Friday 10 October 2014

Christians, the Death Penalty and Restorative Justice

by Kim Workman

October 10th is the 12th World Day against the Death Penalty, promoted by the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty, an alliance of more than 150 NGOs, bar associations, local authorities and unions,  created in Rome on 13 May 2002. 

The aim of the World Coalition is to strengthen the international dimension of the fight against the death penalty. Its ultimate objective is to obtain the universal abolition of the death penalty. To achieve its goal, the World Coalition advocates for a definitive end to death sentences and executions in those countries where the death penalty is in force. In some countries, it is seeking to obtain a reduction in the use of capital punishment as a first step towards abolition. 

New Zealand abolished the death penalty in 1961, due largely to the efforts of the Hon Ralph
Hanan, the National government’s Minister of Justice at the time.   As mentioned in last week’s blogthe Labout Party had abolished the death penalty, but it was reintroduced by National in 1961.  It  was Hanan's role to introduce the legislation to Parliament, but he convinced enough of his party colleagues to vote with the opposition and thus abolished the death penalty in New Zealand.  Hanan and nine other National MPs (Ernest Aderman, Gordon Grieve, Duncan MacIntyre, Robert Muldoon, Herbert Pickering, Logan Sloane, Brian Talboys, Mrs Esme Tombleson and Bert Walker) crossed the floor and voted with Labour to abolish the death penalty for murder. As Minister of Justice, it was his responsibility to introduce the law to Parliament, but he did so by saying that he disagreed with it.  He convinced enough of his party colleagues to vote with the opposition and thus abolished the death penalty in New Zealand.
From time to time, there have been half-hearted efforts to reintroduce the death penalty.  In 2002, Christian politician Brian Neeson, a leading advocate for tougher sentences, called for the re-introduction of the death penalty, saying “I had to put my dog down once and I found it almost impossible to do, but there are some people I wouldn’t have any trouble with”.[1]

I am not overly surprised that a Christian would take such a stance.  In 2001, as a newly appointed National Director of Prison Fellowship New Zealand, a chartered member of Prison Fellowship International, I became aware of a tension within the organisation over this issue.  The founder and Chairperson of Prison Fellowship International (PFI), the late Charles Colson, a conservative Republican, had shifted his personal position from around 1995 onwards, and began advocating publicly for the death penalty in certain cases. 

Colson later claimed that his position started to shift after visiting serial killer John Wayne
Gacey Jnr.  Gacey, also known as the Killer Clown, was an American serial killer and rapist who was convicted of the sexual assault and murder of a minimum of 33 teenage boys and young men in a series of killings committed between 1972 and 1978 in Chicago, Illinois.  As Colson later explained;

Perhaps the emotional event that pushed me over the (philosophical) edge was the John Wayne Gacy case some years ago. I visited him on death row. During our hour-long conversation he was totally unrepentant; in fact, he was arrogant. He insisted that he was a Christian, that he believed in Christ, yet he showed not a hint of remorse. The testimony in the trial, of course, was overwhelming. I don't think anybody could possibly believe that he did not commit those crimes, and the crimes were unspeakably barbaric. What I realized in the days prior to Gacy's execution was that there was simply no other appropriate response than execution if justice was to be served. 

Charles Colson, in coming to that view, took no account of Gacey’s mental health.   Three psychiatric experts appearing for the defense at Gacy's trial testified they found Gacy to be a paranoid schizophrenic who suffered from a multiple personality disorder.   The World Coalition Against the Death Penalty is this year, drawing attention to people with mental health problems who are at risk of a death sentence or execution. While opposing the death penalty absolutely, they are also committed to see existing international human rights standards implemented. Among these is the requirement that persons with mental illness or intellectual disabilities should not face the death penalty. 

Colson began advocating publicly in favour of the death penalty after the 1995 Oklahoma
bombing, when a truck-bomb explosion outside the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, left 168 people dead and hundreds more injured. The blast was set off by anti-government militant Timothy McVeigh, who in 2001 was executed for his crimes. His co-conspirator Terry Nichols received life in prison. Until September 11, 2001, the Oklahoma City bombing was the worst terrorist attack to take place on U.S. soil.  

His position created a dilemma  for the 100 plus  nations that were chartered members of PFI.  He later explained his support for the death penalty,  and Colson's personal statement deserves close reading.  This one paragraph summarises his position.  

"I must say that my views have changed and that I now favor capital punishment, at least in principle, but only in extreme cases when no other punishment can satisfy the demands of justice.   The reason for this is quite simple. Justice in God's eyes requires that the response to an offense - whether against God or against humanity - be proportionate. The lex talionis, the "law of the talion," served as a restraint, a limitation, that punishment would be no greater than the crime. Yet, implied therein is a standard that the punishment should be at least as great as the crime. One frequently finds among Christians the belief that Jesus' so-called "love-ethic" sets aside the "law of of the talion." To the contrary, Jesus affirms the divine basis of Old Testament ethics. Nowhere does Jesus set aside the requirements of civil law."

Ron Nikkel, the President of Prison Fellowship International, took a different view, and rose to the challenge by issuing a discussion paper on the topic, urging each of the PFI member nations to consider the issue, and to discuss it at a Prison Fellowship Council meeting to be held in Johannesburg, in September 2001.  As can be seen from the following extract, Ron Nikkel’s position was very different from that of Charles Colson. 

While the Old Testament law is often used to legitimize the use of the death penalty, the overarching purposes of God toward all offenders is often overlooked.  From Cain to Moses to David and others, God’s redemptive justice is evidenced not in the execution of the criminal (murderer), but in mercy.  In the person of Jesus the full nature of God’s redemptive justice is revealed through his incarnation, death and resurrection.  The dignity of human beings created in the image of God—the justification given for execution in Genesis—is now firmly established as God (in the person of Jesus) takes on human nature and becomes one of us.  The demands of victims for vindication are satisfied in the power of Jesus’ resurrection after his victimization and unjust execution.  This power to triumph mercy over vengeance is the “Christian” victory over evil.

The Eight Biennial International Council meeting of Prison Fellowship International was held  in Johannesburg, South Africa  from the 17 – 19th September.   It was there that Council members would discuss and debate an international position on the death penalty; and I was able to attend and present New Zealand’s position on the topic. 

The Council meeting was memorable for two reasons.   First, it took place a week before the  terrorist attacks  launched by the Islamic terrorist group al-Qaeda upon the United States in New York City and the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area on Tuesday, September 11, 2001.  While it focused  minds on the death penalty issue, it also meant that the US contingent did not attend – and it was in that group that we expected the greatest opposition to the abolition of the death penalty. 

The second greatest memory was staying at a game park, which was populated by a colony of baboons.  They engaged in their own terrorist activities; invading unlocked bedrooms, attacking staff carrying trays of food, and occupying the reception area. 

We had prepared a paper supporting the abolition of the death penalty,  relying heavily on the wisdom and theological reasoning of (now) Professor Chris Marshall, currently the  Diane Unwin Chair of Restorative Justice at Victoria University.  I had 60 copies printed for distribution, and had left them on the reception desk.  To my disgust, the house baboon leapt  on to the desk, positioned herself above the papers, and urinated over them.  It seems that literary criticism is not confined to the human species. 
Nikkel however, thought sufficiently well of New Zealand’s position on the death penalty to attach it as an appendix to PFI’s discussion paper.     The concluding paragraphs of the submission sought to reconcile the competing Christian positions  and move toward a theology of restoration. 

We are aware that this position may challenge some Christians who would claim that abolitionism rests on nothing less than a fundamental misunderstanding of the holiness, righteousness and justice of God.   For those, the Bible does not merely permit capital punishment; it enjoins it as a moral necessity.  But one wonders what has become in all of this of the redemptive concerns of the Christian gospel, a gospel that proclaims God’s saving justice toward all, even the worst of criminal offenders, even those who murdered Jesus Christ , the image of God par excellence. 

Capital punishment is incompatible with a gospel of redemption and reconciliation, .  This is not to deny the seriousness of sin, the moral repugnance of homicide, the culpability of criminals or the validity of penal sanctions as such.  But the moral order of God’s universe is grounded in and preserved by something more profound than the need to balance rewards and punishments on earth. 

Put positively, Christians should be the first to clamour for true justice, for redemptive justice, a justice that fosters healing and renewal, a justice informed by the spirit of Christ and not the letter of the law.  Restorative justice cannot, of course restore the life and relationships of murder victims.  But nor can retributive justice, for only God can restore life to the dead. 

Restorative justice can however, bring as much good out of evil as possible.  It is the restoration of peace and renewal of hope that manifests God’s redemptive work of making all things new.  That is the justice that is consistent with the core aims and intent of Prison Fellowship New Zealand.”

As the debate and discussion flowed back and forth,  it became clear that those Christians from nations that had experienced major civil unrest , disorder, and major human tragedy, were those most vigourously opposed to the death penalty.  Survivors of the Rwanda
Genocide, in which over the  the course of 100 days from April 6 to July 16 1994, between  800,000 to 1 million Tutsis and some moderate Hutus were massacred. were actively advocating for the abolition of the death penalty in their country, and for the introduction of restorative justice processes nation-wide.  

 In 2006, an opinion piece on the abolition of the death penalty in Rwanda  supported that government in its efforts to introduce community-led restorative justice processes.  

“Restorative justice is a movement of non-violence. It provides a mature human response to complex situations of conflict and crimes like genocide.  It does not necessarily provide a solution either. But it is a process that respects those involved and enhances the families and communities to which they belong. It recognises that violence is unacceptable and provides a non-violent but challenging and positive way of proceeding.

Restorative justice appeals to the better side of human nature and not the destructive, vengeful dark side. It is a movement of hope. The government is showing imagination and courage in promoting some restorative justice processes through Gacaca courts. It is vital the best people get to run these pilots. But this is not just another government project.

The success of the courts is dependent on community ownership and acceptance and a passion for better forms of justice. Without these three things, they will not succeed.”

The Outcome

As a result of the discussion, the 2001 International Council meeting of Prison Fellowship International unanimously passed a resolution opposing the death penalty. 

This outcome was due in no small part to Ron Nikkel’s personal courage and astuteness in promoting the discussion across Prison Fellowship International, and providing the membership with the opportunity to debate the issues.  That he was able to do so, and still retain a positive working relationship with Chairperson Charles Colson, is a testimony to his acumen.  Ron has since retired, but is in Auckland next week, and has agreed to speak on the topic ‘Just Prison” at a public meeting hosted by Prison Fellowship and the Robson Hanan Trust (Rethinking Crime and Punishment/JustSpeak )to be held on  Wednesday, 15th October, 7.30pm at the Holy Trinity Cathedral, Cnr St Stephens and Parnell Road, Auckland. 

The New Zealand submission owed its success to the scholarship and insight of Professor Chris Marshall..  At the same time that Ron Nikkel is in New Zealand, Chris will be facilitating a forum to explore the future of restorative justice in Aotearoa; looking at issues in the  Justice Sector , Education, Social Development and Youth Justice, and the development of Restorative Cities. 

Let’s take time out today to remember the people of courage who have carried forward the fight against the death  penalty, and have chosen instead to advocate for a justice that restores; the late Hon Ralph Hanan, Ron Nikkel, and Chris Marshall.   

[1] West Weekly, May 22, 2002, p.8.

122 Comments on this Post:

dudleysharp said...

New Testament Death Penalty Support Overwhelming

For more than 2000 years, there has been Christian New Testament support for the death penalty, from Popes, Saints, Doctors and Fathers of the Church, church leadership, biblical scholars and theologians that, in breadth and depth, overwhelms any teachings to the contrary.

"All interpretations, contrary to the biblical support of capital punishment, are false. Interpreters ought to listen to the Bible’s own agenda, rather than to squeeze from it implications for their own agenda. As the ancient rabbis taught, “Do not seek to be more righteous than your Creator.” (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7.33.). Part of Synopsis of Professor Lloyd R. Bailey’s book Capital Punishment: What the Bible Says, Abingdon Press, 1987.

The death penalty, from a Christian perspective, is supportive of restorative justice, as reviewed.

The Death Penalty: Mercy, Expiation, Redemption & Salvation

Jesus and the Death Penalty

Nemuch more, here:

New Testament Death Penalty Support Overwhelming

dudleysharp said...

This quote:

"Capital punishment is incompatible with a gospel of redemption and reconciliation"

Shows how basic teachings have been tossed to the wind. In both an eternal and Christian sense, capital punishment is fully in concert with redemtpion and reconciliation, as I reviewed.

It is so strange that Christians are unaware that we must seek restoration and redemption before we die, not matter what our cause of death may be.

Unknown said...

Thanks Kim,

This is a helpful article in understanding the arguments for the abolishment of capital punishment.

In terms of NZ law does treason still technically have a provision for capital punishment?

I once asked Dr Arnold Fruchtenbaum about this question as I understood that we were no longer under the Mosaic covenant and that we are partakers as gentiles of the New Covenant. Wild Olives in other words!

His response was that the token for captial punishment was in the Noahic covenant.
I have cited the 8 eight covenants of which the Noahic is one of them.

It is Arnolds view based on the scripture in this covenant that while it has been dispensationally superceded the covenant is still in effect and for this reason humanity will be judged based on their obedience or disobedience to this token!

I am interested as to whether this is something that Dr Chris Marshall has addressed in his studies and writings? Perhaps it is that under the New Covenant the Blood of Jesus speaks better things, i.e. Mercy according to the Law of the Spirit of Life that transcends the Law of sin and death (where capital punishment is an aspect of that)?

There is an interesting story in the NT where Paul encourages us to put off the old man, where in Roman times a murderer had the dead body tied to them and they would either die as the the old man rotted or the family of the murdered victim could extend mercy to the murderer to have the old man removed.

Perhaps that picture reconciles the Noahic covenant, viz a viz the Grace that we now live in is where Grace is the unmerited gift we could never earn and Mercy is the forgiveness from our sins that we deserved judgement for!

Such Grace and Mercy is only possible by the Supernatural Power of God since we in our humanity without Him seek a Life for a Life! If He gave His life for us couldn't we too?


dudleysharp said...


Quaker biblical scholar Dr. Gervas A. Carey:

" . . . the decree of Genesis 9:5-6 (Noahic Covenant) is equally enduring and cannot be separated from the other pledges and instructions of its immediate context, Genesis 8:20-9:17; . . . that is true unless specific Biblical authority can be cited for the deletion, of which there appears to be none. It seems strange that any opponents of capital punishment who professes to recognize the authority of the Bible either overlook or disregard the divine decree in this covenant with Noah; . . . capital punishment should be recognized . . . as the divinely instituted penalty for murder; The basis of this decree . . . is as enduring as God; . . . murder not only deprives a man of a portion of his earthly life . . . it is a further sin against him as a creature made in the image of God and against God Himself whose image the murderer does not respect." "A Bible Study" (p. 111-113) Essays on the Death Penalty, T. Robert Ingram, ed., St. Thomas Press, Houston, 1963, 1992.

Some are surprised to see this in the most recent Catholic Catechism:

CCC 2260: "For your lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning.... Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for God made man in his own image." "This teaching remains necessary for all time."

The PRIMARY, eternal teachings, of Catholic death penalty support have actually existed since the Genesis 9:6 passage, which is for all peoples and all times, with the same eternal teachings being reinforced through Jesus, within his human life, then through the Holy Spirit and, uninterrupted, to Pope, Saint and Father Clement of Rome through today, all based within justice and the ultimate respect for life, in God's image, which overwhelms and subdues any teachings based upon utilitarianism, "defense of society" and the current status of prison security.

Also from Dr. Carey: “. . . a secondary measure of the love of God may be said to appear. For capital punishment provides the murderer with incentive to repentance which the ordinary man does not have, that is a definite date on which he is to meet his God. It is as if God thus providentially granted him a special inducement to repentance out of consideration of the enormity of his crime . . . the law grants to the condemned an opportunity which he did not grant to his victim, the opportunity to prepare to meet his God. Even divine justice here may be said to be tempered with mercy.” synopsis: “A Bible Study”, from Essays on the Death Penalty, T. Robert Ingram, ed., St. Thomas Press, Houston, 1963, 1992. Dr. Carey was a Professor of Bible and past President of George Fox College.

"The normal moral reason for upholding capital punishment is reverence for life itself. Indeed, this is the reason why scripture and Christian tradition have upheld it, a fact which suggests that, if anything, it may be the abolition of capital punishment which threatens to cheapen life, not its retention." J. Budziszewski, Professor of Government and Philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin, Jan. 25, 2002 conference, Pew Forum, titled "A Call for Reckoning: Religion and the Death Penalty,"

dudleysharp said...

Mr. Workman writes: "Charles Colson, in coming to that view, took no account of Gacey’s mental health. "

You state that as a fact. What is your source?

Everyone, including Colson, knows that Gacey's defense was solely based upon insanity and that the jury flatly, rejected it, and that no appellate court gave any relief to Gacey based upon the claim of insanity.

Colson met with Gacey and, clearly, did not view him as insane, but as evil and unrepentant.

dudleysharp said...


"What about mercy?" someone is inclined to ask. My response is simple. There can be no mercy where justice is not satisfied. Justice entails receiving what we in fact deserve; we did in fact know better. Mercy is not receiving what we in truth deserve. To be punished, however severely, because we indeed deserve it, as C.S. Lewis observed, is to be treated with dignity as human beings created in the image of God. Conversely, to abandon the criteria of righteous and just punishment, as Lewis also pointed out, is to abandon all criteria for punishment.[2] Indeed, I am coming to see that mercy extended to offenders whose guilt is certain yet simply ignored creates a moral travesty which, over time, helps pave the way for collapse of the entire social order.[3] This is essentially the argument of Romans 13. Romans 12 concludes with an apostolic proscription of personal retribution, yet St. Paul immediately follows this with a divinely instituted prescription for punishing moral evil. It is for eminently social reasons that "the authorities" are to wield the sword, the ius gladii: due to human depravity and the need for moral-social order the civil magistrate punishes criminal behavior. The implication of Romans 13 is that by not punishing moral evil the authorities are not performing their God-appointed responsibility in society. Paul's teaching in Romans 13 squares with his personal experience. Testifying before Festus, the Apostle certifies: "If...I am guilty of doing anything deserving death, I do not refuse to die."[4])"

" The death penalty ultimately confronts us with the issue of moral accountability in the present life. Contemporary society seems totally unwilling to assign moral responsibility to anyone. Everything imaginable is due to a dysfunctional family or to having had our knuckles rapped while we were in grade-school. Ours is a day in which "abuse excuses" have proliferated beyond our wildest dreams. We really have reached a point where the Menendez brothers plead for mercy—and get it!—because they are orphans, after acknowledging that they made themselves orphans by killing their parents."

"I come to this view with something of a heavy heart, as some of the most blessed brothers I've known in my Christian walk were on death row. I think of Richard Moore in particular and, of course, Rusty Woomer, about whom I've written in The Body. I think of Bob Williams in Nebraska and Johnny Cockrum in Texas. I have a heavy heart as well because I do not believe the system administers criminal justice fairly. It is merely symbolic justice to execute twenty-five people a year when 2,000 are sentenced. (Obviously, the system needs to be thoroughly revamped. Nevertheless, revamping the system, in order that punishment be both swift and proportionate, would accord with biblical guidelines and demands the Christian's engagement.) But in spite of the flaws of the system, I have come to believe that God in fact requires capital justice, at least in the case of premeditated murder where there is no doubt of the offender's guilt. This is, after all, the one crime in the Bible for which no restitution was possible.[5]"


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