Wednesday, January 2, 2008

I Am Not Pro-Life

It has often been said, especially by some Catholic thinkers, that one ought to have a "seamless garment" pro-life position. A person who holds such a position is opposed to all killing whether it is abortion or war or capital punishment. The accusation is often thrown around (especially against the "religious right") that people who are opposed to abortion yet support capital punishment or war are hypocritical and should oppose such things to be consistent. This accusation is favoured by those who consider themselves to be part of the "religious left." It is assumed that those Christians who vote Republican (or Conservative) must have a "seamless garment" position but are valuing abortion above the other two "deadly issues." Therefore, you constantly find the religious left arguing that one ought to be a consistent Christian and vote Liberal (or Democrat) and oppose two out of three of the "deadly issues." But this is a foolish argument.
The label "pro-life" was only ever a label, used for its political impact. "Pro-life" sounds better than "anti-abortion," the same as "pro-choice" sounds better than "pro-abortion." But many of those who are politically "pro-life" are not literally against all killing. In fact, probably most of those who are opposed to abortion are in favour of the death penalty and just war. Are they all hypocrites, then? Not in the least--for there is a consistent ethic here that endorses killing in the situations of capital punishment and just war. My own position--which endorses both capital punishment and just war--is based primarily on the Christian worldview, which is the "seamless garment" that I fashion from Scripture to inform my politics.
To begin a justification of capital punishment from a Christian standpoint we must begin at the beginning with the creation of the world and the fall of man. After man's fall and his exile from Eden, God began to put in place a number of safeguards to keep mankind from destroying himself in his fallenness. While it is true that man is not all corrupt, and is still the image-bearer of God, this in itself is not enough to prevent utter collapse of society. The first safeguard instituted was death; without it, we would live forever in utter misery. Although also (and primarily) a punishment and a curse that is rightfully wept over by Christ at Lazarus' tomb, it fulfills a positive purpose in the drama of history. The second safeguard is clothing, to guard against sexual lust. Although Adam and Eve made their own (inadequate) clothes to hide their shame, God in his mercy provided them with clothes of skin that both reinforced the shame and mitigated it by providing a decent covering. These two mitigations were in place before the flood, but were obviously inadequate because mankind's sin increased until God was grieved that he had made them and resolved to destroy all mankind except Noah. After the flood, several more mitigations were put in place. Animals became fearful of man, thus reinforcing the hierarchy of creation, and different languages were created to estrange men from one another. The last mitigation is perhaps the strangest one when considered as a mercy, because it resulted in racism and misunderstanding between cultures. Yet it is a mercy, for it prevents mankind from unifying and using their incredible power to oppose God, as would certainly happen if mankind were to be unified. Finally, the mitigation of capital punishment was instituted after the flood to impress upon mankind the value of human life. Fallen man easily forgets that he is made in the image of God, and so capital punishment reminds him of this. As well, it is just: a life for a life. If done by the proper authority, namely the government, capital punishment reinforces the value of human life and satisfies justice. The mitigations of natural death, clothing, animal fear of man, tensions between ethnicities, and capital punishment were put in place to preserve mankind until God's plan is completed and the new heaven and new earth come into being replacing the old universe.
So how does this theological reasoning result in a secular political position? After all, most people don't believe in the story that has been sketched out above. One certainly couldn't use this outline as a political argument in the public sphere. But it reinforces something that resonates with all people: that a murderer deserves to die. The feeling that someone should get their just deserts is strong in all of us, and is not a bad feeling in and of itself. It can break out into feelings and actions of revenge, which is sin, or it can be a positive in creating a just government. For me, however, the theological reason is the one that tips my own position from opposing the death penalty to supporting it. Based on secular reasoning, the arguments for and against capital punishment are, in my opinion, balanced: capital punishment results in justice being done, but it also has little deterrent value; it satisfies the relatives and friends of the victims, but removes all possibility of rehabilitation and restoration of the offender; there is a possibility of a mistake being made and an innocent man being executed, but such mistakes are quite rare and can be reduced through better systems and DNA evidence, among other advances. Now, using this logic I would come out opposed to the Death Penalty, narrowly: no justice system is perfect, so no matter how good you get the system innocent men will still occasionally die. However, because it is mandated in scripture as a just act of retribution and as a mitigation of mankind's evil, I support it.

This isn't the complete story: the only argument above against Capital Punishment that moves me is the mistake argument; the others are either irrelevant to my understanding of justice or outweighed by other considerations, such as a murderer losing his right to live in society by committing a crime that strikes at the base of it. However, suffice it to say that the scriptural mandate for capital punishment tips the scales in favour of the death penalty.

1 comment:

Chuck said...

Amen, Ben.

Well written and compelling.