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October 21, 2011

Capital Punishment – Part 2

Fri, Oct 21. 2011

(continued from last week)

by The Rt. Rev’d C. Leopold Friday
Bishop of the Windward Islands

Love and a Spiritual Community

As Kenneth Cauthen states:

In such a community, Agape love, as Christians understand it, is unconditional and does not depend upon the merit of those to whom it is directed. A community founded on this principle would seek to balance individual concerns and development with a commitment to the common good.

What would happen in such a community to someone who committed acts of violence, brutality and murder? Clearly that person would be restrained- permanently if necessary-to protect the community. The purpose of the confinement, however, would not be punishment or revenge, but reconciliation. A spiritual community always holds out the hope of growth and redemption, even of its criminals. (Kenneth Cauthen)

This is so true to the words of our Lord “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” God’s justice toward his crucified Son does not consist in punishing his persecutors, but rather in saving and justifying them!

The case against Capital Punishment does not mean that there is no recourse for the victim. One must be careful not to miss the importance of human responsibility and merely focus on social, psychological and environmental issues and at the same time overlook the pain and loss of the victim’s family and relatives.

As Sehon Goodridge has said: “As a Christian, I find it difficult to advocate the practice of retribution, and certainly I must extend the assurance of God’s mercy, forgiveness and redemption. But I must also emphasise the necessity of the formation of character, the education of the conscience, and the acceptance of responsibilities, as persons are called to be human, moral agents and not reduced to involuntary robots.

“As moral beings we can transcend social, psychological, biological and environmental influences – society has a right to protect itself from those who willingly perpetrate homicide. We may have a lengthy debate about the method of such society’s self defence, but in the end we must agree that an increase in cases of murder cannot be accommodated. Due consideration must be given to the rights of the victims.” (Sehon Goodridge)

Excerpts from Pope John Paul 11 Encyclical Evangelium Vitae

There is a growing tendency, both in the Church and in civil society, to demand that the death penalty be applied in a very limited way or even that it be abolished completely. The problem must be viewed in the context of a system of penal justice ever more in line with human dignity and thus, in the end, with God’s plan for man and society.

The primary purpose of the punishment which society inflicts is “to redress the disorder caused by the offence”. Public authority must redress the violation of personal and social rights by imposing on the offender an adequate punishment for the crime, as a condition for the offender to regain the exercise of his or her freedom. In this way authority also fulfils the purpose of defending public order and ensuring people’s safety, while at the same time offering the offender an incentive and help to change his or her behaviour and be rehabilitated.

It is clear that, for these purposes to be achieved, the nature and extent of the punishment must be carefully evaluated and decided upon, and ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today, however, as a result of steady improvements in the organisation of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent.

Lambeth Conference 1988

Resolution 33: 3b Of the Lambeth Conference of 1988 Urges the Church to speak out against: all governments who practice capital punishment, and encourages them to find alternative ways of sentencing offenders so that the divine dignity of every human being is respected and yet justice is pursued;

A case in point – The Hanging of Saddam Hussein

The Vatican’s press office issued a statement, condemning the execution as “tragic.” The statement from Friar Federico Lombardi said the Catholic Church’s position on the death penalty had been confirmed many times.

“The execution of the guilty is not a path to reconstruct justice and to reconcile society. Indeed, there is a risk that, on the contrary, it may augment the spirit of revenge and sow seeds of new violence,” Lombardi said in the statement.

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, head of the Anglican Church, echoed that sentiment shortly after the execution. He told BBC radio that Hussein deserved punishment, but not the death penalty. “I think he deserves punishment and sharp and unequivocal punishment…. But I would say of him what I have to say about anyone who has committed even the most appalling crimes in this country, that I believe the death penalty effectively says there is no room for change and repentance,” Williams said.

Let South Africa Show the World How to Forgive

In South Africa, after the collapse of apartheid, there was the process of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, when perpetrators of some of the most gruesome atrocities were given amnesty in exchange for a full disclosure of the facts of the offence. Instead of revenge and retribution, this new nation chose to tread the difficult path of confession, forgiveness, and reconciliation.

“We were exhilarated as we heard people who had suffered grievously, who by rights should have been baying for the blood of their tormentors, utter words of forgiveness, reveal an extraordinary willingness to work for reconciliation, demonstrating magnanimity and nobility of spirit.” (Excerpt of a speech given by Archbishop Desmond Tutu- Knowledge of Reality Magazine 1996-2006)


The history of the Church shows that there have always been arguments for and against Capital Punishment. Actually, the Church has supported the death penalty. In many countries for several years the Church and State have worked together in the execution of Capital Punishment. The question is, can historical reality or precedence in this case be the yardstick by which we determine whether capital Punishment be upheld?

In our modern society we have means of protecting the society from those who have committed heinous crimes. Although in previous times people of faith have employed capital punishment, today we have the ability to realise better the principles of mercy, forgiveness and unconditional love for all people as presented in the Hebrew Scriptures by the Prophet Ezekiel: “As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live; turn back from your evil ways.” (Ez. 33:11) One may argue that the Church in history has supported slavery and apartheid but these are not used as measurements with regard to the present non-acceptance of both. It is important for us to consider the gospel imperative of love, mercy and forgiveness, the sanctity of human life and whether the state has the authority to terminate human life. Is there a point at which one falls beyond God’s grace, mercy and redemption?


RELATED: Part one of this article