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Question 49

What is the church's teaching regarding capital punishment? In the old testament as far as I understand, God allowed the Jews to seek retribution proportional to the harm they suffered in order to curb excessive revenge i.e. an eye for an eye. In the New testament we are taught not only to not sin but to cut off the roots of our sins for example whoever looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery in his heart and we are taught to turn the other cheek. However ,Christ said that we should render unto Caesar the things that are Caesars and the things that are God's unto God. What does the church teach concerning capital punishment?   



Answer to Question 49


 In the Old Testament the law was the Law of Moses which was executed by the religious leaders who had the authority to pronounce the punishment for a crime. We usually think of the law as the Ten Commandments, but after giving the first Ten Commandments, God follows with hundreds of other laws and ordinances that Israel had to observe which dealt with everything on worship, on sacrifices, on servant’s rights, on how to live with their neighbours, how to receive strangers, on cursing, on what to do if someone’s animal harmed someone else, what punishments were to be applied for stealing various items, for killing premeditated or accidentally, for causing a fire that destroys another’s crops, for trespassing, and many other laws that we have to this day but with different punishments. 


 There were many crimes punishable by death: If anyone hits another man and he die he will be punished by death. The executioner was usually the next of kin of the victim.  If the death was unintentional then he will be given a town where he can flee to. The towns for refuge are mentioned in Numbers and Deuteronomy. In the case of a premeditated attempted murder where a man lies in wait for his neighbour to cunningly slay him, but fails, and then seeks refuge at the altar, he shall be taken from the altar and put to death. 


Whoever hits his father or mother will be put to death. Whoever insults and badmouths his father or mother is again guilty of death. Other laws of the time completely ignored the mother so the Jewish law was first to recognized certain equal rights between the sexes.  If someone abducts another son of Israel and forcibly sells him and his guilt is proved then he will be put to death. 


The law: an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth did not include a life for a life because the circumstances of the death had to be established and so it referred mainly to lesser bodily harms. In theory it was a justifiable punishment, and a deterrent, but it was very rarely put into practice. Jewish tradition refused to interpret the law in it's literally sense and instead used it to calculate a reasonable money compensation to be given to the victim.


The Mosaic Law had only one purpose; to prepare Israel spiritually for the coming of the Messiah. Christ the Messiah is the same God of the Old Testament that gave them the Law, thus when he came as a man he didn't come to destroy the law which he had given, but came to fulfil it and renew it. Christ said: "Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. 


The Old law was not perfect, but it served to teach the people right from wrong. Without the Law there was no definition of what was pleasing to God for as St. Paul says “I would not have known sin except through the Law. For I would not have known covetousness unless the Law had said ‘you shall not covet’”. (Romans 7:7) 


The law then defined what sin was and without it the people were unaware of its existence. But even with the law, the people were not ready to accept spiritual laws like turning the other cheek and loving their enemies. They needed to be educated slowly and in a way they could understand. An eye for an eye was, for that period of time before grace, the most effective law, because in the majority of cases the fear in breaking the law held them bound to keeping the law. 


With the coming of Christ a new covenant was given and with the new covenant a new law. With this new law based on love Christ did away with the death penalty. According to the Old law the woman taken in adultery was to be stoned to death, but Christ said that “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her”. (John 8:7) Thus for us Christians and the Church there is no more a death sentence and we are taught to forgive all crimes against humanity. 


But this is a religious law and we are not ruled by the Church, but by civil authorities who also have laws protecting its civilians and which must be obeyed or suffer the consequences appointed by the civil courts.


How then should we interpret Christ’s saying “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesars and the things that are God's unto God”? Here we have something of a contradiction. We are obliged to live according to the law of the land and be law abiding citizens, but also obliged to live according to the spiritual laws laid down by God. The Church therefore cannot condone the taking of a life under any circumstance. But I would also say that it is not a case of rending unto Caesar the things that are Caesars. A life does not belong to Caesar to dispose of according to his laws; life belongs to God who is the giver of life and only he should have the authority and power to end it.