Sunday, 26 October 2014

Morality 24: Religious Views on Capital Punishment

Higher RMPS Podcast
Capital Punishment - Religious Views on Capital Punishment

This is available as an MP3 or to download as a podcast through iTunes
for Desktop and Apple devices, as well as PodcastHD for Android Devices.

Christian Views
Christians can, confusingly, be both for and against the death penalty.  The use their sacred writings as well as their leaders for guidance on the matter.  We have noted that capital punishment has been a feature of society for most of recorded history.  It was accepted as necessary for societies to function without self-destructing.  Pope Innocent III noted: "The secular power (government) can, without mortal sin, exercise judgment of blood (execute), provided that it punishes with justice, not out of hatred, with prudence, not precipitation."  Therefore the church backed capital punishment as long as it was to balance justice and not the arbitrary killing of citizens.  However, we are still required to use reason to interpret what both Sacred Writings and Religious Leaders say on the matter.

Literalists interpret Sacred Writings as the literal (word-for-word) word of God, whereas others interprets the Bible as metaphor to guide them.  When Moses led the Jews from Egypt he went up Mount Saini to pray.  There God spoke to Moses and gave him Ten Commandments (laws) that Jews, and then Christians and Muslims, were to follow to keep their relationship with God.  The fifth commandment states: Thou shalt not kill.  This one little passage has caused a lot of confusion with Christians and Jews.  It’s the one where both sides nod thinking it supports their side.  Death penalty supporters will claim that God’s law is clear, if you break a commandment then you should be put to death (Deuteronomy 5:32).  However, abolitionists claim that the law supports their view that we do not have the right to kill, if we do we are equally guilty of breaking this commandment.  Abolitionist hold that God gives life and only He has the right to take it away (1 Samuel 2:6).

As mentioned in the retribution section of the notes Christians can be seen to be both for and against the death penalty depending on how they interpret their scriptures.  The Old Testament teaches Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth’, therefore some Christians will support capital punishment as a form of punishment.  However, Jesus also taught forgiveness.  If someone wrongs you, forgive them for what they have done. 

It is up to each Christian to decide how to act in each situation.  The interesting part of this is the debate in America between capital punishment and abortion.  Anti-abortion groups will use many of the anti-death penalty arguments to campaign against abortion.  However, there are an
overwhelming number of Christians who are anti-abortion, for many of the arguments above, but are also PRO death penalty.  The conflict that exists in Christian scriptures also exists within the believes of Christian groups.  Recent surveys do show that white Protestants are largely in favour of the death penalty.  Recent polls show that 55% of Americans are in favour of the death penalty[1].  This is 12% lower than white evangelistic Protestants suggesting that more are following a pro-death penalty interpretation of the bible rather than one of forgiveness.

Archbishop Rowan Williams condemned the execution of Saddam Hussein, saying that it offered him no chance to change or reform.  One of Pope Benedict XVIth’s top aides said that it punished a crime with another crime: that execution is not a natural death and no-one, not even the state can give death.  We then can understand why Christians may be conflicted about the use of capital punishment.

Buddhist Views
Like Christianity, there are many different denominations of Buddhism and therefore there is no singular position on capital punishment.  However, the teachings of the Buddha are clear and easy to access.  The death penalty is clearly inconsistent with Buddhist teaching.  Buddhists place great emphasis on non-violence and compassion for all life.  The First Precept requires individuals to abstain from injuring or killing any living creature.  The Buddha did not explicitly speak about capital punishment, but his teachings show quite clearly that we should not kill any living creature no matter how bad the crime.

This can be hard for us to process.  No matter how bad the crime.  A US reporter once asked a Buddhist monk how far their stance on non-violence went.  He asked the monk to imagine that he was the last monk on Earth.  He then asked what he would do if someone was forcing him at gunpoint to kill another human being; what would he do?  The monk replied that it would be better to die holding on to one’s believes and values than to live knowing you had broken one of the fundamental laws of the Dhamma.  He noted that the Dhamma is eternal and manifested itself when the world was ready with the Buddha and if he were to die the Dhamma would once again resurface when the world needed it.

For many Buddhists, the death penalty is wrong because it allows no chance of reform. Buddhists use the stories of Milarepa and Angulimala to show the possibilities of reform: both were violent criminals who became great gurus after learning the Dhamma. The Buddha intervened directly in the case of Angulimala and showed the king that it was possible to reform criminals without resorting to violence.

Buddhists believe that all of our actions create kamma.  Our kamma determines both our Samsaric rebirth as well as leading the way to Nibbana.  Killing, even if state sanctioned, is an

unskilful action rooted in anger and ignorance.  The Buddha is the embodiment of compassion and Buddhist look to the Buddha’s life as an example of how to live.  Capital Punishment goes against the fundamental principles of Buddhist and the teachings of the Dhamma.


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