By Matthew Adams
24 August 2011
A petition urging the reintroduction of the death penalty in the UK poses some pertinent questions for Christianity.
The recent launch of a petition urging parliament to consider the restoration of the death penalty will not make for a completely dispiriting episode if it gives us pause to revisit the punishment's long relationship with Christianity, an alliance that was formally ratified when Henry I reinstated state-sanctioned execution in 1108. This was an age in which the biblical warrants for capital punishment re-established themselves in the penal "philosophy" of the nation, and in which the Christian religion, in all its sanguinary imaginings, really was religious.
The biblical warrants themselves are numerous: the Old Testament enthusiastically identifies 36 offences that are punishable by death (these include being rude about mum and dad and, if you are a woman, getting married while no longer a virgin), while the New Testament, supposedly the most enlightened part of the Bible, practically assumes the right of the state to execute "offenders". Furthermore, Exodus 21:13, which commands us not to kill, was taken by St Augustine to rest in full sympathy with the argument for capital punishment, it being "in no way contrary to the commandment, 'Thou shalt not kill' to wage war at God's bidding, or for the representatives of the State's authority to put criminals to death." Martin Luther went further still, issuing a swaggering condemnation of the practice whereby the executioner would petition his victim for forgiveness. No need, says Luther: the executioner is an agent of God.
The fervour with which Christian thinkers defended the divinity of the warrant for capital punishment was mirrored by the zeal with which they argued for the "moral" necessity of imposing it, and as the movement to abolish the death penalty got going under the auspices of the Enlightenment in the late 18th century, religious types made a huge effort to retard a cause that was at odds with their moral vision of the world (and that threatened to undermine their place within it).
In 1810, the archbishop of Canterbury, Charles Manners-Sutton, ganged up with six other bishops to help defeat a bill that would have abolished the imposition of the death penalty for stealing five shillings, and attempts in the early 1830s to abolish the punishment for minor crimes met routinely with opposition from the House of Lords (comprised mainly of landowners and bishops). In the 1840s and 50s, as the nation's revulsion at public hangings intensified (Dickens hated their "odious levity"; Thackeray thought them "hideous and degrading"), it was the faithful, protective of their endangered idea, who argued that execution should in future be carried out inside prisons, hiding the revolting spectacle from view. This meant doing without the "improving" effect that public hangings were taken to have on the nation's subjects (including its children), but as Bishop Samuel Wilberforce recognised: "A few more such scenes would have the effect of making men's minds recoil from that which I believe to be essential to the highest principles of justice." Better to hang in private than to lose the death penalty altogether.
Wilberforce got his wish: from 1868, following the Capital Punishment Amendment Act, all executions would take place within the walls of a prison. The effect was damaging, diminishing public awareness of the horrors of the death penalty, and draining support from the cause of abolition. The movement would not gain any real traction again until after the Second World War, when a bill in the House of Commons for a five-year suspension of the death penalty was adopted. The bill was, however, defeated in the Lords, at which point the home secretary, James Chuter Ede, established a new royal commission on capital punishment, unpromisingly charged with inquiring whether "capital punishment should be limited or modified".
It was a mild enough remit, but for the archbishop of Canterbury, Geoffrey Fisher, it was an opportunity to reaffirm, in his peculiar way – sinister, soppy-stern – the "moral" necessity of punishment by death. "Speaking as a churchman," he said, "so long as this awful punishment … is retained it should be delivered from every circumstance which may make it anything less than it is." Meaning? Hanging for all, including those found guilty of "mercy" killing. Such was his regard for human life.
Despite the efforts of Fisher and other faith-based retentionists, capital punishment would eventually be abolished in December 1969. By this stage, it is probably fair to say that most religious figures had come to oppose the death penalty, and in 1983 the General Synod of the Church of England stated that it would "deplore" its restoration. In doing so it was presumably drawing on some obscure theological chicanery that liberated it from the imperatives inscribed in its own holy book. But if so, why did we have to wait until the late 20th century to hear about it?
And what will we hear over the coming weeks, should the debate over capital punishment intensify? It will be instructive to see how the church positions itself; and instructive, too, to see if it is able to dispel the suspicion that the ground it has given on the matter of capital punishment – like the ground it has given on gay and women's rights – represents not a moment of theological illumination, nor a system of belief that is independently getting nicer, but a religion that, forced to accommodate itself to the demands of the secular idea, has become steadily if conveniently less religious.
Source: The Guardian, London