I recently read Richard Shumack’s Fifty Years Without the Death Penalty, Australia Should be Grateful. It’s a well written article, which explores the important relationship between justice and punishment—a topic I’ve been fascinated with for a long time.
Shumack starts by explaining that he isn’t against punishment:
Anyone who has been seriously wronged knows that the deep intuitive longing for justice usually includes the offender “paying for it” in some sense.
I think he’s right that most people rightly long for justice, although it raises questions:
- What exactly is justice?
- How do we know when justice has been achieved?
- How do we untangle the desire for retribution from the desire for revenge?
- Should we leave retribution to God?
I’m glad he unpacks this further:
Rehabilitation is a noble goal for our justice system, but not in a way that ignores proper retribution.
What do I mean by proper retribution? I’m still not sure in practice. A simple “eye for an eye” is unworkable (how can the offences of a mass murderer carry a proportional punishment?), and fails to allow for clemency. Still, very serious crimes do seem to warrant very serious punishment.
Along those lines, I do think that a reasonable case can be made for the death penalty as a just punishment.
I think rehabilitation is part of God’s plan and so is indeed noble. Unlike God, we can’t see an offender’s heart, and so our rehabilitation sometimes disappoints because it isn’t complete. Rehabilitation and retribution are sometimes seen as mutually exclusive concepts but, as Shumack implies, I think they can overlap. Although getting retribution right in practice is difficult—possibly something only God can do.
Taking a step back, what if the aim of punishment was to help the perpetrator fully comprehend the physical and psychological damage done (e.g. the anxiety resulting from having trust violated)—to deeply understand their actions from the victim’s perspective? Ideally this authentic empathy would be achieved through educative rehabilitation but it seems that sometimes it’s only possible through personal experience… and I think this is where a particular type of retribution may play a role.
Consider someone who is caught vandalising and the types of retribution they could be given:
- Jail time or a fine.
- Someone vandalises something of equal value that belongs to the offender.
- The offender is required to see how the victims are impacted, and then helps to repair it.
I’d suggest that type 3. is the best as it most clearly demonstrates to the offender the damage done, and is the most natural consequence—most closely linked to the offense. However, if the offender still doesn’t fully comprehend, type 2. might be required or at least threatened (there’s room for clemency/mercy as the goal is comprehension, rather than simply trying to “balance the books”). Type 1. is the most disconnected from the offense and should therefore be the last resort.
But what about the case of the mass murderer that Shumack mentioned? Sometimes when the offender experiences gracious love from someone or undeserved forgiveness from the victims (e.g. Jesus, Mandela and Eric Lomax), it brings about genuine comprehension, repentance, and transformation of the offender (e.g. a resolute conviction to never kill again, and instead devote their life to helping victims and helping others to not become murderers). Sometimes educating the offender—say, showing them the awful hurt done to the victims—is enough to turn them around.
But what if all these responses have failed? Is there any type of retribution that would spur the offender to change? Perhaps—the attempts by our justice systems have had mixed results to say the least. Would executing an offender give them a fuller understanding of what it felt like for their victims? If it did, is it worth it when it denies the possibility of reconciliation, and possibly the victim’s healing, in this life?
It also seems possible that [the death penalty] could produce some good, even for the offender – by forcing them to face up to the wrong they’ve done, and so opening up redemptive possibilities. This is especially true if you hold that this life is not all there is. The dramatic transformation of Andrew Chan as he faced death in a Balinese prison is a case in point.
I think sometimes good can come from the death penalty, particularly if you believe justice and redemption are matters that go beyond this life. Although, as Shumack points out, any potential good still seems outweighed by other factors. First, the apparent inability of earthly justice systems to avoid executing innocents. Second, if someone on death penalty isn’t pardoned when they’ve had a dramatic transformation (e.g. Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran) the good being done by them is seemingly cut short. Having said that, their influence may continue—like a martyr’s—as Another Day in Paradise demonstrates.
Primarily, however, I am glad [Australia doesn’t have the death penalty] because, in a world of brokenness and violence, I want to be a person who hopes for better, and the death penalty radically diminishes hope …
For Dostoevsky, the death penalty was devastating because it eliminates all hope for continued physical life on earth. This is true, of course, but to me, it seems even more hopeless than that. In the condemned criminal’s situation, I would want to cling not just to life itself, but to the possibility of transformation, redemption, even reconciliation.
I want to be a person who hopes for the better too. While the death penalty diminishes hope of life, transformation, redemption, and reconciliation now, it doesn’t have to diminish the hope that all these will occur in the age to come. Christie Buckingham describes Sukumaran’s amazing hope—even at his execution—that “the better” was in the age to come (reminds me of Paul in Philippians 1:20-24).
Shumack reflects on the last person executed in Australia, Ronald Ryan:
… We cannot know the truth about Ryan’s conscience and whether it [the death sentence] had pricked this repeat offender towards redemption. My hope is that it had – but if not, his hanging certainly eliminated any chance it would.
I hope Ryan’s conscience was pricked during this life but even if it wasn’t, I suspect it probably has been by now as I don’t believe his hanging eliminated repentance and redemption in the age to come.
Often, of course, this sort of hope is against reasonable hope. It would be naive not to recognise the reality that some individuals simply will not be reformed – perhaps cannot be reformed. Still, I hope because I have seen miraculous turnarounds.
I think some individuals refuse to turnaround in this life but I don’t believe (partly because of miraculous turnarounds we’ve already witnessed) anyone is eternally beyond God’s ability to reform.
I have a friend who is a true sociopath. He was jailed for a nearly successful attempt to murder his father with a hammer while studying chemistry to engineer the explosive destruction of thousands. Beyond hope – most others’ and his own – he reluctantly recognised his spiritual poverty through being rudely confronted by the extraordinary love of a cell-mate who responded to his persistent malevolence, not with justice, but with patient humour and grace. This encounter, transcending the will of the justice system, set him on the pathway to deep rehabilitation.
Wow! This type of deep rehabilitation, brought about by love and grace, is what I’m hoping—by God’s grace—will ultimately occur for each and every person.
There’s an important clue in my friend’s story. Hoping for the redemption of the offender, hoping in justice or the justice system, is not enough. In the words of Nelson Mandela (who ought to know), “in the end, reconciliation is a spiritual process, which requires more than just a legal framework. It has to happen in the hearts and minds of people.”
I heartily agree with that Mandela quote!
It may be in its favour that the death penalty satisfies justice, but if so, that is all it does. What goes against the death penalty is that it cuts off abruptly the possibilities for a wrongdoer to discover the sort of redemption that transcends justice.
I don’t think redemption and justice are at odds but that redemption is an essential step towards ultimate justice—that God’s justice/shalom is so much more than retribution (although retribution might need to occur before redemption sometimes, as I tried to articulate above). Because of this, I don’t think the death penalty alone ever satisfies justice—at most it might be a step towards it.
I am glad, then, to celebrate my half-century with the demise of the death penalty. Not because it is necessarily morally wrong, but because it shows that I live in a society that embraces hope, however remote, and the possibility of a second chance.
Amen brother! We all need second chances!