Jürgen Moltmann on the Death Penalty

Jürgen Moltmann was featured in a New York Times article on death row inmate Kelly Gissendaner on 2/28/2015. The featured photo from the article was taken at Gissendaner's graduation from a prison theology program in 2011.
Jürgen Moltmann was featured in a New York Times article about death row inmate Kelly Gissendaner on 2/28/2015. The photo with Moltmann from the article was taken at Gissendaner’s graduation from a prison theology program in 2011.

Yesterday The New York Times featured Jürgen Moltmann for the unlikely friendship that has been forged between he and Kelly Renee Gissendaner, a death row inmate in Georgia who is scheduled to die by lethal injection tomorrow. Gissendaner learned of Moltmann through a prison theology program, finding Theology of Hope to be especially inspiring. Since Gissendaner first wrote to Moltmann in 2010, they’ve exchanged many letters, and Moltmann made it a point to travel to Georgia in 2011 order to speak at Kelly’s graduation from the program. A friend of Kelly’s who is a member of the  Jürgen Moltmann Discussion Group on Facebook shared there that in January professor Moltmann sent Kelly one of his own hankerchiefs “for the tears.” Moltmann told the New York Times that “If the state of Georgia has no mercy, she has received already the mercy of heaven.” He is clearly hoping and praying that the state will be merciful to Kelly, as am I. If you haven’t had a chance to learn about Kelly, I encourage you to read the Times article, and watch this video about Kelly’s story.

Kelly’s story reminds us that for Moltmann, the death penalty debate is very personal. It has a face, the face of his friend, Kelly Gissendaner.  Readers of the Times article may not realize that the great theologian of hope also emphatically opposes to the death penalty in all circumstances. In a statement by Moltmann that is posted over at Catholic Moral Theology, he very briefly explains why Christians must reject the death penalty:

As Christians, we receive our salvation from the justifying righteousness of God. We reject all forms of retributive justice. We reject the death penalty in the name of God.

Democratic governments are governments of the people. Just as the people are not allowed to lie, steal, or kill, neither are governments.

We Germans know, how cruelly dictatorships lie, steal, and kill. We reject the death penalty in the name of democratic humanitarianism.

For Moltmann, waiting on the coming of God (which will make all things new and set all things right) is not passive. It must involve hopeful protest against everything that is in contradiction to the hoped-for coming righteousness of God: “To wait is not to adjust to unjust conditions in the present because you know that it can be changed and will be changed. And therefore, you resist conformity and silence to injustice and violence in your surrounding.” At the Emergent Village Theological Conversation in 2009, Moltmann was asked for concrete examples of where we could practice “protesting hope.” and the death penalty was on the tip of his tongue:

I think one point in this country would be to resist capital punishment, because this is not according to the righteousness of God. But then you will come to a very inter-struggle with more conservative people who believe that this is in the name of God. But after the capital punishment that Jesus suffered, there can be from my understanding no justification for capital punishment, which is a violence in the name of the state and is creating new violence. And so there are concrete points where you can engage.
In all the churches we pray. But the New Testament calls us not only to pray, but to pray and watch! So open your eyes if you pray to God. And see what is in contradiction to God, and what is an anology to the coming of God. So watch! Do not close your eyes and transcend into the other world. Pray with open eyes.
(Read more: Protest Hope)

The death penalty must be resisted because it is based on the retaliatory logic of expiation — someone was killed, and therefore the person responsible must die. Some Christians defend the practice by pointing to examples of capital punishment in the Old Testament, or to Paul’s statements about submitting to sword-bearing governing authorities in Romans 13. But what theological argument for capital punishment could be made by a people whose understanding of God comes from an executed Messiah? Does not the crucifixion of Jesus signal the end of expiation?

While not a passage explicitly about capital punishment, Moltmann argues strongly in Jesus Christ for Today’s World that fighting against the practice of torture must also involve abandoning expiatory penal law and the use of punishment as deterrent – and I would say that the death penalty is a prime example of both of those things in our culture!

In expiatory penal law, suffering equivalent to the wrong committed is inflicted on the wrong-doer: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Evil is repaid by evil. And this has nothing to do with the wrong-doer personally. It is a matter of the divine world order, which has been infringed and now has to be restored through expiation. The punishment of wrongdoers accomplishes something that is cosmically important. They are punished in what for them is valuable and precious. This used to be their bodies. In modern and European times it is their liberty. That is why corporal punishment has been replaced by imprisonment – deprivation of freedom.

Anyone who has suffered a long period of imprisonment knows how loss of freedom too is a punishment that can destroy a person, psychologically and even physically. Because expiation used to have cosmic dimensions (since it restored the divine order of the world), punishments were public. They were originally thought of, not as popular entertainment, but as a kind of open-air service in which the people participated, as a way of conciliating the deity and putting heaven in a propitious mood.

Deterrence is always an element in expiatory criminal law, and it used to take the form of the public torture of criminals. Public torture was supposed to deter potential wrongdoers. But when it was inflicted on conquered peoples, it was also designed to suppress political and social rebellion. It was a method of public terrorization of the subjugated. The Roman cross on which Christ publicly died was an instrument of torture used to punish rebels against the pax romana, and slaves who had risen against their masters. After the Spartacus revolt, the Via Appia was lined by seven thousand crosses with dying slaves. The public mass executions carried out by the German occupying power in the Second World War were also designed to terrorize the subjugated people. The infringements of human rights in the Balkans are the most recent example of this kind of torture, torture used in retaliation and as a deterrent.

Anyone who wants to take a stand against torture and have it abolished will also have to abandon an expiatory criminal law, and the notion of punishment as a deterrent.

Jesus Christ for Today’s World, 61-62

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