So this week I am re-reading Martin Luther in preparation to lead a small group of students in a discussion of their assigned reading. I came across a passage in Luther’s treatise, Concerning Governmental Authority from 1523. Luther writes, “To punish too little is more tolerable, for it is always better to let a scoundrel live than to put a godly man to death. The world has plenty of scoundrels anyway and must continue to have them, but godly men are scarce” (presented in The Protestant Reformation, ed. Hans J. Hillerbrand, 2009 edition, pp. 82-83).
I found this passage interesting for several reasons. First, that Luther notes the danger of executing a godly person. Now, in applying this to modern capital punishment, the number of “godly” people executed is probably pretty low, but Luther’s sentiment still rings true in that “the world has plenty of scoundrels anyway.” I wonder how such a message would be received today, particularly among politically conservative Christians. Often you hear Christians cling to an “eye for an eye” in order to support capital punishment. Another position among Christians supports a “complete pro-life” position which is anti-abortion, anti-euthanasia, anti-capital punishment, etc. The above quote from Luther does not really fall into either one of these camps.
So should Christians today look at the issue like Luther does, i.e. that it’s “better to punish too little” than to punish too much? I find Luther’s line of argument to be helpful. I have personally supported capital punishment, but over the last 5 or so years have reshaped my understanding/ position on it. I still think that capital punishment has merit, particularly with individuals who are too dangerous to be allowed to reenter society. However, capital punishment (especially in the USA) ends up being a 20-30 year process and often crosses ethical lines with “lethal injection cocktails” and the like. I usually arrive at the conclusion that it’s a silly process anymore and that life without the possibility of parole is preferred for individuals whose actions are too heinous to allow them to ever be released from prison.
I also find Luther’s prohibition of executing a “godly” person to be helpful. One frequently hears stories and accounts of people finding a faith in God while in prison, particularly through missionaries (from Christianity as well as other faiths). Is it right to execute some of these people? What about those who committed a crime in youth and are a completely different person now?
I close by asking a few questions: is capital punishment moral/ should Christians support it? Can our resources used for capital punishment be employed elsewhere, particularly in the penal system? I welcome your thoughts/ opinions on the matter.