Last week, I read a chilling article from The Atlantic titled The Cruel and Unusual Execution of Clayton Lockett. The author, Jeffrey Stern, in one of the best written I’ve ever read (on any topic), shares just how corrupt and unethical capital punishment is in this country. Corruption and ineptitude that led to prisoners being administered inadequate and untested cocktails of drugs by unqualified personnel, culminating in the torturous executions of multiple inmates.
The Supreme Court is currently ruling on a case involving the botched executions of three inmates in Oklahoma, including Clayton Lockett. Undeterred from their blood lust, Republican lawmakers in Oklahoma passed a law in April allowing for execution by gas chamber just in case the Supreme Court rules that lethal injections are unconstitutional. That’s right, in a post-holocaust world, Conservative politicians want to execute people in gas chambers. It should cause us serious alarm when the champions of capital punishment tend to be “pro-life” Christian Conservatives with 76% of Republicans favoring the death penalty for convicted murderers.
There is no adequate justification or defense of the death penalty in the United States today – especially if one is calling themselves a Christian. The reasons are numerous, not only in variety but in kind – ethical, theological, and economic arguments for the abolition of capital punishment are legion.
Pragmatically, it’s a fact that death row inmates cost states more than those serving life sentences, in some cases three times as much. Additionally, there’s no evidence that the death penalty actually deters crime. Furthermore, we are killing hundreds of innocent people because 4% of those on death row are likely innocent, this fact alone should be enough for to stop us from implementing the irrevocable punishment. And if these facts are convincing enough then we must consider that 3-7% of executions are botched with inmates screaming in agony as their given unreliable drugs prescribed, not by a doctor, but by the prison’s warden or attorney.
The sheer evil and stupidity of capital punishment is even more evident for Catholics living in the United States. Quoting Saint John Paul II’s encyclical Evangelium Vitae, the Catechism states that while the teaching of the Church does not outright prohibit the death penalty, but only if there are no other means to protect innocent people from violent criminals. The Catechism continues:
If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means…Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm – without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself – the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity “are very rare, if not practically nonexistent” (CCC 2267).
In other words, the only way that a Catholic in the US can licitly support capital punishment, no matter how heinous the crime, is if it can be proved that there are no other means to protect society from the convicted criminal. Otherwise one would be contradicting the Catechism, St. John Paul II, and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The death penalty, like abortion, is an issue where Catholics, along with other reasonable people, are blinded by self-interest. In the case of abortion we can’t see past the inconvenience of having a baby and the restriction that pregnancy puts on our sexual preferences and practices. Likewise, we are blinded to the evil of capital punishment by our desire for vengeance and the “need” to see bad men suffer. Like the prophet Jonah who lamented over God sparing the city of Nineveh, we have such a desire to see the wicked suffer that we make viewing areas for executions.
So, when confronted with a convicted murderer and terrorist like Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Boston Marathon bomber, do we fall blindly into lockstep with the jury and all who wish to see Nineveh burn for it’s crimes? Or do we look on this man with the eyes of Christ?
Then the king will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.”(Matthew 25:34-36)
Our Lord explicitly identifies himself with the terrorist, thief, murderer, rapist – thus we are commanded to look at the incarcerated and see the face of Christ. How does a Christian respond to the evil of the Boston Marathon bombings? I think the Jesuit priest, Fr. James Martin, said it well in a recent Facebook post:
You don’t have to feel much pity for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. I don’t. But that doesn’t mean that his life is not sacred. And the more I live as a Christian, the more I am convinced of this truth: every human life is utterly sacred.
Tonight let us pray for the victims of the Boston bombings, both living and dead; for those who mourn the dead and comfort those who were so terribly injured; and also, difficult as it may be, but as Jesus commands us when he asks us explicitly to pray for our enemies, for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.
Linked sources and further reading:
- The Cruel and Unusual Execution of Clayton Lockett
- Lethal injection case exposes U.S. top court’s death penalty divide
- The Trouble with Oklahoma’s New Execution Technique
- Americans’ Support for Death Penalty Stable
- The slow death of the death penalty
- 1 In 25 Death Sentence Prisoners Is Likely Innocent, Study Finds
- 7 Things You Should Know About The Death Penalty, Even If You Support It
- Evangelium vitae
- Catechism of the Catholic Church
- Having the wrong debate about the boston marathon bomber
- Death penalty / Capital punishment
- Fr. James Martin’s Facebook Page
- Killing Capital Punishment
- Dzokhar Tsarnaev Gets the Death Penalty
- There’s still no evidence that executions deter criminals
Paul Fahey is a husband, father, and the Director of Religious Education in small town USA. He’s studied just enough Theology to get him into trouble. Click here to see his other posts for The Porch.