Capital punishment strikes me as fundamentally flawed. Killing a person to send the message that killing is wrong seems contradictory at best and hypocritical at worst. The fact that executions are pre-meditated, and corrections officials or private citizens are paid to carry them out, makes them seem all the more heinous. What goes through the mind of an executioner as he or she administers a lethal injection or activates the electric chair? Does he believe the condemned prisoner is a threat to society who deserves to die? Or does she see the humanity of someone who made a terrible mistake, often decades earlier, and who may no longer pose any threat to society?
Capital punishment has been abolished in most of the Western world. According to Wikipedia, only the United States and Belarus continue to practise capital punishment, and Latvia has reserved the death penalty for war time. By contrast, the death penalty is practised in 14 out of 54 African nations as well as 24 of the 55 Middle Eastern and Asian-Pacific states. And although the United Nations has called for a moratorium on the death penalty, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights does not mandate its complete abolition. Rather, it requires states that have not abolished the death penalty to restrict it to the “most serious crimes.”
In the Middle East and parts of Africa, adultery is often considered a “most serious crime,” punishable by death by stoning. These executions are especially troubling, not only because they are savage and barbaric, but also because the legitimacy of the allegations made against the accused and the fairness of their trials are often called into question.
By contrast, the United States tends to reserve capital punishment for murder. The story of Troy Davis, a Georgia man who was executed on September 21 despite maintaining his innocence, revived public debate about the death penalty. Davis was sentenced to death for the 1989 murder of a 27-year-old off-duty police officer. At the time of sentencing, he was 22. He spent the final 20 years of his life fighting both his conviction and his sentence. His execution date was set and postponed three times along the way. Unlike other death-row inmates who often have lengthy criminal records and a history of violent crime, Davis had only one prior conviction of carrying a concealed weapon. For that, he was fined $250. Despite multiple appeals, a constitutional challenge, widespread public support as well as the support of prominent international leaders such as Pope Benedict XVI, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, Davis’ conviction and sentence were upheld.
How should Christians respond to these situations? We cannot simply ignore crime in our communities. And not all accused are innocent. Too many people get caught up in a life of crime, committing increasingly dangerous and violent acts. Some of them are a genuine threat to the safety of others, whether to fellow criminals or innocent bystanders. In some cases, it can be very difficult to show compassion.
Salvation Army positional statements on capital punishment reflect the diversity of views and the complexity of our own spiritual heritage on this issue. While each and every territory affirms the belief in the sanctity of human life and the possibility of redemption, they do not universally condemn the death penalty. The Australian territories’ positional statement unequivocally asserts that “Salvationists do not support the death penalty.” By contrast, the Canada and Bermuda Territory and the United Kingdom Territory with the Republic of Ireland acknowledge that there are Salvationists who firmly believe in the state’s right to execute and the moral acceptability and deterrent effect of capital punishment.
How do we resolve this dilemma? The Salvation Army has resolved it by choosing not to advocate for the continuation or reinstatement of the death penalty and by continuing to minister to families of both victims and offenders.
Outside the Church, George Clooney may have resolved the dilemma best. Playing a presidential candidate in the movie The Ides of March, Clooney’s character gives the following answer when asked about his views on capital punishment and what he would do if someone killed his wife. “If I could get to him, I would find a way to kill him … I would commit a crime for which I would happily go to jail.” When asked, “Then why not let society do that?” Clooney’s character responds, “Because society is supposed to be better than the individual.”
Dani Shaw is a lawyer, a former political advisor to the prime minister and the federal minister of health, and a long-standing member/observer of The Salvation Army’s Social Issues Committee.