The death penalty divides both secular and religious people. While many American Protestants and Catholics, for example, support capital punishment, in 1997 the Catholic Church, which had throughout its history condoned and even performed executions, amended its Catechism to prohibit capital punishment in nearly all cases. Other religious groups, including Buddhists, Jews and liberal Protestants, also actively oppose capital punishment and seek its abolition. Of the world's other major religions, Islam is generally accepting of capital punishment, and Hinduism does not have an official position.
The amended Catholic Catechism of 1997 argues that the death penalty is no longer necessary. While the church has supported capital punishment, "if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor," Pope John Paul II said in his 1996 encyclical, non-lethal methods of punishment are preferable because they "are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity with the dignity of the human person." Because convicted criminals can be imprisoned such that they no longer pose a threat to society, "the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity are rare, if not practically non-existent." Many Catholics and some other Christians hold that only God should be permitted to create or destroy life -- an argument that is also used to oppose abortion rights and euthanasia.
Other Christian Arguments
Anti-death penalty arguments from liberal Protestants often take similar shape, emphasizing the dignity of all human life and the racial overtones of the way capital punishment is implemented. Writing in favor of a moratorium on the death penalty in North Carolina in 2005, the Rev. Jack McKinney of Pullen Memorial Baptist Church points out that minorities and those from lower economic classes are statistically more likely to be sentenced to death, which he believes is inconsistent with biblical principles of fairness and justice. Nearly three decades earlier, in 1977, L. Michael Jendrzejczyk, director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation’s program to abolish capital punishment, made a similar case: The poor and minorities were mostly likely to be executed. He argued that Christians needed to "discover a deeper commitment to life, compassion and social change than to death, vengeance and the status quo."
Judaism also emphasizes the importance of human dignity, even for those who have committed ghastly crimes. "While recognizing there might be multiple means to fulfill a single goal, in its heart, Judaism seeks to achieve the single goal -- fostering a world in which each human life is protected as unique and sacred," wrote Nathan Diament in the journal "Tradition." In addition, Jewish death penalty opponents point out that in antiquity Jewish authorities had a rigorous process for ensuring that those to be executed were indeed guilty -- and the same can't always be said for our contemporary system. More importantly, executing a man denies him the chance for redemption and change, a central tenet of Judaism.
Losang Tendrol, a Buddhist nun and teacher, wrote in the "Washington Post" that "Buddhists, along with a growing number of members of other religions, believe that the death penalty is fundamentally unethical. From the Buddhist perspective, non-violence, or not harming others, is the heart of the Buddha’s teachings." Buddhists believe that even murderers deserve compassion, and that "countering violence with violence only results in more violence."
- Death Penalty Information Center: Catechism and Capital Punishment
- BBC: Religions: Christianity: Capital Punishment
- DeathPenalty.Org: Dismantling the Cross: A Case Against Capital Punishment
- DeathPenalty.Org: The Bible and the Moratorium
- Gallup: Who Supports the Death Penalty?
- DeathPenalty.Org: A Yom Kippur Reflection on the Death Penalty
- DeathPenaltyInfo.Org: Judaism and the Death Penalty: Of Two Minds but One Heart
- The Washington Post: A Buddhist Perspective on the Death Penalty
- BBC: Religions: Islam: Capital Punishment
- Jupiterimages/Photos.com/Getty Images