At a convention of ethicists a week ago, I attended an intriguing presentation about capital punishment. The interesting–and disturbing–part of it for me was the overview presented, by a legal expert, on the actual practice of putting prisoners to death. He offered documentation of the fact that things often go wrong in actual executions. The process does not go off as intended, and the results are gruesome. Furthermore, it sometimes happens that innocent persons are executed–the reality of this kind of situation is becoming increasingly apparent now that DNA tests are establishing the innocence of prisoners who have been incarcerated often for long periods of time. In addition, there are the undeniable facts of racism. The lecturer at the convention offered extremely disturbing accounts, for example, of African-Americans who were “represented” by court-appointed lawyers who slept during the trials in drunken stupors.
All of this convinces me that capital punishment as we practice it in the United States is a very bad thing. But I do not oppose capital punishment as such. My difficulty in aligning myself philosophically and theologically with the case often made against the very idea of capital punishment was once again evident for me when a theological ethicist stood to make a comment in the discussion period last week. The underlying problem on this subject in the Christian community, he said, is that we still often teach that the death of Christ on the Cross was, in theological terms, “a legal execution.” This is bad stuff, he said, and if we want to undercut the practice of capital punishment, we have to stop endorsing the idea that Christ died as as substitute for our sins.
That way of arguing scares me. We find that a classic doctrine is being applied in confused and abusive ways, so instead of trying to correct the confusions and the abuses we throw out the classic doctrine.
My own conviction is that the doctrine of the substitutionary atonement actually provides the solution. People do need to pay for their sins–and the wages of sin is death. The problem is that we can’t afford the payment. No murderer can atone for the sin he or she has committed. There is only one “legal execution” that fulfills the conditions for atonement. The rest of us have only one plea: “Nothing in my hands I bring, simply to the Cross I cling.” Putting a sinner to death for committing a murder is not overdoing it–it falls far short of satisfying the demands of justice.
If capital punishment as a legal practice is to make sense, then, it has to be on grounds of its effectiveness as a deterrent. Back in the days when there were many airline hijackings, my ethicist colleague and friend, the late Lew Smedes, argued that it would make good sense to announce that anyone who hijacks a plane, with the threat to kill crew and passengers if the stated demands are not met, faces capital punishment if apprehended. And then, Smedes argued, if a person is caught and clearly convicted of the crime, the government has to follow through on the threat.
That kind of approach still makes sense to me–particularly in cases of acts of terrorism. So I cannot simply rule out all cases of capital punishment as excessively cruel. But–if practiced at all–legal executions must be very rare occurrences. Our present practices are clearly out of hand. Obviously, the complexites are such that theology alone will not provide the solutions. But the issues at stake are such that they provide yet another reason why it is important for us to proclaim boldly that “Jesus paid it all!”