Death and the state

  • Sumo

The execution of eight people in Indonesia today, including Australians Chan and Sukumaran, makes us all ask about capital punishment.

The question is straightforward : Is it right for a nation to kill people?

The answer is less easy. Here are some of my thoughts.

We agree with state death
Firstly, we have to acknowledge that we all agree with state-authorised death. Even in Australia, with no judicial death penalty, we train police and defence forces in use of lethal weapons. Therefore we say that these guns can have legitimate use.

This reflect what Paul wrote about the authorities having good reason to bear ‘a sword’ (Romans 13:4). Romans 13 shows that state authority is real, even to the point of death.

Capital punishment for sin
Romans 13 also indicates the reason that would justify capital punishment: doing evil. God’s appointment of rulers (even when they do not acknowledge him) is to punish wrongdoers (see also 1 Peter 2:13-14). Thus, even if a ruler abhors the term ‘sin’, that ruler’s task is to punish sin.

This is a significant matter: there’s no room for killing in the name of political expedience, or execution for minor offence. If capital punishment is in place, it can only be justified by being a punishment for significant evil. Genesis 9:5-6 indicate that murder, for instance, is such an offence because of its double attack: on a person, and on God because that person is God’s image.

Capital punishment as sin
But a danger with state authority is that it also is stained with sin. The apparatus of justice and death are affected. The people involved in writing and practising law are sinful. So there is the great danger of injustice or of incompetence.

We recognise the injustice of Naboth’s execution because it’s too familiar from our world. In 1 Kings 21 Ahab ‘legally’ stole Naboth’s vineyard when two witnesses (the right amount) accused Naboth of treason (a serious crime) – but it was an atrocious injustice which provoked strong words of judgement from God.

Capital punishment can so easily be sin, rather than be against sin.

Sin and mercy
For the Christian, also, there is constant awareness of experiencing mercy. We who rebelled against the giver of life deserve to have life removed from us – we’ve earned death (Romans 6:23). But we were given life!

Although the state is not church, or a Christian institution, I think that Christians have every reason to make mercy appear in the way our states run. Especially in rich nations like Australia we have opportunity, I believe, to endure some extra financial burden as we mercifully refrain from executions.

My conclusion
I dislike the one-word summary people often use for their position on the death penalty: FOR/AGAINST. One word, either way, seems to over-simplify. So I have these concluding points for what I (currently) think, I hope you will engage to help me think even better!

  • States have authority, even to cause death
  • We need to understand capital punishment in relation to sin: the sin of criminal activity, and sin in the process of punishment
  • I believe every state should aspire to be a place of increasing mercy. We should long to have no capital punishment, while never downplaying the seriousness of crime