The morality of capital punishment

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Akilah Holder is an author and social commentator who resides in Trinidad and Tobago. She is a former journalist and a former adjunct lecturer of political science. She also has a blog which can be read at akilahholder.blogspot.com

By Akilah Holder

The abduction and murder of 23-year-old Andrea Bharatt earlier this year have reignited discussions on the death penalty in Trinidad and Tobago, with Leela Ramdeen of the Catholic Commission for Social Justice admonishing against it. Her views were outlined in a column she did for the Trinidad Newsday earlier this month. One of Ramdeen’s assertions is that the death penalty is immoral; however, Ramdeen and her supporters are misguided, for the Bible sanctions the death penalty.

Just to be clear, capital punishment remains on the books in Trinidad and Tobago, but because cases move through the system so slowly, it doesn’t get carried out because of a privy council ruling some years ago. With the nation’s law of capital punishment once again an issue, as the Privy Council is set to rule, if it should be mandatory or not. This is a good moment in Trinidad and Tobago to discuss the morality of it, for the main arguments against it – hang on the question of whether it is right or wrong.

Over the years, several lobby groups have called for an end to capital punishment worldwide, with the Catholic church being one of the more vocal groups on the matter. In fact, according to a 2018 bbc.com article, Pope Francis changed the teachings of catholicism “to oppose the death penalty in all circumstances.” The Pope finds support among some Christians of other denominations who feel that it goes against the sanctity of life, amounts to vengeance and therefore contravenes the word of God.

The Pope and his supporters find more support from international human rights organizations such as Amnesty International whose explanation for its stand against capital punishment on its website reads: “The penalty is the ultimate cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment.” It continues that it “opposes the death penalty in all cases without exception … “Its concerns mirror those of Christian advocates for an end to capital punishment.

Others who agree with the Christian camp on the issue, like CNN legal analyst, Elliott Williams in a 2020 article on CNN.com argues, “No process that is so dependent on both human biases and emotions ought to play such an outsized role in how we administer justice… ” In a nutshell, capital punishment is considered wrong because it is inhumane and unfair to the accused.

I would like to submit that these perspectives are wrong because they do not take the requirements of justice into mind. The justice meted out for any crime has to be proportionate to the crime. Put another way, punishment for any crime has to be just. A close study of laws in the Old Testament, reveals that the punishment for a crime was always proportionate to the crime.

Exodus 21:23 to 25 establishes the principle of just punishment. It reads, “… if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.” In other words, the punishment was in exchange for something of similar value.

Therefore, as stated in Exodus 21:12 to 14, if a man committed manslaughter, God instructed that he be sent to a sanctuary city so that the victim (s) family could not harm him. But in the case of premeditated murder, the aggressor had to be killed. Thus, the punishment for a crime matching the crime is part of justice by God’s standards.

A look at a couple of Bible verses in the new testament will help give credence to my argument.

Romans 13:4, for example, states: “For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.”

If capital punishment were wrong, why would the apostle Paul, make such a statement?  Romans 13 is dedicated to urging respect for the government because it is established by God for the well being of man (of course, if a government behaves contrary to how it should behave, it cannot be respected).

In Acts 25:11, Paul, while speaking to the Jews, said: “I am now standing before Caesar’s court, where I ought to be tried. I have not done any wrong to the Jews, as you yourself know very well. If, however, I am guilty of doing anything deserving death, I do not refuse to die.” Paul was getting ready to be tried before Festus.

This is another verse in the New Testament, and it confirms that where justice is concerned, capital punishment is necessary for certain crimes. Paul, in this verse, says he should be put to death if he has done anything deserving of death. The word deserving confirms that even in the new testament, justice continues to demand that the punishment suits the crime. God’s view on the death penalty, therefore, did not go out with the Old Testament.

How then, do we interpret the Biblical admonishing by Jesus to dismiss the Lex talionis of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth? Personal forgiveness. God meant for the individual to not take justice into his own hands, forgive his/her aggressor, and leave it to the courts. Indeed, certain laws in the Old Testament were given specifically for the nation of Israel for reasons too vast to discuss here. However, certain laws remain the same, and one is the law of just punishment.

You see, Bible verses cannot be taken out of context or understood in isolation from the rest of the Bible. That will only lead to chaos and confusion, and it has. A careful reading of it confirms that God doesn’t shun capital punishment or see it as a sin.  When it comes to premeditated murder, he’s for it.

And significantly, forgiveness doesn’t mean you do not suffer the consequences of your actions. God instructs us to forgive and is always ready to forgive us, but you will and must suffer the consequences of your actions.

Given the above, any Christian who asserts that capital punishment goes against God’s word is wrong and has a flawed understanding of the Bible and justice. Moreover, failure to mete out just punishments by nations is an indictment on those nations and a failure on their part to uphold what is right.

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