Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Christians and the Death Penalty

If you haven't read it yet, Joseph Bottum's piece on capital punishment in First Things is exceptional.

Bottum makes a series of complicated, important arguments about the death penalty, and how Christians should understand it, but the most interesting is this one:
a state has a responsibility to enforce positive law and exact punishment. This is true even in the case of victimless crimes, and it is perhaps particularly true in the case of crimes with victims. All political theories note that ancient legal systems began with the outlawing of private revenge, but the state does not thereby become a sort of hired agent or substitute avenger. That is what a theory of civil harms is for, and such torts are addressed not in criminal but civil courts, where the plaintiff, not the government, collects the monetary damages. Genuine crimes, in a modern setting, are instead committed against society and its laws—just as, in medieval England, all crimes were crimes against the king. In strict legal theory, the victims are incidental; the entire body politic is injured by a crime, and the social disorder of that crime is what a government’s criminal-justice system must address.

Sometimes this requires educating the public about the wrongness of the crime. Often it aims at rehabili tating the criminal. Always it must keep the central promise of rightly operating government: the pledge that law-breakers will prosper less than law-abiders. And, again, under certain extreme circumstances, these legitimate purposes of social justice could require the death of criminals.

In other words, both a government’s right of self-defense and its duty to preserve the normal justice of the social order can potentially issue in executions. But neither of these gives the state a license to attempt either revenge or the high justice implied in the story of Michael Ross. Capital punishment may occasionally be necessary in a modern democracy, but it is never right, for the death penalty is not in a line with other punishments. A five-year sentence and a twenty-year sentence, even a life sentence, are related as more or less severe forms of imprisonment. Execution belongs to another order of punishment.

Indeed, most arguments for the essential justice of the death penalty admit this point—and even insist upon it. If murder is not like other crimes, if the spilling of innocent blood is uniquely horrifying, then the punishment of death, as the spilling of guilty blood, must also belong to a higher species of justice: not simply a more extreme version of other punishments that seek to correct social disorders, but an entirely different thing that aims at restoring the universe and matching a deadly crime with a similarly deadly punishment.

Under any Christian understanding of political theory, where does the legal system of a modern demo cracy gain authority to act on this high level? Cer tainly, many different kinds of governments over many centuries have claimed and exercised the power of life and death. But history is no explanation for why the State of Connecticut should continue to have, in this one case, a license to break free from the social aims of normal justice and pursue closure for a story of high, cosmic justice.

This is just one strand of Bottum's very elegant and persuasive argument; you'll be doing yourself a disservice if you don't hunker down for the full ride.

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