“A murderer forfeits his life, and it is right that he should be killed by the sword.” So said Martin Luther, and his argument to that effect, cited here last week, may have impressed some readers and discombobulated others. But among those who confidently tell one another and the world that it’s unchristian—nay, uncivilized—to put murderers to death, the most likely response was to shrug it off.
“Martin Luther, what does he know? The man was a hot-head. His writings aren’t Holy Scripture, and not even Lutherans accept all of them anymore. Why should we care what Luther had to say?”
Granted that Luther was an unusual and in some ways a problematic figure. But his views on crime and punishment—how unusual and problematic are they? Where do they stand in what is normally considered the Christian tradition?
The answer is: Smack in the middle of it.
Start with Scripture. The many harsh penalties in the Law of Moses are well known. The fact that Jesus, in warning Peter not to commit the crime of resisting His arrest, spoke words that are a paraphrase of the law given to Noah—that is less widely appreciated. And notice that both verses (Genesis 9:6 and Matthew 26:52) speak of all murderers paying with their lives for their crimes. Not one in ten, not one in a hundred, still less one in a thousand, which is the way we Americans today “enforce” our laws prohibiting murder.
Death penalty opponents sometimes quote St. Paul: “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord’ ” (Romans 12:19). If they would only linger in the Scriptures for just a little while, they’d reach the part where Paul says: “But if you do wrong, be afraid, for [the one who is in authority] does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:4). So Paul turns out to say the opposite of what the opponents represent as his meaning.
Then there’s St. Augustine, who saw the death penalty and other punishments as necessary social institutions, for “while these are feared, the wicked are kept within bounds and the good live more peacefully among the wicked.” And St. Thomas Aquinas, who, while arguing against the pacifist interpretation of Matthew 26:52, quoted Augustine—“To take the sword is to arm oneself in order to take the life of anyone, without the command or permission of superior or lawful authority”—and added: “On the other hand, to have recourse to the sword … by the authority of the sovereign or judge … is not to take the sword, but to use it as commissioned by another, and so it does not deserve punishment.”
Aquinas further observed:
Man has a natural aptitude for virtue; but the perfection itself of virtue must be acquired by man by means of some kind of training. … As to those young people who are inclined to acts of virtue by their good natural disposition, or by custom, or rather by the gift of God, paternal training suffices, which is by admonitions. But since some are found to be depraved, and prone to vice, and not easily amenable to words, it was necessary for such to be restrained from evil by force and fear.
Desiderius Erasmus, a contemporary of Luther’s, was temperamentally his opposite. Theologically, Erasmus differed enough from Luther to remain a faithful Catholic, preferring to reform the Church’s faults from within. This “Prince of the Humanists” wrote that “there is not, nor ever was, nor ever will be any man who does not need mercy.” But in citing the example of King David, who had Uriah killed so as to take Bathsheba for himself, Erasmus affirmed the ruler’s responsibility to mete out punishment:
David committed murder and adultery, two deadly offenses. Either of these is more heinous when committed by a king, since it is his duty to punish these crimes in others. The more impudently princes sin among men, the more seriously they offend God.
Erasmus contrasted God’s potential forgiveness of sins in the hereafter with the duty of temporal rulers on earth, noting that were a king to forgive murder as God can do, “then the people would cry that the king’s clemency was inordinate, since it impaired the force of the law and encouraged sin by the impunity it allowed.”
Against all that, let’s hear from a modern-day Lutheran, the American criminologist Victor H. Evjen, who wrote in the March 1968 issue of Lutheran Women: “Retribution cannot be considered a legitimate goal of criminal law.” That, said he, is because retribution “is repugnant to modern civilized man.”
The 1960s were modern liberalism’s heyday, when liberals were thoroughly in control (and things consequently were going thoroughly to hell). From the Left’s proud tower, Evjen presented his assertions not as mere personal opinion but as self-evident facts. Yet they are easily disproven, not just by the examples already cited but by two Christians of the modern era, both of whom defended retribution as a legitimate goal of the law.
Désiré Cardinal Mercier became a hero to the Belgians during World War I, when his country was subjected to a deliberate policy of terror by the invading German army. The German commanders in August 1914 hoped this schrecklichkeit would speed their passage through Belgium and thus ensure quick victory over France on the Western Front. Two years into the war, Cardinal Mercier spoke these defiant words from the pulpit of the cathedral in German-occupied Brussels:
Whatever may be our sufferings, we must not wish to show hatred toward those who have inflicted them. Our national unity is joined with a feeling of universal brotherhood. But even this feeling of universal brotherhood is dominated by our respect for the unconditional justice, without which no relationship is possible, either between individuals or between nations. And that is why, with St. Thomas Aquinas, the most authoritative teacher of Christian theology, we proclaim that public retribution is commendable.
Crime, violation of justice, outrage on the public peace, whether enacted by an individual or by a group, must be repressed. Men’s minds are stirred up, tortured, uneasy, as long as the guilty one is not put back in his place, as the strong, healthy, colloquial expression has it. … Public retribution in this sense may distress the affected sentimentality of a weak nature; all the same, it is, says St. Thomas, the expression and the decree of the highest, the purest form of charity, and of the zeal which is its flame. It does not make a target of suffering, but a weapon wherewith to avenge the outrage of justice.
How can one love order without hating disorder; intelligently wish for peace without expelling that which is destroying it; love a brother, that is to say wish him well, without desiring that willingly, or by force, his will shall bend before the unalterable edicts of justice and truth?
In 1940, C.S. Lewis carried forward Cardinal Mercier’s argument:
A bad man, happy, is a man without the least inkling that his actions do not “answer,” that they are not in accord with the laws of the universe. A perception of this truth lies at the back of the universal human feeling that bad men ought to suffer … Some enlightened people would like to banish all conceptions of retribution or desert from their theory of punishment and place its value wholly in the deterrence of others or the reform of the criminal himself. They do not see that by so doing they render all punishment unjust. What can be more immoral than to inflict suffering on me for the sake of deterring others if I do not deserve it? And if I do deserve it, you are admitting the claims of “retribution.” And what can be more outrageous than to catch me and submit me to a disagreeable process of moral improvement without my consent, unless (once more) I deserve it?
And in Mere Christianity (1952), Lewis wrote:
Does loving your enemy mean not punishing him? No, for loving myself does not mean that I ought not to subject myself to punishment—even to death. If one had committed a murder, the right Christian thing to do would be to give yourself up to the police and be hanged. It is, therefore, in my opinion, perfectly right for a Christian judge to sentence a man to death.
In linking retribution with the spiritual welfare of offenders as well as the physical welfare of their victims, Mercier and Lewis were echoing those who went before them. Erasmus, for example, in “The Immense Mercy of God” noted that God’s mercy to sinners’ souls is often coupled with correction, with earthly misfortunes, and sometimes even with death. And Augustine wrote, “It is not without advantage that human recklessness should be confined by fear of the law so that innocence may be safe among evil-doers, and the evil-doers themselves may be cured by calling on God when their freedom of action is held in check by fear of punishment.”
In discussing these matters, I haven’t yet mentioned the elephant in the room: Pope Francis, who in a recent homily pronounced executions “inadmissible,” a practice that while formerly accepted is now seen to be “a mortal sin.”
I would not be so insolent as to dispute the Holy Father on a question of Christian ethics. I will, however, point out that Francis was not speaking ex cathedra, and may not have intended to go beyond what his predecessors John Paul II and Benedict XVI had already said about capital punishment: that it is permissible only when it is “the only possible way” to protect the innocent, and that such cases are “very rare, if not practically nonexistent.”
To inflict suffering needlessly would indeed be “a mortal sin.” Of course it is. But the idea that capital punishment serves no purpose in protecting the innocent is a statement not about Christian ethics but about the affairs of this world, a statement that contradicts something taken for granted by virtually all the Christian authorities quoted above: that deterrence is (or can be) real.
It seems today’s Catholic leadership has fallen for modern liberalism’s bait-and-switch: “Executions don’t deter”—(sotto voce: “when rarely carried out”). More on that here.
Knowing that a liberal would sooner say the world is flat than admit being guilty of anything, let’s give the last word to another Christian writer of note, John Calvin:
If [rulers] sheath their sword and keep their hands unsullied by blood, while the wicked roam about massacring and slaughtering, then so far from reaping praise for their goodness and justice, they make themselves guilty of the greatest possible injustice.