A Religious Perspective on Capital Punishment
February 9, 2012
The following section was contributed by Rabbi Mark Loeb and Bishop Denis Madden.
It was included in the final report issued by the Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment.
When the General Assembly chose to set aside three of the Commission’s seats for representatives of the state’s faith communities, it did so, we believe, with the expectation that the occupants of those seats would reflect both religious belief and attitudes of pastoral care for the human family.
While the Commission is duty bound to report to the legislature on the legal, pragmatic and policy issues relating to the imposition of the death penalty, the undersigned also feel a duty to examine some of the moral and ethical questions that relate to the imposition of the death penalty. From our perspective, views on these issues may be even more determinative as to whether capital punishment is an appropriate penalty under the law.
The religious leaders who contributed to the work of the Commissions recognize that, even in a pluralistic society such as America, the majority of mainstream religious denominations share a common opposition to the death penalty. That should not be surprising since these groups share a common source of spiritual guidance, namely, the Bible, with its profound insistence on the sanctity of human life. That belief leads many to a simple conclusion, namely, that a society that cherishes such an ideal cannot respond to an act of murder by committing a second act of homicide, albeit in the name of justice.
Even though some biblical sources do affirm the validity of the death penalty in biblical times, these sources are clearly understood by both Jews and Christians as being part of a progressive spiritual heritage that preaches constantly evolving standards of human decency. Thus, for example, when the Bible speaks in the imagery of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” etc. it does so to teach the concept of distributive rather than retributive justice, seeing equal justice as critical, and thereby opposing the spirit of unbridled vengeance, seeing it as something to be transcended rather than endorsed as was true in the past.
Another example of evolved standards of justice is seen in the faithful declaration by Christians that a culture whose punitive ethic is based on the impulse for revenge cannot reflect the spiritual legacy of Jesus of Nazareth who preached forgiveness and reconciliation.
Jews who revere the biblical tradition are wont to assert the theoretical validity of capital punishment as an appropriate response to murder. However, Talmudic sources make it very clear that ancient Jewish sages circumscribed the death penalty with stringent procedural safeguards that made it virtually impossible to apply, another intimation of an evolved ideal.
The message of all of these views is that we live in a time of continually evolving moral and ethical standards. We do not tolerate the torture of people in the name of the law. We do not mutilate criminals or hang the bodies of the condemned in the public square. We are beyond such cruelties, and we believe that capital punishment is also a standard of societal behavior whose time has come and gone, noting that it persists mostly in societies with which we hesitate to identify ourselves.
As Commissioners, we have heard many arguments as to the viability and non-viability of the death penalty, as well as concerns as to errors in its application, inequalities and other issues. There remain those who with personal integrity argue that, if it could be applied absolutely without possibility of error, then capital punishment should remain the law of the state. We humbly and respectfully disagree. We would argue that legalistic and legislative overhauling is an insufficient response to what we see as a fundamental moral question: Are we, God’s people, at liberty to take the life of one of our own, really one of God’s own? The teachings of our faiths, applied to our time and place, tell us that when other punishment options are available to government, we should not resort to the death penalty, not even in the case of one who takes the life of another human being and, by doing so, denies not only his and his victim’s human dignity, but God’s dominion as well.
In light of our faith-based beliefs, and consistent with them, we endorse without reservation the central recommendation of the Commission and urge state lawmakers to enact legislation to abolish Maryland’s death penalty.