Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Death as Justice?

Arguments regarding the death penalty are generally arguments about justice. Can execution be justified or can it not? I don't have any easy answers, but here are a few reflections:

  • This is not the same question as, Does X deserve to die? The real question is, Would X's death promote justice? Punishment must always be for good and not for ill, because the purposes of God are always for good and not for ill. Framing the question with death getting the last word is already to lose the struggle for justice.

  • If death is not the answer, then what is? It is easy to say that execution is unjust, but what is the just alternative? 10 years in prison? 30 years? A life time? I recently listened to a lecture by Richard Rorty where he congratulated our progressive society for leaving behind such primitive forms of justice as the stocks. The very last question he was asked during the Q and A stopped him in his tracks and pointed out the most common form of justice today: throwing people in a cage and treating them like zoo animals. Is that progress? Is that justice? Christians needs to criticise what needs to be criticised. It is a vital part of our prophetic ministry. But there must also be an energising, an envisioning of alternatives that better serve God's mission to justify the whole creation. And if the prison system is the best we can come up with, then perhaps there are few more important tasks for Christians today than to visit those in prison.

  • Justice is ultimately relational. Murder is an act of injustice. It does not so much destroy relationships as it does create relationships of hate and mistrust. Executing a murderer seeks to promote justice not by healing relationships but by ending them. This can never be justice, because it is anti-relational. Christianity only makes sense if we take it as a given that there is no relationship that is irredeemable. The vilest offender can be forgiven and restored to a community in some shape or form. Like it or not, we must side with the offender and seek justice for him or her. This doesn't mean making light of atrocities or blocking some form of punishment, but it does mean acknowledging that people already did the worst thing they could do when they executed Jesus of Nazareth, yet his death and resurrection has paved the way for even those people to be forgiven and given the chance of new life. The power of execution is opposed to the power of the gospel, and so we must oppose it. Not merely because execution is bad, but because the gospel really is good news about the triumph of life over death that must be proclaimed and heard.

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