Death penalty supporters and theology

November 12, 2010

Earlier this week, a jury recommended that Steven Hayes--convicted of the brutal murder of Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her daughters Hayley and Michaela Petit--be put to death. CNN ran an intimate interview with a couple of the jurors, an interview Mollie Hemingway rightly praises for not shying away from its subjects' faith.

Some of the quotes, however, beg for theological responses. Here's juror Paula Calzetta, from the online write-up of the TV interview:

"I thought that this would be the only opportunity for this man to ever make peace with his Supreme Being, if he even has one," or to accept responsibility, Calzetta said. She felt the death penalty was necessary for Hayes to accept responsibility or experience remorse.

I'm struck by Calzetta's suggestion that for some people, peace with God requires death. This implies that Hayes is beyond redemption in this world--while it's important for him to be remorseful, this is for others' good only, not his own.

At another point, juror Maico Cardona explains why a life sentence wasn't sufficient:

"I knew that [on death row] he would be in a cell by himself, secluded ... that's what he hated." If jurors had recommended Hayes be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, "he would have been in general population," Cardona said. "That's what he liked. That's what he was used to."

Here the death sentence's purpose seems to be providing discomfort for Hayes in life, somehow separate from the fact that the state will at some point end this life.

Hemingway also highlights a different news story on the decision, in which Hawke-Petit's father, a pastor, is quoted:

 "We really felt like we were between a rock and a hard place, for we value life so much," the retired reverend [told Harry Smith of the Early Show]. "But we have come to realize that there are some people who just do not deserve to live in God's world, and we feel that Steven was one of those."

Earthly life has great value, according to this reasoning, but not absolute value--if your crimes are heinous enough, your life's value goes away.

When death penalty proponents appeal to the need to make sure a killer can't kill again or to deter others, the debate unfolds in terms of sociology and public policy. But the arguments presented in these interviews point to troubling theological ideas. How do we respond in a way that takes seriously the unthinkable suffering Hayes has caused but also insists that concepts like grace, redemption and human dignity don't mean much if they're not powerful enough to apply to everyone?

Also this week, the U.N. Human Rights Council conducted its first-ever comprehensive review of the U.S.'s record on human rights. The review included repeated calls for the U.S. to stop executing criminals, which State Department legal adviser Harold Hongju Koh rebuffed. While 139 countries have abolished the death penalty, ours shows few signs of joining them.


Capital Punishment

One must choose, theologians or Jesus. Matt 15:4-5 "He who curses his mother or father must be put to death".

"Forgiving" a murderer

I find nothing religious, and much very presumptuous about anyone professing to "forgive" a murderer. The only people that can do that are his/her victims. Which they cannot do, of course, because they are dead.

Well, God can forgive, as can

Well, God can forgive, as can a killer's secondary victims, the loved ones who bear unspeakable grief (that's "can," not "must"). That aside, I'm not sure why you put "forgive" in quotes, since I didn't use the word or bring up the concept. What I'm interested in is collective responses from church and from society, and I'd maintain the options aren't limited to "forgive" or "kill."

My mistake

My mistake, I thought the word forgiveness was in the piece; I see that it was not. Perhaps I was thinking of the clause "...grace, redemption and human dignity don't mean much if they're not powerful enough to apply to everyone?" Much the same objection would still apply. Providing grace and redemption for murderers are not anyone in this world (and when I use the term "anyone," that is what I'm referring to, and which is, I believe, common usage.)

As for recognizing human dignity, I would object to your apparent assumption that it can be expressed only by a refusal to execute a murderer, or that it expresses such a recognition at all.


If you really want to get to the heart of the theology at play, try E. Christian Brugger's Capital Punishment. His is a concise, yet detailed, argument.

Following Jesus

In regards to the first commentator. Jesus quoted scripture, and then pointed out how people twisted it to fit their own preconceived ideas. It can't be claimed as an endorsement for killing children who swear at their parents.

Congratulations, that's 10 pharisee points to you.

(Unless you are sinless, in which case I'll be happy to let you throw the first stone).

The heart of the gospel is forgiveness, not condemnation.

The Christian case against the death penalty

Steven Hayes' heinous and barbaric crimes are truly shocking to the conscience. He is an evil man who must pray for God's forgiveness.

But as cowardly as his crimes are, they dwarf in comparison to the Holocaust of unborn children who are murdered throughout the world every year.

If a Christian supports the death penalty for people like Steven Hayes, then he or she must also support the death penalty for abortion.

But if such a pro-death penalty Christian does not support the death penalty for abortion, then he or she is essentially a modern Pharisee.

God does not support the death penalty, and no Christian can legitimately support it for vindictive purposes.

reasons to oppose death penalty

There are two main reasons why others oppose death penalty: 1) because of the quote "thou shall not kill" from the Bible and 2) some prisoners are wrongly convicted and found out their innocence too late. Some governments, though, still practice this as part of their disciplinary strategies. Florida Rep. Brad Drake desires the state's system of capital punishment to ramp it up from lethal injection, notes the AP. HB 325 would get rid of the argument over the nature of the drugs in lethal cocktail, and substitute the whole thing with death by firing squad. Death row prisoners would have an option: Death by firing squad, or via electric chair. Article resource: Florida bill would bring back death by firing squad