In this context it is our belief that the reported public approval of the death penalty must be questioned. Acceptance of the death penalty among the general population appears to rest on an unawareness of the rejection of the death penalty by the majority of nations in the world, the failure of the death penalty to reduce serious crime, and, above all, by a lack of moral leadership to make known ethical arguments against it.
Religious figures in
Death Penalty and Religion
"The movement to abolish the death penalty needs the religious community because the heart of religion is about compassion, human rights, and the indivisible dignity of each human person made in the image of God." Helen Prejean
Buddhism abhors the death of any living creature
The logic is faulty, but that is often the way of religions and the practice that one might expect to follow from them. Even Buddhist monks admit that they have not been conscious of the contradiction between belief and practice with regard to the penalty of death. Others resort to a version of the argument that ‘to kill a fish is a sin, but to serve fish to a monk is a greater good’. They argue that while the death penalty is wrong, the condemned criminal is burdened with karma and it is a good deed to release him from this life to be born again with a renewed opportunity to progress to nirvana.
The connection between a religious viewpoint and acceptance of the death penalty is a complex issue. Religions based on a written inspiration which is believed to be the revealed word of God, such as the Bible and the Koran, specifically enjoin the death penalty. But a reflection of the basic truths contained in their religious message can lead to an opposite conclusion. ‘Thou shalt not kill’ is unequivocal and has found its positive expression in that modern epitome of man’s relationship with other men, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, ‘Everyone has the right to life’. In this case we know the mind of those who formulated the guiding words, it was intended to make way for a total abolition of the death penalty.
1. The death penalty in religious writings and traditions.
The Hindu religion and its derivatives is the oldest religion which has a written record of beliefs. One of the core beliefs involves the concept of Ahimsa from which all other virtues emanate.
Ahimsa is a Sanskrit term meaning non-violence (literally: the avoidance of violence - himsa). Ahimsa is a rule of conduct centered in the avoidance of harm in thoughts as well as actions, and bars the killing or injuring of living beings. It is closely connected with the notion that all kinds of violence, mental or physical, entail negative karmic consequences.
The extent to which the principle of non-violence can or should be applied to different life forms is controversial between various authorities, movements and currents within the ancient religions and has been a matter of debate for thousands of years. It is an important tenet of the religions that originated in ancient
Hindu scriptures and law books support the use of violence in self-defence against an armed attacker. They make it clear that criminals are not protected by the rule of ahimsa. They have no misgivings about the death penalty; their position is that evil-doers who deserve death should be killed, and that a king in particular is obliged to punish criminals and should not hesitate to kill them, even if they happen to be his own brothers and sons.
An example enjoining the death penalty may be found in The Manu Smrti, the most authoritative Hindu law-book:
` When a woman, proud of her relations [or abilities] deceives her husband (with another man ), then the king should [ensure that] she be torn apart by dogs in a place much frequented by people ' [Manu Smrti 8:371] ` And the evil man should be burnt in a bed of red-hot iron ' [Manu Smrti 8:371-2]
In Jainism the understanding and implementation of ahimsa is more radical, scrupulous, and comprehensive than in any other religion. Non-violence is seen as the most essential religious duty for everyone (ahiṃsā paramo dharmaḥ, a statement often inscribed on Jain temples) On the other hand, Jains agree with Hindus that violence in self-defence can be justified and that a soldier who kills enemies in combat is performing a legitimate duty. Jain communities accepted the use of military power for their defence, and there were Jain monarchs, military commanders, and soldiers.
In the Jewish Christian Bible, capital punishment is prescribed: ‘For your life-blood I will demand satisfaction…. He that sheds the blood of a man, for that man his blood shall be shed’ Genesis 9, 5-6. However, there is a counter tradition in an earlier text referring to the murder of Abel by his brother Cain, both children of the first parents, Adam and Eve. Accused by God of his crime, Cain complains of his fate, “‘I shall be a vagrant and a wanderer on earth, and anyone who meets me can kill me’. The Lord answered him, ‘No: if anyone kills Cain, Cain shall be avenged sevenfold’. So the Lord put a mark on Cain, in order that anyone meeting him should not kill him.’
Throughout the Hebrew Bible, crimes incurring the death penalty are multiplied, especially for religious and sexual crimes. The Christian section of the Bible, or the New Testament, does not specifically treat of the death penalty other than by implication when Jesus is reported to have confirmed earlier laws; ‘As long as heaven and earth endure, not a letter, not a stroke, will disappear from the Law’ Matt. 5.18
Islam and Buddhism being the major religions of
excludes the death penalty.
An important attitude to the death penalty is contained in traditional African tribal law. While not specifically a religious teaching it forms part of traditional culture which is inspired by reverence for ancestors and the supernatural. Typical of this approach is the concept of unhu as practiced in
Unhu constitutes the kernel of African Traditional Jurisprudence as well as leadership and governance. In the concept of unhu, crimes committed by one individual on another extend far beyond the two individuals and have far-reaching implications to the people among whom the perpetrator of the crime comes from. Unhu jurisprudence tends to support remedies and punishments that tend to bring people together. For instance, a crime of murder would lead to the creation of a bond of marriage between the victim's family and the accused's family in addition to the perpetrator being punished both inside and outside his social circles. The role of "tertiary perpetrator" to the murder crime is extended to the family and the society to which the individual perpetrator belongs. The punishment of the tertiary perpetrator is a huge fine and a social stigma, which they must shake off after many years of demonstrating "unhu”. A leader who has "unhu" is selfless and consults widely and listens to his subjects. He or she does not adopt a lifestyle that is different from his subjects and lives among his subjects and shares what he owns. A leader who has "unhu" does not lead but allows the people to lead themselves and cannot impose his will on his people, which is incompatible with "unhu". The modern concept of rehabilitative justice is inspired by such practices of traditional justice
2. Practice of the Death Penalty
While Jesus spoke in favour of preserving the Mosaic Law, his practice was otherwise. An incident is related when religious teachers brought before him as a test case a woman caught committing adultery: ‘Master, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. In the Law Moses has laid down such women are to be stoned. What do you say about it?’ Jesus replied, ‘That one of you who is faultless shall throw the first stone.’ One by one they went away. When all had left, Jesus turned to the woman and asked, ‘Where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ She answered, ‘No one, sir.’ Jesus said, ‘Nor do I condemn you. You may go; do not sin again.’
A remarkably similar story is told of Mohammad. A woman came to the Prophet to confess her adultery. The Prophet asked if there were witnesses, but there were none. She insisted that her confession be received, but the Prophet insisted that she return four times in order for her reiterated confessions to be equivalent to the four eyewitnesses required for condemnation. When she did that, he still insisted that she corroborate her confession with external evidence. She then confessed to being pregnant. The Prophet, clearly wanting to avoid applying the penalty, deferred it until she gave birth, because otherwise the penalty would affect her unborn child. Eight months later, she returned, but the Prophet again refused to apply the penalty because she had to breastfeed the child, and he asked her to return nine months later. When she returned, he asked her if she wanted to recant her confession, but she confirmed it. He then felt that he had no choice but to order the penalty carried out. When his companions returned from the stoning, he asked them if they had heard her recant. They asked why and he said that, if she had, they should have stopped the stoning. There are other versions of this strange story but the underlying intent, for all the unhappy outcome, remains to show a wish to divert the punishment for lack of witness or for the repentance of the woman.
But the ensuing history of religions relates the sad history of thousands of years of infliction of the death penalty, and in earlier times with horrific brutality. Part of the motive was vindictiveness, and anger against the criminal and the desire to make him suffer as he had made others suffered. Those issuing the condemnation claimed that their anger was justified by the anger of God. It is said, indeed, that the so called law of the talion, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth was intended to mitigate vengeance and to set a measure to its ferocity. At times, punishment was considered a first installment of the punishment which God himself would inflict in the next life. At other times, there was expressed the pious hope that punishment inflicted in this life would allow the evildoer to repent and escape eternal punishment in the next Clearly too, there was the employment of capital punishment as a deterrent, emphasized by the public display of severed heads on spikes and allowing hanged bodies to remain suspended in public view. The public burning of heretics was another terrible warning to others. We can understand the resource to capital punishment in societies which did not have the means to securely imprison the guilty for a long period, and the need in an unstable society to meet immediate crime with immediate punishment. There was also a feeling that the presence of a murderer in a society would bring down the anger of God on a community. The complicity of religion in administering the death penalty is shown most clearly in the life of ‘Mastro Titta’, the executioner of the
3. Rejection of the Death Penalty
But gradually over the centuries the wonder of mercy came to be recognized:
The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
It is enthroned in the heart of kings;
It is an attribute of God himself,
And earthly powers doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice.
(Shakespeare, The Merchant of
The abolition of capital punishment from legal codes may be traced to the work of Cesare Beccaria (1738 – 1794) an Italian criminologist and economist. In 1764 he published ‘On Crime and Punishment’ a work on criminal justice which is still relevant today. He pointed out that the certainty of punishment was more effective in deterring crime than its severity. Criticising the use of torture and secret courts in legal procedures he rejected capital punishment. The motivation of his work was a more profound understanding of humanity rather than any religious principle. Influenced by his writing the Duchy of Tuscany became the first State to ban the death penalty in 1786.
Although religions were not the direct source of motivation in rejecting the death penalty they have come to realize that the death penalty is incompatible with the most profound principles of religion. Beginning in the last half of the 20th century, increasing numbers of religious leaders—particularly within Judaism and Roman Catholicism—campaigned against it. Capital punishment was abolished by the state of
All personal religions acknowledge that God is merciful, surely even more merciful than man. Buddhists realize that all life is sacred, that there can be no exceptions. By identifying the underlying basis of belief in religion we submit that it is part of the religious perspective to reject the death penalty. Religions must find their place in a secular world and it is heartening that an agreement about the most basic right of all, the right to life, can be a value shared by both religious people and those who do not own allegiance to any religion. It will contribute to peace in the world, that all respect the lives of each other and will never demand the penalty of the death of another, whether in time of peace or in time of war, or for any reason whatsoever. And in token of this determination we welcome the support of all religions in urging our country to ratify the 2nd Protocol to the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights which makes explicit the full meaning of the entitlement to life established in the law of nations.