Martin Luther and Capital Punishment

ImageSo 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.

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8 thoughts on “Martin Luther and Capital Punishment

  1. I find this hard to answer. The problem being that I have never experienced someone doing something so terrible to me or those that I love that I can’t at least consider forgiveness. At the end of the day, God should judge and we should forgive as He forgave us? If I had to lean one direction, I would say that capital punishment creates more problems than is solves.

  2. my answer to your question. capital punishment is killing someone. killing someone is murder. murder is a sin. sin is not moral. christians should not support sin. therefore, christians should not support capital punishment. perhaps it’s supported by some christians particularly because it has become part of the package of conservative politics that they have identified themselves with.
    i don’t know a much about the penal system, but i’m sure the resources could be better used elsewhere.

    • No, murder is the killing of an innocent person. Capital punishment is the killing of someone who has committed a crime grave enough that a society/government feels they have forfeited their right to life.

      The same God that said ‘thou shall not kill’ commanded capital punishment for certain crimes in the laws of the nation of Israel.

      The killing of an innocent is not equivalent to the killing of someone guilty of a horrendous crime.

      • Bgpery, I find your delineation of types of killing interesting. I think that if the killing of an innocent is murder and the killing of a guilty person is capital punishment, then the highest priority must be placed on determining if innocents are on death row. I know that there have been cases of people pardoned sometimes 30 years later because they were wrongly convicted. Should we risk putting such a person to death and thereby committing murder? If they are simply kept in prison for the rest of their life without any possibility of parole, is that any risk to society? I am still unsure of the whole thing, but I would lean more towards life in prison being just as effective while not putting anyone to death.

  3. misterdan01- Thanks for the reply, (this is your blog, yes? if so I discovered it the other day and have enjoyed reading through.)

    The intent of my comment was mainly to point out that there are different types of killing and they are not all equivalent. Infanticide is more grave than capital punishment, willful murder is worse than manslaughter. The execution of an innocent wrongly convicted is of course a tragedy and an injustice.

    There is of course the question of what should the state practically do. Pope John Paul II held the (personal) position you mention, that execution was unnecessary in our age because of the possibility of life imprisonment. Unfortunately (i speak here as a Catholic) people as a result of John Paul have developed the belief that capital punishment is against the teachings of the Catholic Church, which it is not. (The position of the C Church is that execution for grave and heinous crimes is permissible but should be avoided if possible. )
    Can we lock people up for life? What if we are talking about a country which is politically unstable? Should those governments take the risk of imprisonment when they may not be able to see it through. I seem to remember that when hurricane Katrina hit they let out all the prisoners free because the prison was in the path of the hurricane.

    St. Thomas Aquinas says (I’m speaking off the top of my head so I might not get this all right) that execution is permissible for 2 reasons. 1. to remove the person from society and prevent occurrence. 2. as just punishment for grave and horrific crimes. The second is of course somewhat connected with his view of the state, but it also seems to get neglected in these discussions.

    My own position on the issue is uncertain and has gone back and forth. When I was a teenager I was merciless and felt that anyone who committed murder or rape should be killed. I became a Catholic in my early 20s and took the position of pope JPII. Now as a father when I hear of horrible crimes done to children I think of my own, how can we possibly tolerate such things. When you have someone who is an undoubted cold blooded serial rapist, torturer, murderer of children it seems to me that they ought to be taken outside immediately after sentencing and be executed. 1. because they deserve it. 2. so that they will never do it again. 3. to demonstrate that the society will not tolerate such things.

  4. I hasten to add that punishment is not neccesarilly the same thing as revenge. As Christians we are commanded to forgive… not that it’s easy but Our Lord says “take up your cross…

  5. I am indeed the owner of this blog and thanks so much for reading! I appreciate your comments, and I do agree that there are often reasons for capital punishment (such as horrific crimes done to children, etc.). I think that while a complete pro-life position that advocates no abortion, no capital punishment, no euthanasia, etc. has some merit, it makes a rather gray area issue pretty black and white. While we usually don’t have to worry that a hurricane will cause prisoners to be released, your point about unstable governments is really strong. I guess at the end of the day, my problem with capital punishment is that it often takes 30 years to happen and there are many other elements in the USA’s system that make it seem rather flawed. I live in CA which has a history of back-and-forth on the death penalty’s legality. I just tend to land on the side that the current system is so messy that it probably is better to not have it. I appreciate your perspective, however, and do agree that it is not the same as revenge. Thanks again for the comments/ reading the blog!

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