(Trigger warning: includes graphic references to sexual assault and murder).
When I was in India last month, the national news media were dominated by a particularly ugly and horrible story, which had provoked a national wave of outrage, including daily protests in the capital city. Shortly before Christmas, a young woman (physiotherapy student from a village in one of the poorest regions of the country, whose name was being concealed from the press) was returning from seeing a movie with a male friend. She and her friend got on what they thought was a bus, but was actually a vehicle that had been taken over by a bunch of six young men who were joyriding for the evening. They kidnapped the young woman and her friend, brutally raped and assaulted her, penetrated her with a metal rod, and threw them off the bus. She was brought to a hospital, but had suffered extreme internal injuries leading to massive infection which spread to her brain. On the 29th of December, she died of her injuries in a hospital in Singapore. May Jesus Christ welcome the soul of this unnamed woman, whose life was cut short and who suffered so much at the hands of the violent, into His kingdom, where there are neither tears, nor sorrow, nor grief, nor death, “for the former things have passed away”.
The episode triggered a tidal wave of outrage and horror in a country that remains, at least in the North, one of the worst and most terrible places in the world to be a woman. Feminists and students led the protests, which when I visited the capital were going on every day. People were less sure about what they were protesting for than about what they were protesting against, and what they were against was a culture that takes a casual approach towards violence against women and renders the whole lives of many women, particularly in the north, a constant struggle against abuse and exploitation. In a number of northern states, something like four girls are born for every five boys, and this is a grim reminder of the horrible legacy of sexism that blights the lives of so many Indian women, from conception to the grave. But that’s not really the issue I want to talk about today: the issue that I’ve been thinking about is one that was raised by the protesters in Delhi. Among other things, they were calling for India to institute the death penalty for rape. (Since the woman died, this has become something of a moot point, as the primary attacker has pleaded guilty and said he deserves to be hanged, and he almost certainly will be). This got me thinking about the death penalty, and what position a Christian should take on it.
The reason I mention the crime above- and I don’t enjoy mentioning such graphic details, in fact it makes me sick- is because if Christians are going to argue against the death penalty- for all crimes, for some crimes, or in some circumstances- it is necessary for us to take a good look at human evil, and to know on exactly what crimes we are refusing to pronounce the ultimate punishment. In fact, I’ll throw another example out there: this one from a personal friend, just so that we can fully understand the depths to which human nature can sink.
I’m friends with a young lady, “Yvonne”, who worked for two summers at our field station (in 2010 and 2011). She was good friends with “Kimberly”, the Baptist girl from Texas that I tried to date in the summer of 2010, and tried to help me out a bit that summer. Yvonne was African-American, from a large city in the South; her mother is a police officer, and her father works in construction for the military (and has recently worked on contract in Afghanistan, repairing buildings that our military destroyed). She was a pre-medical college student doing summer work at our field station, as part of a collaboration one of the professors at our station has with a professor at her school; she was way better at genetics work than I could ever be, and spent her summer running one analysis after another on plant samples, trying to figure out their genetic relationships.
Shortly before Yvonne came down to spend the summer of 2011 at our field station, her first cousin was horribly murdered. She was beaten to death with a lamp and other household implements, by her boyfriend. Believe it or not, he murdered her in front of her eight year old daughter (she also had a four year old). Then he escaped, and was caught months later in Alaska. The eight-year old, months later, was still coming to terms with what had happened. As Yvonne described it, the murder and the loss of her mother almost wasn’t real to her. She said, when asked about it, that she knew her mommy was in heaven now, but she almost didn’t seem to really know that she would never see her on this earth again. (“Lena”, the daughter of my friend Dave who died on the evening of the Super Bowl last year, had a pretty similar reaction: I remember her playing with her rabbits, at their home in Nebraska, the week after her father had died of an overdose. Perhaps the inability of little kids to fully process these kinds of an events is a mercy by which God protects them for a time, at an age when they couldn’t deal with the full impact of a tragedy).
This is the kind of world we live in, and this is the degradation to which human beings can freely choose to sink. Imagine the thought process that leads a man- let’s be clear here- to deliberately beat to death his girlfriend and the mother of his child, in front of her own eight year old daughter. Imagine listening to a young child’s screams while she watches her mother killed, and blotting them out, or worse, taking pleasure in them. On one level, the answer to these kind of crimes, among the worst one individual can commit against another, is very simple. With one side of my nature, I’d like to say, with the author of Genesis, “Whosoever shall shed the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.” There is no doubt in my mind, that in some abstract sense, these crimes deserve death. By choosing to do something so evil, by choosing to exchange love for hatred, and the urge to protect and care for the urge to destroy, someone like that has put themselves outside of human society: they are at war with everything good and decent, and society has the right and duty to declare war on them right back. This is the law of the desert: eye for eye, tooth for tooth, blood for blood, stripe for stripe, life for life. It has its own compelling logic, and in some ways a captivating simplicity and justice: at some very deep and intuitive logic, it seems *right*.
Noah Millman, currently a colleague of Rod Dreher (and the token liberal at the American Conservative) sets forth his ‘expiatory’ theory of punishment right here, and it remains the best description of crime and punishment I’ve yet seen in the blogosphere.
“By committing a crime, a man becomes a criminal. Whether this transformation is understood to be a change in the quality of his soul, or whether it is merely a change in his status within society, he must do penance/pay his “debt” to society in order to be whole/be accepted back into the community. If the crime is serious enough, nothing can pay the debt but the tender of his life, and his wholeness or reintegration into the community can only be posthumous. This is really the only justification that I can’t see being construed as consequentialist. And while it need not be phrased in religious terms, it’s an argument that is difficult to make within the dominant rights-based paradigm.
“(The last two justifications may sound very similar, and they are, but they are differently centered, the one on the demands of those offended, the other on the offender. A justification for the death penalty on expiatory grounds depends on a posited implied consent on the part of the executed, whereas a justification from satisfaction does not so depend. As well, a justification for the death penalty on the grounds of satisfaction can be integrated into a utilitarian framework as noted above, and could coexist with a rights-based framework if the rights of the criminal serve as meaningful limits on the ability of the society to demand satisfaction and/or if violation of rights is the rubric under which we understand the harm of crime; I’m not sure an expiatory justification can be integrated as easily if at all.)
“The fourth justification is, as noted, the hardest to fit into our rights-based framework. But I think it’s the most important one for our case at hand. The rapist’s actions are so “inhuman” that by committing those actions he removed himself from the category of humanity. There is nothing he can do to rejoin the human community or make himself human again; he has made himself a monster. The life cannot be redeemed; it can only be returned. There is no whole and human life available to him; he must surrender his life to make himself whole, and to make himself human.
“This, I think, is what the visceral desire for a capital penalty for gruesome crimes is rooted in. Certain actions could not be taken by a human being. If we human beings allow monsters who commit them to live, we debase the meaning of what it is to be human. It’s not about whether the harm is tantamount to murder – even if the child recovers, and overcomes the trauma, the crime, and what it says about the criminal who committed it, remains. To deny this – to say that he can live, and be counted as human – feels like society is saying: this, too, is human, and not alien.”
As I said, this makes sense to me. And I think an ‘expiatory’ theory, at least as a logical framework, is the only one which- to me- can offer a just ground for punishment of crime, and can account for the horror we feel at certain exceptionally gruesome crimes. I bring up these two crimes- the well known rape/murder in India, and the murder of Yvonne’s cousin- as examples here because they chilled me to the bone, and because they were exceptionally heinous. You can all cite your own examples of exceptionally terrible crimes you know about, either public or private.
And yet: as much as I think these crimes deserve death, I’m not entirely sure that society ought to pronounce the sentence of death on their perpetrators. Neither am I sure that they shouldn’t. In principle, I’m *not* an abolitionist on the death penalty, and I think that at least in principle, the New Testament allows it for certain crimes. Jesus says to Pilate, when he invokes his ‘power to crucify and power to release’, “Thou wouldst have no power over me at all, except it had been granted to thee from above.” The power to crucify and to release, in other words, says Jesus, is divinely delegated to the state. Again, the repentant thief hanging on the cross states, in words that Christians in the last days of the Roman Empire took as warrant for the death penalty, “Are we not under the same condemnation? And we ourselves justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds.” I’m less sure, though, about whether any crime short of treason, rebellion and related ‘public’ crimes- which are, in fact, the only crimes in the context of which the New Testament seems to implicitly sanction capital punishment- should be punished by death. I go back and forth on the issue: and one of the strongest arguments for the death penalty is the horror and outrage that certain crimes like these provoke in us.
We do have the New Testament witness of John 8, however, in which Jesus drastically cut back the scope of the death penalty. I don’t know exactly how far he cut it back. But if he cut it back at all- if we are to rely on divine revelation, and if we are to put into practice his teaching that justice must be balanced with mercy- then we must sometimes choose *not* to give a crime the penalty it deserves. We didn’t need Jesus, after all, to tell us that executing people for adultery or petty theft was wrong. Natural law and reason can tell us that. If the Holy Spirit deemed it important enough for John 8 to make it into the Bible- and it almost didn’t- then the purpose must have been so that we could learn something from it that we couldn’t learn otherwise. But just what was that lesson that we were meant to learn.
I can’t say I know the answer, but this is an issue that’s been occupying my thoughts on occasion in the last few weeks.