On Guido Fawkes' e-petition for the restoration of capital punishment
It has been said by a number of recent prime ministers that the British government does not support the use of the death penalty, and that the UK advocates an end to the death penalty worldwide, regardless of the individual or the crime. Yet the last Labour government found itself simultaneously holding mutually-exclusive positions when foreign secretary Margaret Beckett greeted the execution of Saddam Hussein with these words:
I welcome the fact that Saddam Hussein has been tried by an Iraqi court for at least some of the appalling crimes he committed against the Iraqi people. He has now been held to account. We have made our position very clear to the Iraqi authorities, but we respect their decision as that of a sovereign nation.It is a curious moral philosophy which can simultaneously welcome the fact that the Iraqi dictator and his henchmen have ‘now been held to account’ whilst insisting that the United Kingdom, along with the rest of the European Union, opposes the death penalty in all circumstances.
Now that the Government has decided to move ahead with government-by-petition (the perils of which His Grace expounded 18 months ago), the prophesied front-runners (EU referendum and capital punishment) are making significant head way. The Express is leading on the EU, and Guido Fawkes is leading the call for the restoration of capital punishment. Both will easily garner the requisite 100,000 votes. But so would a petition calling for the establishment of sharia law, or another calling for a ban on mosque building. It will be for an élite committee of MPs to determine which debates will actually be permitted (those which may be deemed to cause ‘offence’ will not), and the criteria by which they will be assessed appears to be secret.
His Grace’s blog, being concerned with that which is religio-political, will examine the theology of capital punishment and then seek to place it in the present socio-political context: that is to say His Grace will consider Guido’s e-petition theologically, politically and sociologically, and then he will give his judgement.
Theologically, Scripture is replete with vast sections which may be used to justify the power of the state to enact a sentence of death. The Old Testament is unequivocal in advocating the death penalty for certain crimes (eg Gen 9:6; Ex 21:12; 22:19; Lev 20:10, 13; Deut 22:24), and those people who quote ‘Thou shalt not kill’ (Ex 20:13) in an attempt to neuter the power of the state have no understanding of the context, purposes and functions of the Law. But the New Testament is frequently misquoted on this subject, with all manner of appeals to mercy overriding justice, not least because Jesus himself refused to condemn a woman caught in adultery (Jn 8:1-11). Those who seek to find scriptural support for the abolition of the death penalty also cite the Lord’s command not to judge others (Mt 7:1), and the fact that he ordered Simon Peter to put away his sword (Jn 18:10f). Taken to their logical conclusions, such interpretations would seek to abolish all courts of law and prohibit war in all circumstances. Those who are properly concerned with biblical exegesis will know that these scriptures are concerned with such matters as hypocrisy and assault: Jesus upheld the Mosaic law as it related to capital punishment (Mt 5:18-22).
St Paul makes it clear that secular rulers have the responsibility to protect those in their charge, and this involves punishing those who act unjustly. When a judge or magistrate inflicts punishment on a condemned person, he or she is not acting on his or her own behalf, but executing God’s own judgement. There is a distinction between afflicting or harming another and avenging, at God’s command, those who themselves inflict harm on others.
Romans 13:4 makes it clear that the secular ruler may use the sword: the ruler who keeps it sheathed while the wicked murder and massacre is guilty of injustice and of dishonouring God who appointed him or her to an office of authority. If it is justifiable to use the sword to defend one’s territory from outside aggression, how can it be unjustifiable not to use it to eradicate seditious intent from within? Of course, like the ‘Just War’, it must be a last resort and not entered into lightly: mercy must always be a consideration. But it is an idolatrous misreading of the NT to assert pacifism in all contexts, or to appeal to the universal ‘sanctity of human life’ of those who have no regard for the concept themselves.
In Romans, Paul reminds us of the civil courts’ eschatological role in governance: they have a divinely-appointed authority to dispense judgement despite the civil authorities being ‘unjust’ (1Cor 6:1) and made up of ‘unbelievers’ (6:6). All civil authority is appointed by God to restrain evil and promote good (Rom 13:4). Paul also refers to civil authorities as an imperative in the maintenance of peaceful order (1Tim 2:2). This is an important consideration for those who say they do not ‘trust’ our politicians with decisions over life and death. The fact is that it is not our politicians who will determine guilt or innocence, but a jury of our peers. And whether or not the appointed judge is an unbeliever, he is appointed by God to dispense justice.
In Christian theology, the moral order is damaged if sin is not somehow ‘paid for’, and so criminals must ‘pay’ for what they do. As Anselm observed, an offender has to make ‘satisfaction’ to the offended party, and the amount of satisfaction depends on the social status of the party. Since God is infinite, the amount of satisfaction is infinite. Since the offender is mankind, only a human being can make it: hence the need for a God-man. The logic of this is to abolish the need for all penance, since our human satisfaction falls short and the ‘gift’ exceeds every debt. Neither Anselm himself, however, nor the judges who listened to assize sermons for a thousand years, ever saw this implication. It is noteworthy that in successive debates on the reintroduction of the death penalty, it is the Anglican bishops who remained some of the most resolute defenders of the death penalty.
If Guido’s e-petition is not flawed theologically, we must examine the political and sociological dimensions of his campaign. Of course, he is a professional controversialist, and, like politicians, seeks attention in order to maintain his dominant blogging position. Since launching his e-petition campaign, he has had hundreds of blog posts and thousands of column inches given over to his cause, which £10,000s could not have achieved in publicity. This may be adduced to cast doubt upon his motives. Further, he is a self-confessed libertarian, a philosophy which advocates the right of free choice. Conceptually, there is a conflict between individual interest and collective provision: libertarian rights may work against the common good. He has not addressed this disparity, and probably has no intention of doing so.
Politically, we know that the UK is subject to a supreme European Union corpus of law. The EU, upholding the provisions and protocols of the European Convention on Human Rights, is unequivocal in its opposition to the death penalty:
Protocol No. 13 to the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, concerning the abolition of the death penalty in all circumstancesThe Vatican accords:
The member States of the Council of Europe signatory hereto,
Convinced that everyone’s right to life is a basic value in a democratic society and that the abolition of the death penalty is essential for the protection of this right and for the full recognition of the inherent dignity of all human beings;
Wishing to strengthen the protection of the right to life guaranteed by the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms signed at Rome on 4 November 1950 (hereinafter referred to as "the Convention");
Noting that Protocol No. 6 to the Convention, concerning the Abolition of the Death Penalty, signed at Strasbourg on 28 April 1983, does not exclude the death penalty in respect of acts committed in time of war or of imminent threat of war;
Being resolved to take the final step in order to abolish the death penalty in all circumstances,
Have agreed as follows:
Article 1 – Abolition of the death penalty
The death penalty shall be abolished. No one shall be condemned to such penalty or executed.
Article 2 – Prohibition of derogations
No derogation from the provisions of this Protocol shall be made under Article 15 of the Convention.
Article 3 – Prohibition of reservations
No reservation may be made under Article 57 of the Convention in respect of the provisions of this Protocol.
The Holy See has consistently sought the abolition of the death penalty and his Holiness Pope John Paul II has personally and indiscriminately appealed on numerous occasions in order that such sentences should be commuted to a lesser punishment, which may offer time and incentive for the reform of the guilty, hope to the innocent and safeguard the well-being of civil society itself and of those individuals who through no choice of theirs have become deeply involved in the fate of those condemmed to death.But neither the EU nor the Vatican are quite as unequivocal as these statements suggest. In the ECHR, we read:
The Pope had most earnestly hoped and prayed that a worldwide moratorium might have been among the spiritual and moral benefits of the Great Jubilee which he proclaimed for the Year Two Thousand, so that dawn of the Third Millennium would have been remembered forever as the pivotal moment in history when the community of nations finally recognised that it now possesses the means to defend itself without recourse to punishments which are "cruel and unnecessary". This hope remains strong but it is unfulfilled, and yet there is encouragement in the growing awareness that "it is time to abolish the death penalty".
It is surely more necessary than ever that the inalienable dignity of human life be universally respected and recognised for its immeasurable value. The Holy See has engaged itself in the pursuit of the abolition of capital punishment and an integral part of the defence of human life at every stage of its development and does so in defiance of any assertion of a culture of death.
Where the death penalty is a sign of desperation, civil society is invited to assert its belief in a justice that salvages hope from the ruin of the evils which stalk our world. The universal abolition of the death penalty would be a courageous reaffirmation of the belief that humankind can be successful in dealing with criminality and of our refusal to succumb to despair before such forces, and as such it would regenerate new hope in our very humanity.
Protocol 6 - restriction of death penaltyAs His Grace has previously written, the ‘Constitution for Europe’ has reintroduced the death penalty in cases of war, riots, and social upheaval, at the same time as they seek to appear supremely enlightened by proposing a special day to oppose it. Further, the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church states:
Requires parties to restrict the application of the death penalty to times of war or "imminent threat of war".
2267 The traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude, presupposing full ascertainment of the identity and responsibility of the offender, recourse to the death penalty, when this is the only practicable way to defend the lives of human beings effectively against the aggressor.And Pope Benedict XVI wrote in 2004:
'While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia.'As far as the political and religious powers on the Continent are concerned, the death penalty is not abolished absolutely. But for the UK, the present Prime Minister is on the record as saying:
[I]f someone murdered one of my children then emotionally, obviously I would want to kill them. How could you not? But there have been too many cases of things going wrong, of the wrong people being executed, of evidence coming to light after the execution, and sometimes there is just too much of an element of doubt. And I just don't honestly think that in a civilised society like ours that you can have the death penalty any more.His opening sentence is interesting, for it is concerned with that very heated passion which caused Jesus to tell Simon Peter to put away his sword. It is not for David Cameron to kill anyone: it is for a court of law to weigh the evidence dispassionately, determine guilt or innocence, and dispense justice. Is the British Prime Minister calling the USA uncivilised? Is he calling the majority of the British people uncivilised? How is he defining this civility? Is it not arguably more uncivilised to keep human beings locked away for 23 hours a day for a few years, and then release them in order that they may kill again? Does he not realise that the EU, membership of which he wholeheartedly supports, permits the death penalty? Is the EU uncivilised? Is the Holy See uncivilised?
The mistake Mr Cameron makes – which is common to a good many Christians – is to idolise this earthly existence. To God, our three-score-years-and-ten are but a blink of the eye: He deals with eternity. Yes, life is sacred, but it is not inviolable, for that is idolatry. The man who murders that which is made in the image of God has himself ceased to reflect the image of God: he has violated that which is sanctified, and there is a just penalty for that violation. Yes, of course things go wrong in the administration of justice, but that is not an argument for ceasing to administer justly: it is an argument for improving and constantly reforming our evidence-gathering processes in order that justice may be better administered. And God is the ultimate judge: vengeance and vindication are His.
So, Guido’s e-petition may be observed to have a sound theological basis and present no intractable political problems, save those which are wrapped up in the here-today-gone-tomorrow characters and personalities of our politicians. But sociologically, there is a certain incoherence: Guido wants the death penalty introduced only for the murder of children and police officers killed in the line of duty. How is he defining ‘child’? The age of criminal responsibility? Under 16? Under 18? Under 21? If the latter, a British Breivik (God forbid) would live while someone who kills a sole 17-year-old is executed. And what is so special about police officers killed in the line of duty? What if a vengeful convict decides to murder the High Court judge who sentenced him? Or the prosecuting barrister? What if a criminal shoots a paramedic who is simply performing his or her duty? Why is the life of a law-enforcement officer of greater worth than the life of one who sits in judgement over life or one who seeks to give life?
Guido, being the populist, is playing a hand of emotive cards: if he added paedophiles, he would probably garner even more support. If a particularly brutal murder of a child were to occur tomorrow (especially by a paedophile), his petition would swell beyond his ability (or that of his intern) to cope with the deluge, because such cases arouse those very passions against which the Lord warned. That is not a petition for justice: it is a mob baying for vengeance – an eye for an eye. Should another ‘Baby P’ case emerge, a jury would be subject to such media pressure as to make mitigation unthinkable – an eye for a tooth.
So, we come to His Grace’s verdict.
God works through imperfect people: He instituted the Church – full of sinners – and the State, a temporal political order charged with the dispensation of justice through man’s imperfect intellect and partial appreciation of goodness. Guido is doing what Guido does: he is no different from The News of the World, and his campaign will capture the popular imagination because it is in tune with the nihilism, anarchism, and cynicism of the zeitgeist. For His Grace, he refers his readers and communicants to what he set forth in his XXXIX Articles of Religion:
"The Laws of the realm may punish Christian men with death, for heinous and grievous offences" (Article XXXVII).In accordance with the Old Covenant, laid down by divine command even before the Mosaic Law (Gen 9:6), and contiguous with the New Covenant, which nowhere abrogates the provision, the laws of the realm may punish with death. Into the question whether capital punishment is advisable or not there is no need to enter. For Guido, killing a child is heinous and killing a policeman is grievous. For others, the genocidal inclinations of Saddam Hussein are heinous, and the terrorist offences of Osama Bin Laden are grievous. For His Grace, he would have no qualms at all in sending Anders Behring Breivik to meet his maker. These are matters upon which opinions may differ. So, let the debate commence.