Thesis: In principle, a case can be made on moral grounds both supporting and opposing capital punishment. Two different cases can be made. One is based on justice and the nature of a moral community. This leads to a defense of capital punishment.
The second is based on love and the nature of an ideal spiritual community. This leads to a rejection of capital punishment. Justice and the nature of moral community: A central principle of a just society is that every person has an equal right to life, liberty, and happiness.” Within that, an argument for capital punishment forms along the following lines: some acts are so evil and so destructive of a community that they void the right of the perpetrator to life. A community founded on moral principles has specific requirements. The right to belong to a community is not unconditional.
The privilege of living and pursuing the good life in society is not certain. The essential reason on which community is built requires each citizen to honor the rightful claims of others. The precious life in a moral community must be so highly honored that those who do not honor the life of others void their own right to membership. Those who violate the personhood of others, especially if this is done persistently as a habit, must pay the ultimate price. This must be done for the sake of the community which was violated. We can debate whether some non-lethal alternative is a suitable substitute for the death penalty.
The standard of judgment is whether the punishment fits the crime and if it honors the nature of the moral community. Love and an ideal spiritual community are unconditional in Christian life. They do not depend on the worthiness or value of those to whom they are directed. They are persistent in seeking the good of others regardless of whether they return the favor or even deserve to be treated well based on their own wrongdoing.
An ideal community would be made up of free and equal citizens devoted to a balance between individual needs and the advancement of the common good. Communal life would be based on mutual love, in which equality of giving and receiving was the social practice. Everyone would contribute to the best of their ability. What would a community based on this kind of love do with those who committed brutal acts of terror, violence, and murder? Put negatively, it would not live by the philosophy of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, and a life for a life.” It would act to safeguard the members of the community from further destruction. Those who had shown no respect for life would be restrained, permanently if necessary, so that they could not endanger other members of the community.
An ideal community would show mercy even to those who had shown no mercy. It would return good for evil. Some kind of service to the community might be required as a way of partially making amends. In brief, the argument for and against capital punishment is founded on justice and the nature of moral community, while the other rests on love and the nature of an ideal spiritual community. If we stand back from this description and attempt evaluation, one point is crucial. The love ethic requires a high degree of moral achievement and maturity.
It is more suitable for small, closely-knit communities in which members know each other personally and in some depth. Forgiveness is best in a setting in which people can participate in each other’s lives. In short, for the moment, the Christian witness to society is this: first demonstrate that capital punishment can be administered in a just and efficient manner. Then we will debate with you as to whether capital punishment is in principle necessary, fitting, and right or whether a humane society will find non-lethal alternatives to protect citizens from persistently violent criminals. Until then, the church should say no” to this extreme measure.