Saddam’s Execution: Is It Justified

Saddam’s Execution: Is It Justified

I saw the news channels’ tape of Saddam Hussein’s execution, and I have to confess that I also sought out the grainy clandestine online version, with the shuffling and shouting. Brian McLaren’s comment captures my response exactly. It is hard not to “feel dirty” about witnessing the spectacle.

But I must also confess that I have not been able simply to join the chorus of Christian leaders and groups who have firmly condemned the execution. This has to do in part with the fact that I find it difficult to line up with standard positions on capital punishment. Basically, I oppose capital punishment, but for reasons that differ from those of most other Christian opponents. I really do believe that people who commit terrible crimes deserve the worst sort of punishment. For me, it isn’t that putting people to death is too severe–it is not severe enough.

I was in a meeting the other day where we sang an oldie that I have not sung in years, “Rock of Ages.” These words from that hymn fit my theology perfectly: “Could my zeal no respite know, could my tears forever flow, all for sin could not atone, thou must save and thou alone!” Even being put to death cannot satisfy the demands of God’s justice. I can do nothing to atone for my own sins, and neither could Saddam Hussein. In short, it isn’t that capital punishment is too much. It is not enough. In being put to death, Saddam did not “pay the debt” for his crimes.

This gets reinforced for me by adding another theological point: the fact of our finitude. We are not God, and it is easy for us to make mistakes. This is all too obvious in the history of actual executions. Innocent people have been put to death, and guilty people have gone free.

Having said all of that, I have to admit also that I continue to have some ambivalence about the execution of Saddam. There are some people whose crimes are so horrible that I am inclined to think that the world is better off without their continuing presence.

Suppose, for example, that Hitler had survived and been imprisoned for these many decades. His very presence, I suspect, would have created a more energetic “neo-Nazi” craziness that what we have in fact had. And the fact that he was still alive would, I also suspect, have caused even more intense grief and despair than what Holocaust survivors and the kinfolk of Holocaust victims have in fact experienced. For such people, a world without Hitler is much better than a world in which Hitler–however secure his captivity–is still a living presence.

I suspect that similar thoughts can be raised about Saddam. He did unimaginably evil things to thousands of people. They deserve to have a sense of closure in dealing with these horrors.

To be sure, none of that may be compelling enough to justify his execution. All I want to suggest is that these thoughts–about the impact of his death on folks who have suffered in terrible ways because of his evil deeds–these thoughts are not morally or theologically off-the-wall. Yes, Brian McLaren’s point fits my experience: I feel dirty about what I saw in the tapes of Saddam’s final moments. But I have to admit it: I am glad–for the sake of thousands of people who suffered at his hands–that he is gone.


  1. Dr. Mouw,

    Your amivalence mirrors my own. I do not condone violence for any purpose, and I cannot help but think that in an ideal Christian society we would make an effort to evangelize and re-educate even the worst of felons. At the same time, your point about Hitler is well-taken. I am reminded of Napoleon, who, though he was exiled to an island fortress, nevertheless served to ignite the fires of revolution simply by being alive.

    I noticed you have not blogged about Mormonism yet. I would very much enjoy reading some of your thoughts on that subject. Blessings,


    Comment by Christopher Smith — January 9, 2007 @ 12:12 pm

  2. A good article, one that rings true with principles I share.

    I also “feel dirty” when I see his image bombarding the Internet. I can’t help but think I am a part of it all, somehow. Here, we have a man who did some despicable things to humanity, things so terrible that a large number of people judged it would be better for him to die than to live, things so terrible that his death caused rejoicing in the streets in anticipation of a better world.

    This situation involves almost every part of the falleness of man: judgment, vengeance, pride…so much sin is present and flowing that it causes one who percieves it to “feel dirty” themselves.

    I am at a loss. I am often found shaking me head at the news, feeling pity for a world so lost. Then I am struck with the truth: I live in this world. I participate in it’s practices. I am just as guilty as the man who hangs from the gallows. All I can do is request mercy from a God who’s face is shining, from whom sin must recoil, and in the light of an execution, works His will to provide grace.

    Comment by Jeff — January 9, 2007 @ 12:33 pm

  3. You may be right on the Hitler point, then again, you might be wrong. A leader that is put to death can sometimes be more dangerous dead than alive. I don’t want to compare Husseins life to that of Che, but would he still be portrayed as a young powerful role model if he was alive today?

    Hitler wasn’t executed – and that might be an important difference. He took his own life as a coward, and let the rest of the nation wake up to face the consequences of his leadership. He just wasn’t marture material, no matter how hard you try.

    My view of the death penalty is based on the fact that I would not be able to kill. I can´t find justification for it in scripture. I find plenty that would allow me to sacrifice my own, but not anyone elses. When it comes to an execution, I know that the Bible might allow for a state to take life, but in the end there will be a person like me holding the gun, the needle or noose. I can’t demand from that person to carry out what I couldn’t.

    Comment by Pastor Astor — January 9, 2007 @ 12:53 pm

  4. Humanity is surely better off without Saddam, but humanity may not be better off for putting him to death. Hence I share the ambivalence.

    Speaking from a social perspective, Saddam committed crimes that damaged his society so deeply that it can be said he rendered himself unfit to be a part of it anymore, even if his remaining existence might have been in a prison cell. For such a man, no punishment short of death seems sufficient.

    From a theological perspective, it is difficult to justify executing anyone. In addition, the act of executing Saddam is jarring to the human soul because we are simply not made for such things.

    Although society may have done the right thing (that’s highly debatable), it has left a scar on all of us (that’s much less debatable).

    Comment by David B — January 9, 2007 @ 9:44 pm

  5. Precisely because this “justice” falls short of God’s justice, it is “injustice.” I don’t feel good for the victims of Saddam’s regime if this execution in some way “redeems” what he did. This would only perpetuate the myth of redemptive violence. It also allows us Americans to some how assume we don’t commit similar attrocities around the world. Is our violence and killing others more “just” than the violence of other regimes? Is it possible the violence we perpetuate is just more hidden (though not to the rest of the world). I fear celebrating this sort of execution leads us farther from embracing our enemy and futher into excluding them, both of which Jesus taught against.

    Bottom line is that if we’re Jesus followers we are to visibly bear witness to another story, not a story that begets violence, but one that reconciles, even at great cost. For we testify to the almight God who did not enact violence upon us, but instead absorbed the whole violence of the world on a cross. Ironically the chief executionary symbol of the Roman empire.

    Does Jesus’ execution perhaps show forth a divine NO, for future executions?

    Comment by Sam — January 10, 2007 @ 3:02 pm

  6. You’re in good stead. While Pope Benedict XVI condemned the execution, the Catechism of the Catholic Church offers a more nuanced approach than is often attributed to the Catholic Church. According to the Catechism, bloodless means of punishment are not required if insufficient “to defend human lives” and “to protect public order and the safety of persons” (paragraph 2267).

    Comment by Darrin Rodgers — January 13, 2007 @ 5:16 pm

  7. I must say I’m disappointed in the tenor of this page. Starting with Mr. Mouw’s confused take on the death penalty as not severe enough… What does Mr. Mouw dream of, what would be “severe enough”? Torture, matching pain for pain of Saddam’s atrocities? Death not severe enough? Do we not believe in God’s justice? If Saddam’s fate is hell, well, let’s stipulate that’s severe enough…if Saddam’s fate is heaven, then it will be “as one escaping through flames”, and I trust in Jesus’ ability to pay for even Saddam’s sins, even the state needn’t concern itself with severity, and the point is moot.

    Many of the balance of the postings seem to both miss a key point (the state executes, not the church), and to lack backbone. Listen to the undebatables: Saddam commited crimes against humanity; the laws of his jurisdiction dictate death as punishment; to deviate from the death penalty when prescribed would further undermine the rule of law. (Until such law is changed, it must be upheld, at the very least, by the STATE that proclaims the law).

    Comment by Guy H — January 16, 2007 @ 2:09 pm

  8. I too watched the cellphone video posted on the internet. This is now the shameful image of America in the eyes of those who already hate us for the culture that threatens their way of life. To say that Hussein’s execution was not enough is to speak from our cultural need for violence, war, and revenge. Of course it is not enough. That is what the life, death, and resurrection of Christ is about. For it will never be enough — we can fight wars, execute dictators, rail against evil and none of it will be enough.

    The other way, the way of Jesus, is to proclaim God’s new kingdom. A kingdom of love, not violence. A kingdom not of this world, but present now in this world. A kingdom whose values anger those who want all the dictators killed, all the torturers tortured for that is what reasonable people must think. A church member recently told me that in the “real world” we have to fight wars, we have to kill dictators. Maybe in ceasar’s world, but this is not ceasar’s world. This is my Father’s world, but we keep wrenching it from Him with our capitulation to the cultural values of our society. Which is why saying “Jesus is Lord” is still hard and costly.

    Comment by Chuck Warnock — January 25, 2007 @ 7:11 pm

  9. I always wonder what would Jesus have done and/or recommended if he were conculted by the Iraqi government or the world court for an opinion as to what to do with people like Sadam, with all the atrocities that he undeniably committed?

    I remember what a Fuller professor used to say in our classes that, I paraphrase, Christians have right to forgive and love, but have no right to hate. Again, I wonder whether an excecution demonstrates a right to forgive and love or a right to hate? As people of the Kingdom, we must insist on these rights (that we have every right to love and forgive and no right to hate)until they become the rights of all peoples in all of God’s creation.

    Comment by Sunday A. — March 7, 2007 @ 9:06 am

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