In spite of the death-penalty having been abolished from (civil) legislation in many countries, society uses the death penalty as soon as a martial law is declared or during a situation of war. It is acceptable under military law for a soldier who defends his/her country to kill an invading soldier whose intend is to kill him. Under civil law it is also acceptable for a policeman to kill a criminal who is trying to kill him in a shoot-out. The same is the case when a civilian is attacked by another civilian which could result in being killed and then in self-defense kills his/her attacker. However, is it acceptable for society to defend itself against a habitual murderer who intends killing some of its citizens by killing him? My answer to this question would be ‘no’. Death is final and there is nothing we can do to compensate the victim for his or her death if later on more evidence is discovered and he/she turns out to be innocent. From a Judeo-Christian perspective I believe in the value of all human life and that this translate in the ethic that no human life should be terminated unless there is no other less harmful alternative. Christ teaches that we should live according to one supreme law and that is to love our fellow human as we love ourselves. The theologian-philosopher Paul who stood at the cradle of European Christianity stressed that this is our prime obligation from which all other laws are derived (Romans 13:8). In his writings he explains that such neighbourly love is expressed in respect, practical care, solidarity, brotherhood as well as equal and just treatment. The off-chance that we may be accidentally be executing someone who later turns out to be innocent of the crime therefore makes the death-penalty unacceptable in the light of this supreme moral obligation. In human history it has happened too many times that an innocent person was executed for a crime and even large amounts of money given in compensation to the bereaved families do no not rectify such injustices.
Now in the case of a soldier defending his country or a policeman shooting in self-defense both find themselves in a me-or-him scenario and they have very few (if any) other options. The Biblical principle of ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ here puts one in a fix for one has to protect his own life too as well as the lives of those one is tasked to protect. In this scenario the life of the soldier and policeman doing their duties, or an individual protecting his family during an assault is more important than that of the enemy soldier or of the violent criminal as he represents more than just himself. Ethics demands that if we have no other choice but to choose between saving one or saving many, we must choose the latter. However, as soon as a soldier is captured or a criminal is caught the dynamics change. They are now fully at our mercy as a society which brings responsibility for us to execute justice. It is no longer a life and death crisis scenario but there are suddenly many more options. Killing them is no longer an urgent necessity and incarceration is to be preferred so that we do not take the risk at all to kill an innocent man or woman. At the same time I do believe that the government does bear a grave responsibility to society to ensure the well being of all its citizens. From this perspective an unrepentant (mass) murderer who is still a danger to society should never be allowed out on the streets again. I am therefore both against the death-penalty but also against limiting a life-time in prison to only 20 years. There have been too many incidents of murderers being released from prison after serving their sentence only to murder again shortly after. By releasing unrepentant murderers into society we are actually indirectly exacting the death-penalty on unsuspecting victims. So based on my belief in “do unto others as you would like to have done to yourself” my conclusion would be that if I were a (mass) murderer I would rather be incarcerated for a lifetime than being killed. However, on the basis of doing unto others as I would want to have done to me I cannot expose society to people who are likely to murder someone as I would not want my loved ones or myself to be exposed to such people. To lock them up forever then seems the least harmful solution for all involved, including the perpetrator unless it can be guaranteed that they no longer pose a danger to society. This means for example that if a murderer gets infirm due to old age or paralyzed due to a disease and no longer is a danger to society he/she should be allowed to leave prison and go to a nursing home.
Sometimes the argument is given that giving criminals the death penalty is much cheaper. This off course is true as incarceration is expensive. Not all societies are able to fund proper prison facilities which guarantee that criminals can’t escape and pose a threat to society. However, the death penalty is not the only way to cut costs. Some nations resort to banishment of long-term prisoners to penal colonies where they have to work for a living but cannot leave the region/island. In other situations prisons cut costs by providing basic but decent shelter, clothes, beds and meals but for any extras prisoners are expected to work in factory facilities in the prison. As long as the state ensure that this does not become slave labour or exploitation it may be acceptable from a Judeo-Christian perspective to take such measures.
Finally some extremists will point at the Old Testament’s use of the death penalty as an argument for using it today. However, to do so would be ignoring the fact that Christ in His sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) makes it very clear that He stands for a different kind of justice than that of Moses and the Old Testament. He stands for a kind of justice which goes beyond retribution and states that we ought to love our enemies. Loving our enemies does not mean aiding them in their evil or allowing them to do as they please but it does include treating them humanly with respect, kindness, care and fairness. Treating them as we would wish we were treated in their place. In conclusion the death penalty does not comply with the kind of justice Christ promotes.