I just spent an interesting hour talking with a Chinese magazine journalist about capital punishment, which apparently is a topic of debate in China. The journalist wanted to know about deterrence, and I said pretty much what I’ve said before: (1) there’s almost certainly some effect; (2) it might be offset by some people using the criminal justice system to carry out their suicide; (3) the quantitative stuff is inconclusive, because having the law is one thing and carrying it out is another; (4) US results, if we had them, might or might not tell us anything about China; (5) the death penalty for drug dealing is an especially bad idea because deterred and executed drug dealers are replaced; (6) the important effect of the death penalty is its effect (mostly noxious in my view) on the personnel of the criminal justice system, as illustrated by the fact that “death-qualified” juries are much more likely to convict. (Apparently the Taiwanese justice minister just quit because she developed scruples about signing death warrants; her replacement is probably more inclined toward being “tough on crime.”)
Having said all, that, I then said that the empirical and practical questions are properly secondary to the moral questions: whether you think execution is right shouldn’t depend all that strongly on whether you think it works. That’s when the conversation got interesting, and left me with a question I hope some reader can answer.
The reporter wanted to know why Europe didn’t have the death penalty while the U.S. and most of East Asia has it. Part of the U.S./Europe answer is that a Westminster system gives well-educated civil servants more power, and the well-educated mostly dislike capital punishment. I don’t have a clue about the Europe/Asia answer.
One obvious difference that might have some explanatory power is Christianity v. the Confucian tradition. Within the Christian world-view, an execution could be seen either as an arrogation of a divine function or as an expression of despair about the possibility that the offender might reform and be saved. And the calculation that sacrifices one life to save other lives might be less congenial to Christian than to Confucian ethics.
Moreover, there is an overwhelmingly powerful Christian text that seems to me to come down flatly against any execution whatever: the Woman Taken in Adultery.
Here’s the text, from John 8:1-11. Below is the King James Version, but there don’t seem to be major disagreements among the translations.
Jesus went unto the mount of Olives.
And early in the morning he came again into the temple, and all the people came unto him; and he sat down, and taught them.
And the scribes and Pharisees brought unto him a woman taken in adultery; and when they had set her in the midst,
They say unto him, Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act.
Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou?
This they said, tempting him, that they might have to accuse him. But Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not.
So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.
And again he stooped down, and wrote on the ground.
And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst.
When Jesus had lifted up himself, and saw none but the woman, he said unto her, Woman, where are those thine accusers? hath no man condemned thee?
She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.
Several things stand out about this passage as I read it. Jesus forgoes the formula he uses for healing, “Your sins are forgiven.” And he clearly implies that the woman was guilty of the charge. Nor does he suggest that the charge is a minor one.
Most of all, his gesture takes the form of an argument. He in effect assumes that only one without sin is justified in carrying out an execution. He carries out the same trick the rabbis of the Talmudic period carried out several times: making one of the primitive traditions encoded in the Torah into a dead letter by placing an insuperable barrier in the way of its being carried out. (Cf. the treatment of the Stubborn and Rebellious Child in Deut. 12:18-23 and in Tractate Sanhedrin 18:8-11).
So it appears to me that Christians have it on the Highest Authority that executions are not to be carried out by human beings.
But of course for most of their history most of the various Christian churches had no objection to executions, and most contemporary Christians do not oppose capital punishment. The Catholic Church has been drifting toward death-penalty abolitionism for years, but as far as I know has never condemned the practice outright, as Jesus seems to do in the case of the adulteress. Some liberal Protestants oppose it, but the churches most inclined to think the Bible inerrant are least likely to follow what reads to me like the Biblical precept in this regard.
The reporter asked me what death-penalty-supporting Christians had to say on this point. I speculated that not carrying out executions, like loving your enemies and turning the other cheek and not worrying about material possessions, might be regarded as Counsels of Perfection rather than everyday precepts. But since I’m not a Christian, and not well-versed in the tradition, that speculation isn’t worth much.
So here’s my bleg: What’s the accepted answer to the question “Doesn’t John 8:1-11 forbid capital punishment?” This is a sincere bleg, not an invitation to a festival of Christianity-bashing or to one more debate about capital punishment, so please don’t respond unless you’re either a Christian yourself or an expert on the tradition. If you can quote sources, so much the better.