The Morality of Capital Punishment
We find ourselves at a moment when considerable national attention is being given to the morality of capital punishment, so let's discuss it in detail in this essay.
Although preserving the death penalty is nowhere near the top of my moral concerns, I can think of no persuasive reason-save perhaps one, to which I will come-why a clearly guilty terrorist such as Timothy McVeigh should not be executed. But I think we are often confused about why it may be appropriate-a confusion that manifests itself in our willingness to give therapeutic "closure" to families of victims by allowing those family members to view the execution.
If and when a state inflicts the death penalty on one of its citizens, it is imperative that such action be understood as public, not private, action. For Christians this is because the state, by God's ordinance, is authorized in certain circumstances to serve the common good even by taking the life of a duly convicted criminal. When God makes His covenant with Noah after the great flood, promising never again to destroy "all flesh," this promise is fulfilled in part through government, which, by executing just punishment, enacts fitting retribution for crimes. Hence, what none of us are permitted to do as private citizens on our own authority the state may do-not because it is itself "lord" of life and death, but because it is the authorized agent of the God who is that Lord.
Of course, many of our fellow citizens will not understand the work of government in terms grounded in Genesis 9 and Romans 13. As a people we are more likely to think of government in terms the social contract theorists taught us: as founded to stop the injustice that dominates a state of nature, but founded by our own compact. Even in these terms, however, the distinction between public and private action is crucial. A world in which each of us is permitted to judge guilt and execute punishment, in which revenge and blood feuds are permitted, is likely to be the one Hobbes described-in which the life of man is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short"(1). It will be a world given over to injustice.
When, therefore, the state executes a convicted murderer, it is essential that we not think of this as responding to the desires of family or friends of the murderer's victim(s). We are all aggrieved when one of our fellow citizens is murdered, and the criminal's punishment (even execution) satisfies not our need for therapeutic closure but our need for a just society. Opponents of the death penalty will rightly note that there is something paradoxical about punishing the taking of one life by taking another, but, of course, the "takings" are not the same. One is done by a private individual acting simply in his own name; the other is done by public authority acting in the name of us all. The force of the objection depends precisely on blurring-or missing-the difference between...