Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Do Societies Dream of Electric Chairs? Religion 390 Final Paper-Alex Blosser


America is so advanced that even the chairs are electric. – Doug Hamwell

There are few issues in America today that create as much division and controversy as the death penalty with its history, benefits, and moral position. But what kind of society would justify the killing of its own citizens? And possibly more importantly, what kind of society wouldn’t? In this paper I will be discussing the death penalty: firstly from a basic cost-benefit framework, then from a religious and moral framework, and finally from a societal standpoint in an attempt to outline just why we are so obsessed and disgusted with the idea of the ultimate punishment. Some individuals may argue that the death penalty should be looked at as an ideal, and ignore the issues with its implementation in the United States. I firmly believe that a pragmatic view is more important than an ideological view when it comes to an issue as serious as this, but for the sake of argument I will focus on both moral frameworks.

First, for a little bit of background. The United States is somewhat of an oddity in the western nations, being the only one that regularly executes citizens for crimes. Yet even here only twenty-nine states allow the death penalty, and of those only thirteen have used it in within the past five years. Texas led the way in 2018 with thirteen executions, with seven more states performing three or fewer.1 The death penalty as we know it today was reinstated in 1976 after a four-year moratorium due to the Supreme Court ruling of Furman v. Georgia. Since then, over fifteen hundred individuals have been executed by thirty-four states and the US Government.

And of those fifteen hundred, a shockingly high number may have been innocent. A 2014 study by the National Academy of Sciences reported that conservatively, 4.1% of defendants sentenced to death are innocent.2 Stop for a moment, to think about the fact that one in twenty-five Americans sentenced to die by this country most likely did not commit the crime they were sentenced for. DNA testing and evidence-gathering techniques are undoubtedly more effective today than they were thirty or forty years ago, but with a punishment so severe there cannot be any room for error. If you imprison someone, they can return to the world if they are found innocent. Simply put, you can’t do that if they’re dead. Jurist William Blackstone famously said that it is better for ten guilty men to go free than for one innocent man to suffer, and this is no exception. 

One common reason people support the death penalty is that it reduces murder rates in states where it is used. After all, why wouldn’t it? Having the most serious punishment you can offer is a powerful deterrent on paper, and it makes sense that criminals would commit fewer crimes if they knew that execution is on the table. Politicians pushing for reinstatement or increased usage argue it will lower crime rates and make communities safer, often with powerful and moving examples of monstrous crimes being punished with “true justice”. Of course, none of that is true. The 2017 FBI crime report shows that states with the death penalty have higher murder rates than states without – the homicide rate is a terrifying 42% higher.3 Not to mention, a 2009 Article by Michael Radelet and Traci Lacock found that 88% of the world’s leading criminologists believe the death penalty does not act as a deterrent for violent crime, a statistic pointed out by Amnesty International as “comparable to the agreement among scientists regarding global climate change”.4 In fact, executions can actually increase the crime rate through what is known as “brutalization”: frequent executions diminish the public’s value of human life, making crimes like murder easier to justify.

Trial costs are another serious issue. An Amnesty International article lists off how much more death penalty cases cost than normal criminal cases due to extensive litigation: 70% more in Kansas, 300% more in Maryland, 48% more in Tennessee, and over 1000% in California.5 Pre- and during-trial proceedings make up the majority of this cost, and it’s relatively untouchable. To cut costs in these areas means not only cheapening the severity of the punishment, but potentially allowing for more dubious cases to make it through the courts. Money is secondary to lives, ultimately, but with numbers like this it’s hard not to realize the exorbitant burden the death penalty places on states who could be spending this money on other crime-prevention matters.

Finally, healing. Proponents of the death penalty argue that it makes victims’ families feel better due to the application of justice, and allows them to heal knowing that the perpetrator will never hurt anyone again. Again, however, is this claim actually true? A 2012 Study followed families of murder victims in Minnesota and Texas from legal proceedings to final sentencing. In Minnesota, where the death penalty is prohibited, family members were better off physically, psychologically, and emotionally than their counterparts in Texas.6 One possible explanation is the times these trials take. On average, a death penalty case will take sixteen years from sentencing to execution. That’s a decade and a half that prevents the victims from moving on, from growing. An article from America Magazine on the death penalty puts this succinctly. “The fact is, say many murder victims’ family members, that to truly move forward after experiencing horrific loss one must find paths to healing outside the legal system.”7 Healing cannot happen in a criminal courtroom, that’s not the point. Justice determines what is owed to society, not to the victims, and anyone looking for healing through the death of the criminal is looking in the wrong place.

These statistics paint a powerfully one-sided picture in opposition of capital punishment, but they aren’t the whole story. Many people feel strongly that the death penalty is moral and fair, and Dennis Prager, founder of the online web series PragerU is one of the more vocal. In his video “Is the Death Penalty Ever Moral?,” he starts out strongly. 

“There are almost no issues where I don’t understand both sides…But there is an exception: the death penalty for murder.” Mr. Prager starts his video like most pro-death penalty videos start out: with a horrifying anecdote of a repulsive crime. I’ll spare you the details here. Then, he continues. “Keeping every murderer alive cheapens human life because it belittles murder…or most people, their suffering is immeasurably increased knowing that the person who murdered their family member or friend…is alive and being cared for…If you’re like most people…Your heart, your mind, your whole being cries out for some justice and fairness in this world. But, if you really do believe these people deserve to keep their lives, well… as I said at the outset, I don’t understand you.”8

These ideas of justice and fairness have long been touted as reasons to keep the death penalty around, but the actual definitions have been glossed over. This is retributive justice, obviously, taking an eye for an eye. But does that actually work? Does it feel like it holds society together? Taking the life of a murderer will never bring anyone back to life. In fact as the 2012 Minnesota/Texas study tells us, the suffering of victim’s families is prolonged by the death penalty process rather than decreased. This abstract notion of “fairness” leads to nothing but a world of blind people, a world where we tell ourselves the death of murderers is what we want when in reality it does nothing but further harm us. 

Dennis Prager has an interesting religious history, growing up Orthodox Jew but in practice moving towards Conservative Christianity in recent years. However, the Catholic Church has been steadily moving away from the death penalty. In 2018, Pope Francis revised the Catechism of the Catholic Church to speak against it. An excerpt from paragraph 2267 outlines this well: 

“Today, however, there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes…more effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption…’the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person,’ and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.”9

This quote expertly covers the Christian moral arguments against the death penalty. Christianity is, above all, a life-affirming religion. It celebrates the inherent dignity within each one of us, as well as our individual connections to God. Executions sever that connection by removing the possibility of redemption and forgiveness. As with Islam, the cycle of sin and forgiveness is essential to connecting with God, and for humans to attempt to play God and punish as He would is morally indefensible. 

To further explore this question, I looked to the writings of David Bentley Hart, a prominent philosopher and theologian. In “Christians and the Death Penalty” from Commonweal Magazine, he offers a powerful rebuttal of “By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment” by Edward Feser and Joseph M. Bessette.10 In an extended article, he mentions passages such as John 8 (“Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone”) alongside commonly misunderstood passages like Romans 13 and Genesis 9:6 (“Whoso sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed”). Romans 13 grants the authority of governments: “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God”. So, as a baseline, it is important to understand that governments have the power to punish and reprimand individuals for committing wrongdoings. But to what extent can they punish those people? Ultimately, passages like Luke 6:37 bring us to somewhat of an answer: “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. God is above all, the final judge of each and every one of us, and Hart outlines this aspect in refuting Feser and Bessette’s writings. 

From Hart, “According to Paul, all who sin stand under a just sentence of death, but that sentence has been rescinded purely out of the unmerited grace of divine mercy. This is because the full wrath of the Law has been exhausted by Christ’s loving surrender to the Cross. Again and again, the New Testament demands of Christians that they exercise limitless forgiveness, no matter how grievous the wrong, even in legal and public settings. And it insists that, for the Christian, mercy always triumphs over judgment. In a very real sense, Christian morality is nothing but the conquest of proportional justice by the disproportion of divine love.”11 If there would be a question to ask that would determine the viability and justification of the death penalty it would be “is there a limit to Christian forgiveness?” Previous passages and Hart’s writings answer with a resounding no. Forgive, and you shall be forgiven. If we are all deserving of God’s infinite love and forgiveness, should we not try and extend that same love and forgiveness to others, to emulate the divine?

The history of Christianity is filled with countless state- and church- ordered executions, and Hart responds by arguing it was the state, rather than the church, who instigated those. And, to a broader extent, he is correct. Religion is always subjective to the social climate and predominant beliefs of the times, and the death penalty is no exception. 

Christian arguments for the death penalty stem from verses such as Genesis 9:6, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man.” Additionally, the law given to Moses on Mt. Sinai requires execution for certain offenses (as detailed in Leviticus and Deuteronomy). Notice the shift from Old to New Testament here, with Old Testament firmly advocating for capital punishment, while the New Testament focusing more on forgiveness. This is exactly what Hart is talking about. The Bible, above all, is a story of a people. And, just like any people throughout history, they change and grow and shift their beliefs. Reconciling the Old and New Testaments is difficult, because they outright disagree with each other many times. These disagreements make sense, though, if you think about the Bible as taking place over generations and generations (which it does) instead of taking each chapter at face value.

One of the few other regions of the world that regularly practices the death penalty is the Middle East, and Islam is a religion that suprisingly supports capital punishment due to one important message – forgiveness from others is forgiveness from God. A few key verses from the Quran support this. Firstly, Quran 6:151: “Take not life, which God has made sacred, except by way of justice and law. Thus does He command you, so that you may learn wisdom.” Do not take this as explicit support, however. If a defendant would be sentenced to death, the victim’s family has two options of recourse. They can ask for retributive justice (Qisas) which is usually the death penalty, or compensation (Diyya) and forgiveness. In fact, it is often encouraged for victims to take compensation instead of choosing retribution, even by the Quran. 

This is because choice is an important aspect of Islamic forgiveness in relation to the death penalty. God has ninety-nine names, ranging from “The Bringer of Death” to “The Giver of Life,” from “The Bringer of Judgement” to “The All-Forgiving.” This duality makes forgiveness a choice. When He has the option to punish you with hellfire yet instead chooses to forgive you, it is much more powerful. This choice is integral to the Islamic system of justice, just look at Quranic verse 2:178: “…But whoever overlooks from his brother anything, then there should be a suitable follow-up and payment to him with good conduct. This is an alleviation from your Lord [and mercy]…” Here again the choice between Diyya and Qisas is brought up, and more importantly, it is as if God Himself has forgiven you

Forgiveness and the Islamic view of the death penalty may seem at odds, but Dr. Chawkat Moucarry looks to address this in his work “The Search for Forgiveness.” Inside, he quotes prominent Pakistani lawyer Lodi’s perspective on Islamic Penal Law. “Qur’anic teaching aims primarily at bringing transgressors to repentance…the main objective of Islamic criminal law is not to punish offenders, but rather to change people and reform them…legal punishments should only be carried out against non-repentant criminals.”12 As in Christianity, the cycle of sin and forgiveness is important for communicating with God, and He is all-forgiving if you ask for it. “Therefore no one should despair of God’s pardon, not even those who seem to be irresistibly attracted to sin,” Moucarry writes. Even as contradictory as it may seem at first, Islamic law has entrenched support of the death penalty to punish unrepentant criminals. 

However, saying that Islam cannot change from a system based around the death penalty is shortsighted at best. In the report “Sharia Law and the Death Penalty,” sponsored by Penal Reform International, the chapter “Can Sharia Law Evolve?” addresses this exact statement. “…Sharia law is subject to evolution…through a legal methodology called fiqh. Fiqh, often translated as ‘Islamic jurisprudence’, literally means ‘understanding’. It is used to refer to a jurist’s understanding or interpretation of the primary sources of law in Islam (Quran and sunnah) in order to derive laws.”13 As with Christianity, religious scholars must learn to adapt their teachings to ensure the highest level of wellbeing for society. The report goes on to mention several rulers who changed Sharia law to better help their societies, with a powerful quote by Umar Ibn al-Khattab: “the law is subject to, or will always be attached to the cause and reason. At times when the cause and reason no longer exist, the law will also cease to exist.”14

The cause and reason for capital punishment in early centuries was as a deterrent. But as a species we have developed much more effective and humane methods of preventing crime than executing criminals. Studies show that rehabilitation programs that aim to address the roots of problems rather than the symptoms are widely successful. If there would be a single question, then, to judge whether or not the death penalty has a place in Sharia law, it would be “does this law work towards its intended purpose? Does capital punishment do what we want it to do?”

Looking at forgiveness and the death penalty through the lens of different kinds of societies will help us understand why many see it as effective, while others see it as immoral. Let’s take a look at the “Thrive-Survive Theory,” popularized by Scott Alexander. 

Alexander writes that “rightism is what happens when you’re optimizing for surviving an unsafe environment, leftism is what happens when you’re optimized for thriving in a safe environment.”15 Now we’re going to dive deeper into each side, and understand how forgiveness and the death penalty exist (or don’t) within each society.

In a “Thrive” society, self-actualization is the highest value. We have everything we want, we’re happy, crime is minimal. The government can afford to be generous, and focus on projects that aren’t just defense spending. This is a utopia, a world of security and safety where all our problems have solutions. How nice does that sound? 

A “Survive” society, on the other hand, values self-preservation the most. Order is paramount: at any time, everything could collapse. Everyone needs to pull their own weight, and every moment counts. Focusing on the arts might work in a “Thrive” world, but in a “Survive” world every penny not spent on military is a penny wasted.

These two scenarios are extremes, obviously, but they paint an interesting picture. Think of a time when you and another person have viewed something differently; is it because you were looking at it through a different mindset? Just take the death penalty. In a “Survive” world, it’s absolutely justified. You can’t afford to be lenient, or trust in the healing power of forgiveness. You need to do what you know works best: someone cannot commit a crime if they are dead. And, if you do it enough, everyone else becomes afraid of committing crimes because they’re going to be executed as well. 

However, in a “Thrive” world, we have time. We care about those left behind by society, and we can afford to help those individuals who do commit crimes. The needs of the individual represent the needs of the society, and in a utopia we can afford to treat every single person with respect and dignity. This distinction may seem like a no-brainer. Why wouldn’t everyone want to live in a “Thrive” society? 

Simply put, it’s not a choice. The survival mindset is a realist mindset, a pessimistic mindset. It sees the world as what it is right now, and what it could be if we don’t work hard to keep it this way. The thrive mindset, on the other hand, is an idealist mindset. Think of the world we could make, it says. Think of what we could do

John Nerst expands on this idea of Thrive/Survive with a second set of axis inspired by cognitive decoupling: societies can be Coupled or Decoupled. A Coupled society is, in Nerst’s words, where “people are by default connected and obligations to others and to society as a whole are open-ended and in theory unlimited…Interactions with strangers are modeled on personal relationships, i.e. empathy, loyalty and unquantifiable debts.”16 In other words, a deeply interconnected one. A Decoupled society, Nerst explains, is one where “people are by default completely separate and all obligations are either formally defined in terms of rights or explicitly agreed to.”17 

Now, if we look at a Decoupled/Survive society, it’s easy to see how the death penalty has strong support. It is a necessary evil to curtail crime and punish wrongdoers. We are separate individuals, and this gives us the power to disconnect from strangers. You have no obligations to others, and they have none to you. Forgiveness here is unnecessary because you are first and foremost focused on yourself and your own self-preservation. When relationships outside the immediate family are unnecessary, what need is there for forgiveness and redemption? None at all. 

In a Decoupled/Survive society, the innate dignity and value of every human life is secondary to the survival of you and society. Some people just don’t contribute as much to society as others, and it’s not our job to help them, you might say. We can’t afford to spend money or resources on those who broke our laws and gave up their rights. They made their choice, now we make ours. Nobody is there to clean up your mess, plain and simple. See the similarities to many Conservative lawmakers and their opinions on crime and punishment?

The tables are turned in a Coupled/Thrive society. “Somebody’s problem is everybody’s problem,” writes Nerst, “So we distribute the costs of individual weaknesses, mistakes and misfortunes throughout the population because we can afford to deal with them and nobody has the right to refuse.” Those who commit crimes aren’t evil, or malicious, they’re lost, you’d say. And we can help them find their way through rehabilitation and reintegration. Everyone gives as much as they can, and that’s more than enough to solve our problems. 

Forgiveness in a Coupled/Thrive society is incredibly important, like in any close community. This is the true exemplar of “Love thy neighbor,” and everyone is your neighbor here. Help those who are less fortunate than yourself. If someone wronged you, it wasn’t intentional – and even if it was, can you blame them for not understanding how the world works? Each and every person is inherently good in a society like this, and the laws and systems reflect that. Can you see the similarities now between these words and those of many Liberal lawmakers?

I introduced these two separate worlds because it’s important to see how different people view America. Our country can easily be viewed as a Thrive society – we are the richest and most powerful nation on Earth. It can also be a Survive society – we are surrounded by enemies and are at the whims of corrupt politicians and evil immigrants. Deciding whether or not capital punishment fits in the United States has a lot to do with which society we think we live in right now – so who’s right.

Let’s look at everything we’ve gone over so far. We’ve covered the facts and statistics behind the death penalty, showing that it costs the lives of innocents, wastes taxpayer dollars, and stops families from healing and moving on. We’ve looked at moral arguments against and for, as well as religious precedents and teaching surrounding executions and the rule of law in society. Then, we distinguished between two major kinds of societies and how they see forgiveness and the death penalty. Now what?

Now we have to make a choice. What do we want from our justice system? What do we want for victims? For criminals? How important is forgiveness, really? If someone commits a crime in our society, why is that? How should we stop them from doing it in the future?

I firmly believe the facts point to the conclusion that we live, or can live in a Thrive society. When we see people committing terrible crimes we cannot understand or comprehend, we should ask “why?” and try to understand them. These are lost and broken people, simple as that. By spending more to help disadvantaged youth and help survivors of domestic abuse, by combating drug epidemics with restorative justice rather than punishment, by improving mental health resources and destigmatizing disorders, and by realizing that we can live in a “thrive” society not a “survive” one, and by targeting the roots of crime we can build a better world. 

As Thomas Merton wrote in Passion For Peace, “And ‘being wrong’ is something we have not yet learned to face with equanimity and understanding. We either condemn it with god-like disdain or forgive it with god-like condescension. We do not manage to accept it with human compassion, humility, and identification. Thus we never see the one truth that would help us begin to solve our ethical and political problems: that we are all more or less wrong…”18 Our anger and desire for vengeance can blind us to these truths, but we have to stop that from happening. I wrote in a previous response paper that “Forgiveness in everyday life is rarely the monumental pardoning of egregious sins… it is the realization that humans make mistakes and the acceptance that those mistakes should not be what defines us.” Look no further than to the story of Bill Pelke and Paula Cooper told in America Magazine. (Abridged for length).

“Bill Pelke lost his grandmother, Ruth Pelke, in 1985. The 78-year-old woman was brutally murdered in her own home by a group of teen girls looking to steal cash. In November 1986, four months after 15-year-old Paula Cooper was sentenced to death for his grandmother’s murder, Mr. Pelke was sitting in the cab of a crane at Bethlehem Steel, where he worked, when he had a revelation. ’God touched my heart,’ Mr. Pelke says. ‘That night I was convinced, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that my grandmother would have had love and compassion for Cooper and her family and that she wanted me to have that same sort of love and compassion. I learned the most important lesson of my life that night. I realized I didn’t have to see somebody else die in order to bring healing from Nana’s death.’ He embarked on a yearslong journey not only to overturn the death sentence of his grandmother’s killer but also to befriend and support the young woman, who had grown up in an abusive home. ‘While she was on death row we exchanged letters every 10 days,’ says Mr. Pelke. Eventually, Indiana legislators commuted her sentence to 60 years in prison.”19 Cooper was released after twenty-six years in prison. She killed herself in 2015, at the age of 45. 

Sources

  1. Executions By State Population. (2019-11-05). http://worldpopulationreview.com/states/executions-by-state/
  2. Rate of false conviction in capital cases Samuel R. Gross, Barbara O’Brien, Chen Hu, Edward H. Kennedy Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences May 2014, 111 (20) 7230-7235 https://www.pnas.org/content/111/20/7230
  3. “FBI Crime Report Shows Murder Rates Stable in 2017.” Death Penalty Information Center. https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/news/fbi-crime-report-shows-murder-rates-stable-in-2017
  4. “A Clear Scientific Consensus That the Death Penalty Does NOT Deter.” Amnesty International USA, June 18, 2009. https://www.amnestyusa.org/a-clear-scientific-consensus-that-the-death-penalty-does-not-deter/
  5. “Death Penalty Cost.” Amnesty International USA. https://www.amnestyusa.org/issues/death-penalty/death-penalty-facts/death-penalty-cost/
  6. Murtha, Lisa.“These Families Lost Loved Ones to Violence. Now They Are Fighting the Death Penalty.” America Magazine, January 6, 2018. https://www.americamagazine.org/faith/2017/12/28/these-families-lost-loved-ones-violence-now-they-are-fighting-death-penalty
  7. Murtha, Lisa.“These Families Lost Loved Ones to Violence. Now They Are Fighting the Death Penalty.” America Magazine, January 6, 2018. https://www.americamagazine.org/faith/2017/12/28/these-families-lost-loved-ones-violence-now-they-are-fighting-death-penalty
  8. Prager, Dennis. “Is the Death Penalty Ever Moral?” PragerU, August 7, 2017. https://www.prageru.com/video/is-the-death-penalty-ever-moral/
  9. New revision of number 2267 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church on the death penalty – Rescriptum “ex Audentia SS.mi”. https://press.vatican.va/content/salastampa/en/bollettino/pubblico/2018/08/02/180802a.html
  10. Hart, David Bentley. “Christians & the Death Penalty.” Commonweal Magazine, November 16, 2017. https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/christians-death-penalty
  11. Hart, David Bentley. “Christians & the Death Penalty.” Commonweal Magazine, November 16, 2017. https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/christians-death-penalty
  12. Moucarry, Chawkat. “The Search for Forgiveness.” Inter-Varsity Press.
  13. https://cdn.penalreform.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/Sharia-law-and-the-death-penalty.pdf
  14. “Sharia Law and the Death Penalty.” Penal Reform International. July 2015. https://cdn.penalreform.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/Sharia-law-and-the-death-penalty.pdf
  15. Alexander, Scott. “A Thrive/Survive Theory Of The Political Spectrum.” Slate Star Codex, March 4, 2013. https://slatestarcodex.com/2013/03/04/a-thrivesurvive-theory-of-the-political-spectrum/
  16. Nerst, John. “The Tilted Political Compass, Part 2: Up and Down.” Everything Studies, March 25, 2019. https://everythingstudies.com/2019/03/25/the-tilted-political-compass-part-2-up-and-down/
  17. Nerst, John. “The Tilted Political Compass, Part 2: Up and Down.” Everything Studies, March 25, 2019.  https://everythingstudies.com/2019/03/25/the-tilted-political-compass-part-2-up-and-down/
  18. Merton, Thomas. Passion for Peace: Reflections on War and Nonviolence. New York: Crossroad, 1997.

Murtha, Lisa.“These Families Lost Loved Ones to Violence. Now They Are Fighting the Death Penalty.” America Magazine, January 6, 2018. https://www.americamagazine.org/faith/2017/12/28/these-families-lost-loved-ones-violence-now-they-are-fighting-death-penalty

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