A theology of capital punishment


“Go, but do not sin again.” –  John 8:11b

Death Penalty Issue

One of the issues debated upon in Congress is the restoration of capital punishment or the death penalty.  The abolition of the death penalty is one of the significant provisions of the 1987 Philippine Constitution.  Our constitution carries the following injunction: “…neither shall death penalty be imposed, unless, for compelling reasons involving heinous crimes, the Congress hereafter provides for it” (Art.III, Sec.19).  Included in the same section of the Constitution is the prohibition against inflicting any “cruel, degrading, and inhuman punishment”. 

Before the 1987 Constitution, the death penalty was legally recognized and practiced.  In fact, the Revised Penal Code would have the death penalty on eight specific offenses, namely: parricide, kidnapping or detention to extort ransom, robbery with homicide, murder, kidnapping, and serious illegal detention, treason, collaboration with the enemy, and qualified piracy.

The abolition of the death penalty under the 1987 Constitution has been perceived by many as a progressive step in Philippine criminology.   The philosophy behind this constitutional precept is very much in keeping with the various humanitarian actions and resolutions on this issue espoused by the international community, including the United Nations.  The death penalty has been recognized as a violation of the right to life and of the right not to be subjected to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. The huge amphitheater in Rome where ancient gladiators used to fight and be killed was even lighted all night long when our constitution abolishing the death penalty was approved.

Now, there is a resurgence, both in Congress and among many sectors in our country to revive the death penalty.  This is triggered by the incredible upsurge of criminalities that rage seemingly unchecked throughout the country.  Tremendous pressure is in the Senate to enact a pro-death penalty measure.  As for the House of Representatives, it has already made known its stand in favor of the restoration of the death penalty for heinous crimes.

Nearly all proposals for inclusion under the category of the heinous crime relate to drug pushing, murder, and rape.  But interestingly, the death advocates are themselves not exactly in agreement on what crimes should be considered as heinous.  For instance, one would say that pornographers should be included in the list.  Others would nominate for inclusion those amassing more than P5 million in ill-gotten wealth.  And still, others would include the incompetents in the cabinet as heinous criminals.

A Biblical Story: An Adulterous Woman

Now, how do we look at this issue from the Biblical and theological point of view?  There is a Biblical story of an adulterous woman recorded in John 8:1-11 that could help us in our reflections.

The Scribes and Pharisees during Jesus’ time were out to get some charge on which they could discredit Jesus.  At that time, when a difficult legal question arose the natural thing to do was to take it to a rabbi for a decision.  So the Scribes and Pharisees approached Jesus being a rabbi bringing to him a woman caught in the very act of committing adultery.

In the eyes of the Jewish Law, adultery was a serious crime punishable by death. Leviticus 20:10 states, “If a man commits adultery with the wife of a fellow Israelite, both he and the woman shall be put to death.”  The Jewish codified law called Mishnah states that death by stoning is the penalty of a girl who is engaged to someone and who then commits adultery. Therefore, from the purely legal point of view, the Scribes and Pharisees were perfectly correct.  This woman in the Biblical story was liable for capital punishment.

When the Scribes and Pharisees confronted Jesus with this decision, the dilemma into which they sought to put him was this.  If Jesus said this woman must die, he would lose the love and devotion of the great masses of ordinary people, and he would become a criminal in the eyes of the Roman government because only the Romans can carry out a death sentence on anyone.

On the other hand, if Jesus gave the decision that the woman should be pardoned, it could immediately be said that he was teaching people to break the Law of Moses and that he was condoning and even encouraging people to commit adultery.  That was the trap in which the Scribes and Pharisees sought to entrap Jesus. But Jesus turned their attack in such a way that it recoiled against themselves.

At first, Jesus stooped down and wrote with his finger on the ground.

What exactly is the meaning of that?  There is an Armenian translation of the New Testament that translates this particular passage in this manner: “He himself, bowing his head, was writing with his finger on the earth to declare their sins; and they were seeing their several sins on the stones.”  The suggestion is that Jesus was writing in the dust the sins of the very people who were accusing the woman.

There may be something in that.  It may be that Jesus was confronting those self-confident sadists with the record of their own sins.  However that may be, the Scribes and Pharisees continued to insist on an answer, and they got it.  Jesus said to them in effect: “Alright, stone her!  But let the person who is without sin the first one to cast a stone.”  The Greek word translated without sin (anamartetos) in the Biblical story means not only without sin but also without a sinful desire.  Hence, Jesus in effect was saying, “Yes, you may stone her – but only if you yourselves never wanted to do the same thing.”

There was silence – and then, slowly the accusers drifted away.  So Jesus and the woman were left alone.  Jesus said to the woman: “Where are they? Is there no one left to condemn you?”(v.10). “No one, sir,” she answered.  Then, Jesus said, “Well, then, I am not for the moment going to pass judgment on you either.  Go, and make a new start, and don’t sin anymore.”

A Lesson for Us

Now, what does this aforementioned Biblical story has to do with the issue of the death penalty?  The story, first and foremost, shows us the right attitude we should have on people who committed serious crimes.  It is very easy to use this passage to draw the wrong lesson altogether, and to give the impression that Jesus forgave lightly and easily, as if the sin did not matter at all.

What Jesus did say was, “I am not going to condemn you just now; go and sin no more.”  In effect, what Jesus was doing was not to abandon judgment, and not to say, “Don’t worry, it’s quite alright.”  To put it in another way, what he did was to defer sentence.  In effect, he said, “I am not going to pass final judgment and a condemnation now; go out and prove that you can do better.  You have sinned; go out and sin no more.  And at the end of the day, we will still see how you have lived your life.”

This is the same kind of attitude God has for evil people as Prophet Ezekiel mentioned in his book, “If an evil man stops sinning and keeps my laws if he does what is right and good, he will not die; he will certainly live.  All his sins will be forgiven, and he will live, because he did what is right.  Do you think I enjoy seeing an evil man die? – asks the Sovereign LORD. No, I would rather see him repent and live” (Eze. 18:21-23).

I think this is the philosophy behind life imprisonment instead of death as the ultimate punishment for crimes committed.  Life imprisonment gives an opportunity to a person who committed a heinous crime to see and examine himself, to repent and make a new start.

Hence, like Jesus, our attitude to those who committed heinous crimes or have gone wrong is to give them a second chance.  In Jesus, there is the gospel of the second chance.  Jesus was always intensely interested, not only in what a person had been but also on what a person could be.

The amazing thing about Jesus was his belief in human beings.  When he was confronted with someone who had gone wrong, he did not say, “You are a wretched and hopeless creature.”   But rather, he said:  “Go and sin no more.”  Jesus believed in the capacity of human beings for change and renewal.  He believed that with the empowering of God’s Spirit, a sinner could become a potential saint.  This is the good news of the Gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ!  Amen. #nordis.net