Violence as a Form of Justice - What Are Christians to Do?

A few weeks Pope Francis reversed the Catholic Church's teaching on the death penalty.

From the Catholic News Agency:

Pope Francis ordered a revision to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, updating it to describe the death penalty as “inadmissible” and an “attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.”

In the fall of 2017 I wrote "An Argument Against Violence as Justice." Below you will find portions of that paper, showing that while Papal proclamations and Christian protests outside of prisions and courts are on going, there is still much to do.


While the courts are split on whether Christian scripture and tradition can be take into account in legal proceedings,[1] since 1994 in Commonwealth v. Daniels, the religiosity of the defendant has been “generally acceptable as evidence” in court proceedings. Defense attorneys and advocacy groups should continue to use scripture, as well as evidence of the defendant’s individual worth in the eyes of their Creator, when engaging in court proceedings where violence is being advocated for.

Augustine of Hippo suggests that Christians, and thus the Church, should reject torture and death, refusing to participate in this distribution of justice.[2] This will look different in each community as the distribution of violence as a form of justice varies from community to community without consistency due to the interpretation and implementation of violence as a form of justice at the level of the state judiciary.

What is the faithful way forward?

Christians should utilize their political power to oppose violence as a form of justice, utilizing their influence to push for change; the same powerful influence that was used to advance of violence as a form of justice in the first place.[3] This is not just a suggestion. As Lösel notes, interfering in instance where violence is being used as justice is a “right and duty” of all Christians.[4] There is an ecclesiological option before the church as well according to Lösel. The church should use its political influence on the surrounding culture to opening question violence as a form of justice and push for punishment reform.

Another option for the Church is advocacy for the abolishment of the violence as a form of justice and the implementation of punishment more in-line with Christian teaching. This means speaking up with death penalty cases make the headlines but also doing the day-to-day work of contacting and lobbying state lawmakers to change practices of justice in the state court systems. Additionally, the practice “kingdom-like acts” serve as an opportunity where the Church can build the kingdom of God in the midst of violence being used as a form of justice. This includes ministering to those on death row and their families. Additionally, the Church should be an advocate for the family of victims where violence as a form of justice was implemented wrongly, against an innocent individual, as well as working with families of victims who the state is seeking justice for, ministering to them in their time of grief.

To eliminate violence as a form of justice, the Church will continue the work of Jesus’ ministry, drawing a line in the dirt and offering a new way forward. The Church should seek a new way of justice that seeks to honor the inherent dignity of all people while at the same time helping the state ensure the stability and safety, which the state is responsible for ensuring for all its citizens.

 

[1] Miller, pg. 676

[2] Lösel, pg. 184

[3] Lösel, pg. 183

[4] Lösel, pg. 190


Want to learn more? Check out these resources.

Barth, K., Bromiley, G. W., & Torrance, T. F. (2010). Church dogmatics (Vol. 4.3, 14 vols.). Hendrickson.

Communications, U. M. (2017, November 24). Social Principles: The Political Community. Retrieved from http://www.umc.org/what-we-believe/political-community

Cooper, B., Cox, D., Lienesch, R., & Jones, R. P. (2015, November 11). Anxiety, Nostalgia, and Mistrust: Findings from the 2015 American Values Survey. Retrieved November 19, 2017, from https://www.prri.org/research/survey-anxiety-nostalgia-and-mistrust-findings-from-the-2015-american-values-survey/#.VlR1qN-rR7N

Drehle, V. (2014, April 28). US Death Penalty Wrongful Convictions Executions. Retrieved from http://time.com/79572/more-innocent-people-on-death-row-than-estimated-study/

Henderson, K. (1997). How Many Innocent Inmates Are Executed? An Illinois coalition moves to stop the death penalty in the wake of startling statistics. Human Rights, 24(4), 10-11. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/27880061

Lösel, S. (2010). Fighting for Human Dignity: A Christian Vision for Punishment Reform. Political Theology, 11(2), 179-204. doi:10.1558/poth.v11i2.179

McCrudden, C. (2008). Human Dignity and Judicial Interpretation of Human Rights. European Journal of International Law, 19(4), 655-724. doi:10.1093/ejil/chn043

Miller, M. K., & Bornstein, B. H. (2006). The Use of Religion in Death Penalty Sentencing Trials. Law and Human Behavior, 30(6), 675-684. doi:10.1007/s10979-006-9056-6

Paul, J., II. (n.d.). Evangelium Vitae. Changing Unjust Laws Justly, 289-316. doi:10.2307/j.ctt284tpq.14

Protocol No. 6 to the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms concerning the Abolition of the Death Penalty. (1983). Human Rights Quarterly, 5(3). doi:10.2307/762032

Protocol No. 13 : Article 1 - Abolition of the death penalty. (n.d.). European Convention on Human Rights : Commentary. doi:10.5040/9781472561725.0035

"Social Principles: The Political Community." United Methodist Communications, http://www.umc.org/what-we-believe/political-community. Accessed 24 November 2017. 

Walldrop, R. (2017, November 19). A Christian Perspective on the Death Penalty. Retrieved from https://www.vadp.org/resources/a-christian-perspective-on-the-death-penalty/

Whitman, J. Q. (2005). Harsh justice: Criminal punishment and the widening divide between America and Europe. Oxford University Press.