Life and Death

It was a really strange day in the news yesterday. In the U.S., unhealthy two men on death row were executed. And yet the majority of the news outlets, and the overwhelming discussion in my Twitter feed was only about one of them. For the most part, the discussions on the net were about how Troy Davis’ execution should be a reminder of how wrong the death penalty is. But no one seemed to be saying the same thing about James Byrd.

Is there a double-standard? If we’re going to be pro-life and anti-death penalty, should that apply not only to the case with cries of innocence, circumstantial evidence and recanting witnesses, but also to the case where the guy really truly did it?

Adding to the strangeness of the day, the Canadian news outlets were reporting that Canadian serial killer Clifford Olson is dying. Quoting the families of the victims, the report says that there is a feeling that once Olson is dead, justice will finally be served.

“I’ve waited 30 years for this,” said mother Terry Bizeau, whose daughter Terri Lyn Carson, 15, was strangled by the notorious child killer during his reign of terror across southern British Columbia three decades ago. “Once he is dead, justice will be done.”
Other families of the 11 slain children expressed similar sentiments after learning earlier this week from corrections officials that Olson is on his deathbed.
Dee Johnston, whose 13-year-old step-daughter Colleen Daignault was also killed added: “You raise (children) believing that you don’t wish him any harm, you don’t wish him dead, but deep down in our guts we do want him dead.”

Canada abolished the death penalty in 1976, so I have lived my entire life in a country without the death penalty. And I know that that influences my opinion on the subject. Before I was a Christian, my main reason for opposing the death penalty was because of the ‘what if’ cases, the wrongful prosecutions, the possibility of executing a person for a crime they did not commit. (The Guy Paul Morin case is a perfect example of this.)

But as I mature as a Christian, I find that my opposition to the death penalty is evolving to reflect my pro-life ethic. I look south of the border and think, “The U.S. should abolish the death penalty.” Life is life and we should protect all life.

And yet, despite my macro-level belief that the death penalty is wrong, there is still a micro-level where I wish Canada had the death penalty.

This micro-level exception is Paul Bernardo. Anyone who grew up in Southern Ontario knows of Paul Bernardo. In the 90’s, Paul and his wife Karla, abducted three women and did horrible, horrible things to them. And this was on the heels of Bernardo’s late eighties run as the Scarborough Rapist.

Whenever Bernardo appears in the news, there is overwhelming gut reaction that makes me want to scream, “die you scumbag.” For all of my maturing, and all of my beliefs that life is valuable, I don’t want Paul Bernardo to be a recipient of that. He doesn’t deserve it. All life is valuable, except his. And even worse, I don’t want him to die by the relatively painless lethal injection. No, I want to see him fried on the electric chair. Or hung in the public square. Or executed by a firing squad. He needs to die painfully and publicly.

So much for my Christian, pro-life, anti-death penalty ideals. Just one exception and my ethics fly out the window. I honestly don’t know what to do about that.

  • One thought:

    There is a difference between something having value and something having ultimate value. In “Toward Old testament Ethics”, Walter Kaiser Jr discusses the sacredness of life and capital punishment in the OT. He says: “To elevate anything, even life, above God was to violate the first commandment. It is wrong to place any life, including ours before our command to God himself” (p.165). So life has value, but less value than God. His connection to the death penalty involves the “image of God” present in both the murderer and the victim. Human life has value, not because it is life, but because it bears the divine image. The destruction of a human is therefore an offense against God, “as if he had killed God in effigy” (p.167).

    The fact that the life of the murderer is also sacred is why the death penalty was reserved for intentional killing. Only the one who “has deliberately plotted against the divinely esteemed and prized life of another person” has committed an evil severe enough that the offender “is subject to forfeiting his own life” (p.100).

    So maybe it’s not hypocritical to value life but also value some things more than life. Is there anything that you value more than life? Specifically, what about valuing something more than your own life? If there is anything that you would die for, then that thing is valued above human life (since your life is just as valuable as anyone else’s).

    I know that’s not a complete argument, and there can be other reasons to oppose the death penalty. It just seems to me that valuing human life doesn’t necessarily make life the only value, or the supreme value.

    • Greetings Charles,

      I will leave you with a question: How is affirming the sanctity of life placing life above God?

      I fail to see Kaiser’s analysis as an accurate portrayal of the anti-capital punishment position. The idea that “the offender “is subject to forfeiting his own life” is contrary to many stories in the Old Testament. David had every right to kill Saul at least twice, and he didn’t because Saul was still God’s chosen one. Even in the Hebrew Bible, forgiveness is valued over revenge.

      • Sorry it took so long to reply, Rod.

        First, Kaiser is not presenting an anti-capital punishment argument, but a pro-capital punishment argument.

        Okay, in response to “How is affirming the sanctity of life placing life above God?”: Does life possessing “sanctity” mean that absolutely nothing could possibly be more important than life? Something can have great value but not supreme value. Kaiser’s argument is that the sanctity of God trumps the sanctity of human life. This does not eliminate the sanctity of human life. In the case of David, the logic still holds, since God’s anointing trumped David’s legal rights.

        I would also point out that the offender being subject to forfeiting his own life is also congruent with many stories in the Old Testament.

  • @ Charles,

    No, I was not saying that he was presenting an anti-capital punishment argument. What I am saying is that he is purposefully misrepresenting what anti-capital punishment advocates believe for his own (polemical purposes.

    No pro-life anti-cap pun advocate would argue that the sanctity of life comes before God, or is elevated over YHWH. That’s is not what we say. Again, a belief in God as supreme value is good, but which god? The God of civil religion? Or the God of Resurrecton we discover in the Bible.

    My point with David, and that is just one example, is that even in Saul’s case, when Saul is killed in battle (it isnt clear whether it is God’s will that Saul die in battle or by suicide) but David later kills Saul’s murderer. Recognizing God simply as Creator makes life sacred, for life does not come from us, but from SomeOne beyond us, Other than humanity.

    As for the Old Testament, hate to break it to you, bro, but those laws were written for the Hebrews, right, God’s covenant people? I don’t see how any Gentile, (you or I) can take those as being for us without first knowing and reading the OT in light of Christ, the way that Gentiles are engrafted into the covenant. My point is that we (the Church nor the state in the West) take the place of God’s people. The death penalty (and the wars against the Gentile nations) is included in the curse of the law (see for ex., Galatians 3, Ephesians 2). Now if the curse of the law is broken and defeated through the death and resurrection of Christ, it would be suffice to say that Christians logically should oppose the reign of death everywhere. Now, the one way that one avoids the reading Galatians 3 and Eph. 2 the way I do is by spiritualizing these passages anachronistically, as many Christians do. But when these passages speak of a curse, of a wall between Gentiles and Jews, I know that these are realities that the Old Testament speaks of first and foremost, and so the Hebrew Bible and its stories flow into continuation of the New Testament witness.

    • I wasn’t trying to launch a full discussion of the death penalty, so I’m leaving several of your points alone and just clearing up a couple of things.

      Kaiser is not addressing the current capital punishment debate. The book that I quoted from is an exercise in biblical theology, constructing a coherent account of OT ethics, not a polemic against any current political position. So that is the reason that his discussion does not adequately describe the arguments found in current anti-DP thought. This is also why I misunderstood your initial statement about his description of the anti-DP argument. Sorry about that.

      I am also not trying to claim that anti-DP advocates elevate human life above God. I (like Kaiser) was not attacking anything said by anti-DP Christians. I had one point to make: that it is not hypocritical (as Amanda seemed to be worrying that she was being) to believe in the principle that human life has great value, but that it is possible for something greater to supersede that principle.

  • I find the death penalty provokes a lot of contradictory feelings – in me, not the least. On the one hand, I want to say: when you murder someone, you forfeit your own life. The only way to close over the wrong that was done is for you to die. On the other hand, I also want to say, lock him up and throw away the key, but let him live – he might find forgiveness. But I can’t say both things at the same time.