It is hard to turn on the news lately without hearing cases involving killing in the name of the state, whether by means of war or capital punishment. When these matters weigh on my mind, I sometimes find myself digging through the pages of some of my favorite theologians for insight. Below are a couple paragraphs I found today from Emil Brunner. As part of a brief section on “The Christian and the Penal Law” in The Divine Imperative, Brunner offers some helpful thoughts on expiation and capital punishment. When a crime is committed, there must be expiation by the guilty, which is a generally thought to be a primary justification for capital punishment. This need for expiation must be affirmed and not denied. But for Brunner, society must share the burden of expiation with the criminal…. because society too is guilty. Only in Pharisaical judgment do we see the ugliness of crime in the criminal but not also in ourselves. Brunner therefore proposes a two part expiation, 1) On the part of society, by seeking to undo its failures that contributed to the crime; 2) On the part of the criminal, by being subject to a process of “educative punishment”. In this process of expiation, there is no place for the death penalty.
In every crime the first and chief criminal is – society. For it breeds crime by the brutality of its economic “order,” by the paucity of its provision for those who grow up in morally impossible conditions, by the harshness with which it throws upon the street all those who are less talented and successful in life, by the lovelessness with which it meets those who are least adapted to its requirements. A society which invents the most horrible technical devices for war, and by means of compulsory military service teaches every member of a nation the use of these methods, in order to employ them against his brother man, who may happen to belong to the “enemy,” and makes it a duty to use these means – such a society has no moral right to wax indignant over the individual criminal, but it should be horrified at his crime as our own. Most people are unable to understand the ethical difference between the “moral duty to kill” in time of war and the prohibition of murder in time of peace. All who take seriously the idea of Original Sin, not merely in a theoretical manner, every time he hears of a crime will feel: “I have only the grace of God to thank that I have not become this criminal.” Whoever thinks thus will have lost all desire to have a crime “expiated” in the traditional sense.
But how are both requirements to be combined? By arranging that in the method of punishing the criminal society also helps to expiate the wrong. The idea of expiation must not only be preserved, it must be cultivated afresh and cultivated intensively, but this must be done in such a way that it does not foster an arrogant Pharisaism nor a sadistic enjoyment of cruel punishment, but that in the sacrifice which the punishment imposes upon society, as well as upon the criminal, she will be reminded of her own guilt. This means: in practice we agree with those criminal lawyers who press for the humanizing of the administration of the Law, while in theory we support the conservative representatives of the theory of expiation. The guilty person must expiate his crime; in practice this statement will always mean: all who are guilty must offer expiation. Society must expiate her wrongdoing by trying to compensate, so far as this is still possible, for what has been left undone for the man who has become guilty; at the same time, by the sensitiveness of such educative punishment it must deter the lawbreaker from his crime, and eventually, by its duration it must make the criminal harmless; the criminal must offer expiation by submitting to this forcible education. In many respects this system of punishment will be more costly than the present system; this is only right, for it is this which constitutes the expiation made by society. Capital punishment will have no place within such a conception. It is, of course, true that the State does possess the right to kill, and to contest this means to destroy the power of the State; but it possesses this right for the sake of its necessary function. But this function does not require the killing of the murderer. It is impossible to solve the problem of capital punishment by whether “you” could carry out the sentence. Whether “I” could do this or not can only depend upon whether this killing is necessary. To affirm its necessity and then to evade this most difficult duty is sheer sentimentality. What we dispute is the necessity, the meaning of capital punishment. The only meaning it could have would be that of expiation; but this kind of expiation is one-sided, and therefore Pharisaical. Under certain circumstances the State may have no other means at its disposal, therefore the State ought not to be deprived of this right altogether; but this right should be hedged about with so many restrictions that practically it would not exist.
Emil Brunner, The Divine Imperative, p. 476-477
Karl Barth also had some helpful thoughts on Capital Punishment, which you can learn more about at the PostBarthian. I encourage you to check it out!