Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

A Christian Case Against the Death Penalty: Prologue

In March, I reported on the new life and momentum that the anti-death penalty movement has found in the U.S.  This led one reader to want to debate the morality of capital punishment directly.  I simply did not have the time for such a debate then, but promised to have such a thread as soon as possible.  That time is now.  In this post, I will outline the shape of the case I will make in a series of posts.

I have written numerous articles on the death penalty since 1985.  Many of these articles have been published in book-length collections and symposia.  I will draw on those earlier works and may site my own writings as well as others.

First, since I assume that pacifist Christians already oppose the death penalty, and already read Scripture from that perspective, I will, instead, argue a case from a non-pacifist perspective.  I opposed the death penalty since my early teens, long before I became convinced that Christians must be pacifists and quit the U.S. army as a conscientious objector.  So the case I will argue will assume that lethal self-defense is a moral option.

I will begin by examining the biblical texts that are most often used (by both sides) in the intra-Christian debates over the death penalty.  Unless one is already is a pacifist and reads Scripture from such a hermeneutical perspective, I do not think that the biblical case the death penalty is open and shut.  My claim is (slightly) more modest:  that the biblical narratives should bias Christians against the death penalty.  That is, Christians, being shaped in the biblical narratives, should be suspicious of the moral claims of the death penalty.  The burden-of-proof, for biblical Christians, should be on those who would make a moral argument for the death penalty.  (Thus, I call this series “A Christian Case Against the Death Penalty,” and not The Christian Case Against the Death Penalty.  I do not assume there is only one way of arguing for or against the death penalty.)  I will also examine several Christian practices that should re-shape the debate over the death penalty among U.S. Christians.

I will then examine the common public moral arguments for and and against the death penalty.  I will argue that the moral case for the death penalty falls short and that the moral case for abolishing the death penalty is stronger and more compelling. 

I will then argue for alternatives to the death penalty that take the concerns of pro-death penalty advocates seriously.

Throughout the series, I will call attention to the dimensions of moral discernment noted in that series

I am not a lawyer, but legal reasoning bears many similarities to moral reasoning.  As an epilogue, I will briefly examine the case that the death penalty is unconstitutional based on the 8th Amendment to the U.S.  Constitution’s ban on “cruel and unusual punishment.”

I hope readers will find this conversation informative and stimulating.


May 13, 2009 - Posted by | death penalty, ethics, human rights., moral discernment

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