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Friday, September 23, 2011  

Religiosity and the Death Penalty

Christopher Hitchens, unsurprisingly, thinks the former explains our love of the latter:

Nobody had been bothering to argue that the rope or the firing squad, or the gas chamber, or “Old Sparky” the bristle-making chair, or the deadly catheter were a deterrent. The point of the penalty was that it was death. It expressed righteous revulsion and symbolized rectitude and retribution. Voila tout! The reason why the United States is alone among comparable countries in its commitment to doing this is that it is the most religious of those countries. (Take away only China, which is run by a very nervous oligarchy, and the remaining death-penalty states in the world will generally be noticeable as theocratic ones.)

Once we clear away the brush, then, we can see the crystalline purity of the lex talionis and the principle of an eye for an eye. (You might wish to look up the chapter of Exodus in which that stipulation occurs: it is as close to sheer insane ranting and wicked babble as might well be wished, and features the famous ox-goring and witch-burning code on which, one sometimes fears, too much of humanity has been staked.)

As for that last part, you can read it for yourself and decide if Hitchens speaks fairly (it contains no reference to witches, and the ox-goring passages strike me as reasonable given the circumstances of a pastoral community with no state apparatus, but you may conclude otherwise). To the larger point, perhaps Hitchens is right. Capital punishment was widespread throughout the West until the latter half of the 20th century. The divergence between the U.S. and Europe seems to me to have a lot to do with elite leadership in Europe (are ordinary Europeans so fully revolted at the idea of executions?). And if racism can't be blamed for its persistence in light of recent expansion, I don't know why religiosity can: we are not becoming more religious as a nation just as we're not becoming more racist.

I don't know how to account for it, honestly, and it appalls me. But if we're going to blame religion, we had better leave Moses out of it. The lex talionis, it seems clear in context, is meant to limit retribution. Remember that there is no state in the usual sense and no police apparatus in this time. How do you think people would be inclined to respond to a gouged eye? Or the killing of a family member? I always wonder what Moses-haters out there imagine humanity was like before the Torah. Did people take eye-gougings with equanimity until Moses said they needed to exact an eye in exchange? The point of the law is only an eye, only a tooth, and only one life for one life.

That is not by any means to defend our current practices. But it's interesting to note the other side of this proverbial coin. As Bonhoeffer points out in his letters from prison, the Torah never deprives a person of freedom. What, after all, is more cruel and barbaric: taking a man's tooth or a year of his life over a bar fight? I wonder whether we assume that prison is in fact worse than these corporal punishments, or whether we imagine that it improves the prisoner. I don't know. But there's more to the justice system than executions, and there are insanities and cruelties that fly under acknowledged flags. They don't even need the authority of Moses to continue.

posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 11:10 PM
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