossroads of moral dilemmas and legal exigencies about many perplexing issues of human affairs. It seems clear that the concept of death by state-sanctioned executions is in no way reconcilable with a Christian belief system. It seems more likely that it is a matter of confusing law with morality, and of the re-interpretation of personal morals to coincide with contemporary law and popular public opinion.



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