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Moderator offers a Christian response to capital punishment

Moderator of the Queensland Uniting Church Rev Dr David Pitman
Moderator of the Queensland Uniting Church Rev Dr David Pitman spoke last night at a public forum, Australians against Capital Punishment. The forum was hosted by Just Rights Queensland partnering with Amnesty International and Lee Rush to launch a new national campaign to call for Australia to show more consistency and leadership in the abolition of capital punishment. Other speakers included: the Hon. Barry Jones – former federal Science Minister; Tim Goodwin – Death Penalty Coordinator, Amnesty International; Lee Rush – father of Scott Rush one of the young Australians facing the death penalty in Indonesia; and Associate Professor Patrick Keyzer – lecturer in Constitutional Law

This is the text of Dr Pitman’s talk:

There are many compelling arguments that support the case for the universal abolition of the death penalty. However, I have been asked to offer a Christian perspective so I will focus on those principles that are consistent with Christian teaching and values

I need to preface what I want to say with the qualification that there is no uniform attitude amongst Christians toward capital punishment. Even a cursory review of the available literature on this issue, and the numerous websites dedicated to it, will confirm what I say. There are those who steadfastly, sometimes vehemently, continue to argue the case for the death penalty.

This is due, in no small part, to evidence from the Old Testament that the death penalty was imposed in Hebrew society in certain instances, including murder, kidnapping, and striking or cursing one’s parents. The biblical phrase, “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth”, has often been quoted in support of capital punishment.

It is worth noting the wider context from which these words come, verses from Exodus 21: 23-25 that say, “You shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.”

However, in the Gospel according to Matthew, it is recorded that Jesus specifically rejected this practice, advocated the radical social response of non-violence, and urged forgiveness for those who perpetrated harm against others.

This teaching of Jesus, as we know, profoundly influenced the lives and work of people like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jnr.

Notwithstanding that, Christians have adopted different positions in regard to capital punishment, mainline Christian churches around the world, and their leadership, are generally united in their opposition to capital punishment in all its forms.

The Uniting Church, to which I belong, believes that the death penalty is a cruel and inhuman practice, and has pledged to stand against it wherever it exists.

The Church bases its opposition to capital punishment in its belief that all human beings are created in the image of God, are precious, and are entitled to be treated with dignity and respect. We believe in the power of repentance and the possibility of transformation that comes with God’s forgiveness. As a result, we stand against a punishment that would deny human dignity and the experience of God’s grace.

On Friday 2nd December 2005, I issued the following media release following the execution in Singapore of Van Tuong Nguyen. He was 24 years old.

The execution this morning of Van Tuong Nguyen was a cruel and extreme punishment that should be the cause of deep concern to all Australians. Notwithstanding that Van Nguyen was guilty of a criminal offence; his execution represents a barbaric and totally unwarranted action. Capital punishment, still practised in too many countries around the world, is not only morally indefensible, it has also proven to be quite ineffective as a strategy for influencing social behaviour. Execution, by whatever means, is an act of violence. Societies that practice it are therefore condoning violence as a solution to the problems that confront them. This is an appalling message to convey to our children and young people.

Our hearts should go out to this young man who deserved to be given an opportunity to amend his life and make a positive contribution to the community that has nurtured him. Our deepest sympathy is extended to his family and friends who must live with their grief and try to come to terms with the senseless act that has taken Van Nguyen from them.

Anton Chekhov’s story, Gooseberries, tells about a man who dreamed of nothing else but moving away from the difficulties of city life to a farm, to live the life of a gentleman farmer. At last he achieved his goal. When his brother went to see him he found a happy man whose dream had come true, who was satisfied with his situation and with himself.

Chekhov goes on to say that behind the door of every contented, happy man there ought to be someone standing with a little hammer, continually reminding him, with a bang on his head with the hammer, that there are also unhappy, needy, poor, hungry and sick people in the world. Chekhov suggests that a person can only be happy because his ears have become deaf to the cries of those who are in pain.

Now Chekhov’s conclusion may sound a little extreme, but he is making a valid point about the contrast between the self-seeking and self-centred nature of so much that people say and do, and the principles of justice and compassion which characterise the teaching of Jesus.

The abolition of the death penalty is entirely consistent with the example of Jesus who, as we have already noted, both taught and practised the power of forgiveness to transform human life.

For Christians opposed to the death penalty, there is one story in particular from the New Testament that informs their position.

It is found in the Gospel according to John, chapter 8, and describes a situation in which a woman who has committed adultery, and is therefore subject to the penalty of death by stoning, is dragged before Jesus.

The intention of her accusers was to publicly embarrass Jesus, but he turned the tables on them with the well-known and amazingly insightful response, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”

His parting admonition to the woman to “go and sin no more” reminds us that there must be certain limits placed on human behaviour that impacts negatively or destructively on others, but this does not detract from the significance of his confrontation of those who wanted to use capital punishment as a means of control in the social arena.

There are five principles, I would suggest that summarise Christian support for the abolition of the death penalty.

Firstly, abolition of the death penalty is one profoundly significant way in which we can help break the cycle of violence in society. It declares that we do not have to take life for life, that we can envisage more humane and more hopeful and effective responses to the prevalence of violent crime.

It is also a challenge to identify and develop more effective and compassionate ways of dealing with those who have committed crimes of violence against other human beings.

Secondly, the abolition of capital punishment is an expression of our belief in the unique worth and dignity of each individual person.

It is especially important that we be willing to affirm this principle in relation to those who have failed to respect the dignity and rights of others and have committed crimes of violence, for whatever reason.

It is the recognition of the dignity of all human beings that has impelled the Church to minister to the needs of the outcast and rejected, and that should make us unwilling to treat the lives of even those who have taken human life as expendable or as a means to some further end.

Thirdly, abolition of the death penalty is further testimony to our conviction that life is sacred. We can never enhance the sanctity of life by taking the life of another. No argument in favour of the death penalty can ignore the fact that it denigrates and diminishes the value of human life in every situation in which it is practised. The practice of capital punishment, notwithstanding that it may be legally permissible, serves to reinforce the notion that violence can only be dealt with by the imposition of further violence. We totally reject that argument.

Fourthly, Christians believe that every person, no matter how awful their life may have been, is capable of rehabilitation and even transformation. Christian teaching is grounded in the conviction that people can be changed, and are changed, through an encounter with God that leads to genuine remorse for the crime or crimes that have been committed, an earnest desire to make amends where they can, and a whole new outlook on life. The death penalty ensures that this potential for a new life and a new beginning can never be realised.

Finally, we understand and accept that there are temporal judgements and penalties that society of necessity must impose on destructive and anti-social behaviour (though at another time I would be pleased to share with you the serious misgivings I have about certain aspects of our present judicial system and correctional services policy and practice).

However, Christians hold that since life is a gift from God and therefore sacred, no human has the right to take the life of another, whether through wilful and criminal action, or legally by means of the death penalty. The ultimate power over life and death rests with God alone.

Thirty years ago, in Fiji, at a time when the death penalty was automatically imposed in that country for the crime of murder, I went to see a young man in the Suva prison who was awaiting execution. I visited him many times after that. I baptised him in a prison stairwell, just he and I together. During this time I successfully petitioned the President of Fiji to commute Uday’s sentence to life imprisonment, for he alone had that authority. Some years after I left Fiji, Uday was eventually released on parole and set about establishing a new life for himself. He is happily married, has raised a family and rejoices in the life he might so easily never have had.

His story demonstrates for me the most fundamental and compelling reasons for the universal abolition of the death penalty. It is an objective that we should continue to steadfastly and passionately pursue.

Photo : Moderator of the Queensland Uniting Church Rev Dr David Pitman