Does the Death Penalty Cheapen All Life?
IF WE value something highly, we are usually willing to pay a high price for it. But if we consider it to be cheap, we will pay little or nothing for it. That is only reasonable.
Punishment for crime has generally been viewed this way also. The criminal is supposed to “pay” for his crime in proportion to its seriousness, usually by fine or imprisonment. This principle was followed even more closely in Biblical law. It required the criminal to pay compensation for any actual losses, plus punitive damages. The principle of like for like extended even to murder. God’s law demanded “life for life.”—Deut. 19:21, The New English Bible (NE).
Human thinking often ignores this equal-value relationship when it comes to the taking of life. Attention shifts from the victim’s life to that of the murderer. The lives of possible future innocent victims are also ignored, while the guilty murderer’s life becomes highly valued. To end this life, say well-meaning opposers of the death penalty, is to cheapen all life, violating the “sanctity of life.” Is this view reasonable?
Well, as noted earlier, the value we put on something is usually indicated by the price we are willing to pay for it. Should the value of an innocent murder victim’s life be reduced to that of mere stolen or damaged property, to be compensated for by just a prison term? Apparently many think so. But the Originator of life sets the value of an innocent life at the most that a murderer has to give—his own life. “Anyone shedding man’s blood, by man will his own blood be shed.” Far from cheapening life, this God-given law puts the highest possible value on it, a price that many do not want to see paid.—Gen. 9:6.
In reality, are not those who impose weak penalties for the taking of life the ones who actually make life cheap? Their unbalanced thinking on this matter is evident when we consider how they view other matters where life is at stake. Is it consistent to protest taking the lives of a few hundred guilty murderers, while at the same time advocating, and even legalizing, the annual slaughter by abortion of an estimated 50 million innocent human fetuses world wide?
Or, how reasonable is it to oppose the death penalty for murderous criminals, yet justify killing the cream of one’s fellowmen in warfare over political differences? For example, the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches declared capital punishment to be a violation of the “sanctity of life.” Yet, at the very same time, the Council was dispensing many thousands of dollars to African guerrilla groups that were taking lives for political ends!
Apparently the “sanctity of life” is not the real issue with many opposers of capital punishment. Is it wise to put the thinking of those with such contradictory values, however well-intentioned, ahead of God’s judgment in this matter?
Is It Murder?
Emotion-charged descriptions such as “legalized murder” also evade the real issue. “Murder” itself is a legal term for unlawful killing, just as “stealing” denotes unlawful taking. Thus, if a policeman confiscates a criminal’s gun, it cannot be called “stealing.” Neither can a lawful execution, by definition, be called “murder.” The Bible makes very clear this difference between murder and killing.
God’s law provided for the safety of anyone who killed accidentally. Not being guilty of murder, such persons could escape the death penalty once their innocence was proved before judges. Yet, even accidental manslayers had to pay a price, emphasizing the high value God places on any loss of innocent life. The inadvertent killer was required to live within a city set aside as a place of refuge until the death of the incumbent high priest. He could not leave it before then, for doing so would imperil his life.—Num. 35:6-32.
But where does the State today get the authority to take the lives of criminals? The Bible shows that the Supreme Lawgiver, Jehovah, has authorized governmental “superior authorities” to act as “God’s minister, an avenger to express wrath upon the one practicing what is bad.” Hence, “it is not without purpose that it [the authority] bears the sword.”—Rom. 13:1, 4; 1 Pet. 2:13, 14.
The apostle Paul showed his recognition of this “sword” of the State, even when his own life was at stake. When facing Governor Festus on false charges that could have brought the death penalty, he did not dispute the government’s right to act. On the contrary, Paul said: “If, on the one hand, I am really a wrongdoer and have committed anything deserving of death, I do not beg off from dying.”—Acts 25:11.
Does the death penalty deter persons from committing murders? Man’s Maker, who knows human thinking well, says that it does. Speaking of a false witness whose testimony might even bring death to his victim, God’s law said that “you shall treat him as he intended to treat his fellow . . . You shall show no mercy.” “Life for life” was to be the penalty. Noting the deterrent effect of this certain justice, the Law states: “The rest of the people when they hear of it will be afraid.”—Deut. 19:16-21, NE; De 13:6-11.
Some may respond that the deterrent value of capital punishment is unproved. But consider: If it would deter even a few potential murderers, yet it is not used, who is to answer for the lives of their innocent victims? On the other hand, if the death penalty is carried out, only the lives of murderers are lost. Which lives do you consider more valuable?
Too often murderers kill again, both inside and outside of prison. “The going price for murder [within the prison is] two cartons of cigarettes,” testified a former inmate of the U.S. Federal Penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. A number of murders had occurred within that prison and others. Why is life there so cheap? Murderers serving long terms “have nothing to lose,” he said.
“Rehabilitated” murderers also continue to take innocent lives. In one recent typical case, the murderer, “who went to prison for more than five years for the murder of a young woman and was later paroled in 1973 because he was a ‘model inmate,’” reports the New York Times, “has been sentenced to life in prison for the nearly identical slaying [of an] aspiring actress.” Clearly, it is not the death penalty, but the lack of it that makes innocent lives cheap!
Does unequal application of the law in favor of certain groups make capital punishment invalid? According to this reasoning, because unequal sentences are often handed out by different judges for the same crimes, all criminals should be set free! However, in 1971 a black Illinois state senator declared, in support of capital punishment: “I realize that most of those who would face the death penalty are poor and black and friendless. I also realize that most of their victims are poor and black and friendless and dead.”
Discriminatory punishment under the present human judicial system merely illustrates the wisdom of the Bible’s law requiring the same penalty for murder in every case “without fail.” Then the criminal knew exactly what to expect if he considered committing murder, rather than hoping for reduced punishment from a “soft judge” or through “plea bargaining.”—Num. 35:16-21.
Of course, Christians are not under the law given to Moses. And the foregoing does not imply that the benefits of Christ’s ransom sacrifice would be withheld even from repentant murderers. They may be among the “unrighteous” who benefit from the resurrection hope.—Acts 24:15; 1 Tim. 2:5, 6.
Effect on Society
When the State, in effect, declares that murder is no more serious than robbery or other crimes by routinely releasing killers after relatively short sentences, what does such cheapening of human life do to the very fabric of human society? One indication is what has happened to United States crime of all kinds since capital punishment ended in the mid-1960’s.
Note, on the accompanying chart, the relatively constant number of murders in the U.S. for at least three decades. But what happened when executions came to a halt? The murder rate (together with most other crime) suddenly skyrocketed to almost triple the former average in just one decade! No doubt other factors also are involved, but can anyone say with certainty that there is no relationship between rising crime and absence of the death penalty?
If capital punishment “brutalizes society,” as many insist, it would follow that its elimination should surely tend to make society more humane. Then, why is it that American brutality (as measured by the rate of violent crime) suddenly grew most rapidly at the very time executions ceased? What, in truth, actually “brutalizes society”—capital punishment, or the making of innocent lives cheap for criminals to take?
In this, as in all other matters, mankind pays for ignoring the principles and wisdom found in God’s Word. Surely the simple, practical standard of justice set out in the Bible “make[s] the wisdom of the world foolish” and “put[s] the wise men to shame.”—1 Cor. 1:20, 27.
Can we ever expect sure justice under the present systems of government? The Bible shows that it will come only under God’s kingdom through his righteous administrator, Jesus Christ. In delivering mankind from the present unjust system, he will act with true justice: “With righteousness he must judge the lowly ones, and with uprightness he must give reproof in behalf of the meek ones of the earth. . .. he will put the wicked one to death.”—Isa. 11:4.
[Graph on page 8]
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EXECUTIONS AND MURDERS COMPARED IN THE UNITED STATES
EXECUTIONS PER YEAR
MURDERS PER YEAR
1935 40 45 50 55 60 65 70 1975