Justice Stevens Renounces Capital Punishment – NYT

Being an advocate of a Consistent Ethic of Life, I have always been opposed to the death penalty–in any and all cases. I applaud and salute Justice Stevens, even as I continue to pray for those who are not so illuminated…

Justice Stevens Renounces Capital Punishment – New York Times

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11 Responses to “Justice Stevens Renounces Capital Punishment – NYT”

  1. Robert Easter Says:

    I’m not all that sure that a “consistent ethic” necessarily means anti death penalty. A young child’s life is destroyed, or a family shattered because of someone’s choice not to contain his or her passions or obsessions. If we consider the Law as speaking to the human condition and not just that of early Israel, then we recognise that the perpetrator should be held completely responsible for the crime. If we follow the “modern” view, then the murderer or rapist is warehoused for long enough to wreak havoc on his family, and then released as supposedly “rehabilitated.” No justice is done, and over 7/8 of the time the criminal will have re-offended and been caught within a year of release. All prison does in these cases is to confirm the criminal traits in its inmates clientise their spouses, and marginalise or criminalise their children.

    Penitentiaries in general are a bad innovation based on bad theology.

  2. dpc+ Says:

    Hi Robert!
    I agree that penitentiaries are a bad idea based on non-existent theology. [There is a theology of hope though that provides for the rehabilitation of persons.] Nevertheless, the system that we have (however bad) does not warrant or ameliorate the irreversible damage done–to all connected with the crime as well as our society–by capitol punishment.
    And you’re right in saying a “consistent ethic” doesn’t necessarily mean anti-death penalty. A Consistent Ethic of LIFE, however, does. Always.

  3. Robert Easter Says:

    If we see life as a gift, that is, a trust, from God, then wouldn’t we be better advised to treat it as He directs? The murderer or the rapist violates the one most essential aspect of that trust: the expression of God’s own Being, the Image of God upon each human being, both in the violence done against the victim and the violation of that Image as it exists upon the murderer him/herself in going so diametrically counter to the nature of the Creator Who is, Himself, Self-effacing love. While this is based as much in my own, slowly developing, understanding of the Image of God on humanity it is also linked to God’s own covenant words that “who sheds man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed.” The key value in the picture is not, I think, “Life for life’s sake,” but a reverence for the Image of God as the message written upon each life: Who desecrates that Image is accountable before God for that action, and if God has given human government the responsibility to stand with Him for that Image (and not to stand with those who desecrate it), then if government is derelict government itself will be held accountable. Even a witness to a theft is held accountable as an accomplice, under the Law, if that witness “holds his peace.” If a judge gains knowledge in court of a child’s rape, for instance, and applies “mercy” to the perpetrator for some sweetly humanistic cause, then will not that judge will be answerable to God as an accomplice in, effectively, consenting to that violence?

  4. dpc+ Says:

    Hmm. Ok. This is a huge topic (duh!) that has been pretty exhaustively dealt with in myriad places. Off the top of my head I’ll try and do justice to your comment. Allow me to do some reflective listening:
    1st) life is a gift and we must treat it as He directs: therefore, we must care for–steward–all life, in whatever condition, circumstance or location (womb, battlefield, street, prison cell, etc).
    2) why the argument from degrees (viz “murderer” and “rapist”)? James says (2.10-13) “For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all. For He who said, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ also said, ‘Do not murder.’ Now if you do not commit adultery, but you do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so do as those who will be judged by the law of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to the one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.” (NKJV) Also Jesus (Mk 7.20-22) and Paul (passim Rom.) show that all sin is equal before God. Must we allow our fallen perspective and desire for recompense to dictate outcomes for others?
    3) The OT Covenant/Law that you wish to invoke (“who sheds man’s blood…” ) is seen to be the standard by which we are privileged to understand our inability to keep it. By this I believe Paul says (again, in Rom) that it matters not what our sins are, they can and are forgiven in Christ.
    4) key “value”? Speaking biblically and theologically, I don’t understand what that means. If we are speaking of the intrinsic worth of human life I can’t think of anything God values more highly. Hence the Incarnation, Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Ascension of the Son of Man, and the intended outcome of all human life, viz Sanctification/Theosis. Life is for life’s sake: and that is the “sake” for which Christ died. Christ died while we were yet His enemies and dead in our sin. And again, no sliding scale of degree.
    5) “…is accountable before God for that action” That’s right: we are ultimately accountable to the Lord. Lev 19.18 (“You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.” ) Dt 31.35 “Vengeance is mine… says the Lord.” (cf Rom 12.19 & Heb 10.19ff) And so to assume that accountability and cede it to anyone else is to impede the justice and judgment of God.
    6) I honestly don’t know what to do with government. The history of good and bad rulers and the systems that they have created over the centuries has been explored in so many ways. I think that only a government founded upon and directed by God and His agents can be trusted to fulfill what you’re suggesting be accomplished in your final three sentences. Everyday government is surely to be obeyed; but whoever said that the government was given that kind of ultimate authority? I really think that’s conceding far too much. Having said that, being Christian and honoring life also means that there are certain activities that Christians may not participate in (all things may be lawful, but not all things are good/helpful/beneficial-1Cor 6.12). The early Church forbad Christians from military service and there were many occupations that Christians couldn’t perform. This is true today. When I am called up to perform my civic duty and serve on a jury I gladly state that, as a Christian, I do not agree with the death penalty.
    I think the whole matter might be concluded with Paul’s admonition in Rom 12.21: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” That of course is the biblical version of “two wrongs don’t make a right.”
    Lastly, if one were to review the vast amount of literature on the subject, one would see that our “justice” system is fraught with error. Mistakes in judgment and sentencing are regular. When mere incarceration is at stake I will grant that this is tolerable and a necessary condition which we must put up with. However when the consequences are irreversible (as they are with the death penalty) then it becomes unacceptable.

  5. Robert Easter Says:

    Fr. David, I think where we diverge here is about “what we think ‘we’ is.” As the Church deals with individuals, and individual sin, we recognise that all sin is culpability before God, and that it is our calling as the Church to minister reconciliation to all, through the Cross, regardless. Also, that the mere act of breathing is a holier thing than the Image of God for which the breath is given.

    The State is also ordained of God (Rom. 13) and so is responsible to exercise its authority in a godly manner.

    As far as the State’s responsibility before the God who “ordains” it, there are, shall we say ethical guidelines which are not primarily dictated by mercy and forgiveness, but justice: the protection of the citizenry and the execution of vengeance on the evildoers for the good of Society both from the threat of repeated offenses and the vengeance of God against the society which condones the offense and protects the offender.

    So while in the Church we can say that all souls, whether they bear the guilt of child rape or pride of achievement, may be forgiven at the Cross we do not release the criminal to “go and sin some more,” or advocate that the State do so.

    As for the inept and corrupt in Government, well, whether we go with Rutherford or Wesley on that, the bottom line is going to be that “God rules over the affairs of men, and sets over them the basest of men.” Ijjits in Office is not a new thing, and Romans 13 was not penned during a Christian reign.

  6. dpc+ Says:

    Wow. This is tedious! (not boring, just long and difficult)

    As Christians we try and exercise whatever influence we can on the fallen rulers who have authority over us. However I don’t believe it is right for us to imagine that rulers and judges do what they do out of any sense of justice. My brother, a lawyer, has tried to help me see that courts and judges merely uphold the law–they can not dispense justice: that is not their job. Whether or not a law is just or correct is irrelevant. Since our lawmakers are not altruistic people whose sole purpose is the discernment of God’s will, we won’t see “justice” legislated except by accident.

    As to releasing rapists or murderers: I haven’t suggested that at all. Whether or not our penal system can or does rehabilitate criminals is beside the point of whether the state should have or exercise (those are two different things) the power to execute them. I whole heartedly believe that we should keep people locked up indefinitely (although I think they should be made to work on behalf of the community–but that’s another subject).

    As I began: a consistent ethic of life is about the very sanctity of the breath of God which has animated that creature who is created Imago Dei. A Consistent ethic of Life stipulates that human life is human life is human life whether in a wheel chair, a womb, a battlefield, on the street, in a hospital or nursing home bed, or a prison cell, and human life is holy whether it is the life of a politician, a priest, a pastor, someone with Down Syndrome, or AIDS, whether they are a liar, a thief, a smoker, an alcoholic, an adulterer, a rapist, or a murderer.

    Not wishing to put a period on the discussion, I merely state, as a Christian embracing a consistent ethic of life, that no one has the right to take the life of another. Furthermore, by definition, anyone wishing to embrace an ethic of life that is seamless and consistent may not support or endorse capital punishment.

  7. Robert Easter Says:

    In Ontario, where capital punishment is relegated to history pages with trial by combat and the rack, an unemployed man went into the city of Toronto with the two aims of killing as many Torontonians as possible and then living out the rest of his life in Government-sponsored ease. From a pragmatic standpoint this is more radical than unusual. It is not unusual for people to re-offend just to get back into the security of an ordered environment rather than deal with re-adjusting to the “free world.” Economically, the hard truth is that penitentiaries cannot be self-supporting unless the anti-slavery and labor laws are all re-written in a way to drive us all back to the Dark Ages. With over 1% of the US population currently behind bars I would offer that an increase in the number of “Life Without” sentences is hardly the best option for the good of Society.

    I really do believe that if God had seen long-term incarceration as a better option there would have been some mention of it in the Bible. The fact is that the human life is not limited to this visible temporality, and what God sanctifies is His, period. If God has sanctified the life of a murderer then we dare not argue the point.

  8. dpc+ Says:

    Here we wind up with some of the problems of argumentation. Situation ethics isn’t valid from a Christian world view. We know that ends don’t justify means–and vice versa. Therefore we must identify the characteristics of what a Christian world view looks like and then apply that to situations rather than take the aberrant example and attempt to extrapolate an ethic from it. And so, again, whatever the shortcomings of our penal code or penitentiary system, they have no place in a discussion of the death penalty. In other words: surely you’re not arguing that we sanction execution merely because we can’t figure out a way to correctly warehouse or punish offenders?

    Re your second paragraph: unless one takes up the (imho) unChristian perspective of double predestination, how can we not affirm that God has sanctified a life? Which is why I don’t understand how a Christian can be in favor of capital punishment…

  9. Robert Easter Says:

    Brother the “situation ethics” as I should have mentioned was more of an outworking of the scenario, not a justification per se of either. Rather more the indication than the cause.

    The sanctification question goes to the Hebrew use of the concept. Not only that saints are sanctified, but the word appears as being set apart. Tamar posed as one “set apart” as a prostitute, and God commanded Joshua that Jericho was “set apart (sanctified)” to Him lest anyone interfere with its destruction, even to the point of coveting any booty from the battle. In the Law, when God called for the death of, say, a rapist, then He was removing the option for clemency from the judges’ hands.

    What we are faced with now is the fact that the Church is not given government over this world. Jesus did not set aside any part of the moral Law, and while the civil Law as such is not then directly binding (since He has given us no civil authority to carry it out) we understand that there has been no general change in the human sin nature, the Image of God is still extant on the soul of each person, and God demands justice on the part, especially, of the weak and the helpless. To deny, or indefinitely postpone, justice is then to oppose God’s plan for righteous government.

    We read in the Old Testament of God bringing meteorological, economic, and military disasters on nations who refused to do judgment and who “accepted (protected?) the person of the wicked.” Do we expect special treatment for being America?

  10. dpc+ Says:

    Sorry to be so long in answering: such is the life of a priest.
    Here goes: I’m not sure the Tamar and Jericho references work. Perhaps I’m too dense to see 😉
    RE: “Jesus did not set aside any part of the moral Law” It was Jesus who said, [Mt 5.21,22] ” You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment.’ But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment.” He’s clearly not speaking about retributive justice on earth. He’s referencing my earlier claim that judgment is the Lord’s and is not to be assumed (faultily) by humans. Here’s more from Mt 5: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also…. You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the tax collectors do so? Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.”

    Also I think that it is fraught with danger to suggest the Church governing the world (not only the difficult historical lessons from Constantinople (during the Byzantine period) and Rome (the Roman Empire) but those communities which espouse such things (e.g., “Jehovah’s” Witnesses (sheesh!!!). To understand Old Testament and Eastern Orthodox anthropology is to see the problem writ large here in the West.

    Lastly: Please don’t read Marcionism into this part of my answer: but why are you hunkered down in the (admittedly many) examples from the OT? I think it is because in the history of Israel we have the benefit of a hermeneutic: Given enough time and enough distance we can discern a certain way in which we want to see how God works. That was the nature of the prophets’ role. Cause and effect: rewards and punishment. Sort of calvinistic. However, the New Testament offers a new paradigm, a different perspective in which we don’t live in a theocracy and we don’t have the benefit of all that time behind us. And so we have The Sermon on the Mount and the Beatitudes, and the High Priestly Prayer in John, and the lessons in sacrifice and love and mercy in Paul and James, and finally we read about the Lord Himself transforming Creation into a New Heaven and New Earth and the New Jerusalem proceeding from them.
    Again: I am not speaking of nations, I am speaking of the perspective of Christians. It is not unlike the wheat and the tares: Mt 13.27-30 “So the servants of the owner came and said to him, ‘Sir, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have tares?’ He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The servants said to him, ‘Do you want us then to go and gather them up?’ But he said, ‘No, lest while you gather up the tares you also uproot the wheat with them. ‘Let both grow together until the harvest, and at the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, “First gather together the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them, but gather the wheat into my barn.'”

  11. Robert Easter Says:

    Fr. David, One could read your last as to say that there should be no justice system, but that criminals should simply be encouraged to coexist as part of society!

    The first part, with Tamar and Jericho, is the use of the word, “qodosh.” The first use is what Judah saw Tamar to be, and then the Lord telling Joshua that Jericho was “qodosh” unto Him. If someone does what God says makes them “qodosh” and their lives forfeit, then it is Government’s duty as “ordained of God (Rom 13)” not to interfere with His sentence. A “live and let live” approach to this question is to refuse to give to God what is rightly His, and to become an accessory to the offense. Personal retribution is not the issue: The offense is against God, and God holds mankind accountable- the perpetrator and the judge. It’s not just the Church He holds accountable.


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