There was a time when I believed that the death penalty was an act of justice, administered by the state for the punishment of crime.
The basic fallacy undermining my understanding had to do with a misconception of justice, which I saw only as a means of punishment, rather than as the figurative straightening of that which has been made crooked.
I understood the atonement as just in a legal way, God's wrath demonstrated on His son, rather than justice as a real and active aspect of Christ's manner of being, his life and actions.
I thought of love as an imposing force, the idea that the powerful are called to rule benevolently over the lesser, rather than as a power that moves one to extreme humility, exemplified by Christ who submits to capital punishment for sins he did not commit.
When I became an Orthodox Christian, my views began to change rather swiftly over a period of years, especially when I began to meditate on the meaning of divine Love, the reality of the existence of free will, and the testimony of the Church throughout time. Politically, I gradually moved from the extreme right towards more progressive views on the death penalty -- not as a child of the times (opposition to the death penalty is nothing new, as can be seen, for example, by the outlawing of the death penalty by St. Vladimir at the dawn of Holy Rus) but as a response to my understanding of who God is, what Christ accomplished, and what the Traditions of the Church teach.
I have come to understand that the death penalty is not a valid solution to crime. In agreement with Saint Cyprian of Carthage, an early Christian who lived in the 200s, I now affirm that murder is murder, whether it is executed by an evil individual or morally justified through a sophistry of logic by a systemically corrupt government that puts itself in the place of God.
My agreement with Cyprian, who was himself martyred, stems from my religious bias, which promotes a consistent ethic of life, emphasizing the dignity of the human person. Cyprian and a majority of the early Christians believed that vengeance did not belong to either individual people or the state but to God. The sanction of punishment by death is not valid because a representative democracy is not an impassable force; it is vengeance, and the rhetoric and appeal of those who promote it seek revenge, not justice.
There is a difference. Revenge is motivated by a desire to inflict the same harm upon another that one has suffered himself. Justice, on the other hand, is motivated by a desire to correct the fundamental pathology that has resulted in acts of evil. Capital punishment by death falls into the former category; murder is never the only solution available for punishing or correcting criminal behavior.
Since the death penalty is an act of revenge, sanitized by the state, then it cannot be an act of justice, since revenge is itself an unjust passion. The state that bears the sword in order to deter crime must act with virtuous motives; revenge is clearly not a virtuous motive. Therefore, in the murderous act of capital punishment, the state, acting in vengeance, partakes of (rather than resolves) the sin of murder. The criminal's initial act of ending a life is not punished justly, but rather, the state itself becomes stained with the blood of an act that is of itself evil.
The rhetoric surrounding whether or not capital punishment is a deterrent to further murders is fallacious on its face. Beating one's child senseless for disobedience might be a deterrent from bad behavior (in the short term), but we all agree that it is implicitly wrong. The result does not pragmatically justify the means.
The prospect of punishment does not prevent crime. People are well aware of the risk of punishment when they commit major crimes, and it is doubtful that most of them, on a subjective level, would reason, "If I get caught, it's only life in prison."
Regardless, even if it is a deterrent in the sense that it absolutely prevents one individual (the person who is executed) from murdering again, that in itself does not justify it. Despite the cynical rhetoric of those who claim that some people simply cannot change, there is always hope for everyone. Life does not end in prison, and there is always the potential possibility that one who murders might gradually come to experience an interior change, repent, and convert. The eventual healing of the murderer's corrupt heart is a true definition of justice. The death penalty puts an immediate end to any such hope.
People who commit crimes do so because of disorderly souls. They are indeed responsible for their own actions, and should be punished -- but the punishment cannot be carried out by the victim, or with the same motives that moved the criminal. The ancient principle of "an eye for an eye" was overturned by Jesus himself, though you wouldn't know it if you listened to the rhetoric of many "conservative" Christians. Jesus taught, to the contrary, that true justice embodies loving one's enemies.
According to basic principles of law and order in any civilized society, civil and criminal justice should be administered by the state with an objective and fair intent. Revenge is a dissolute and empty, unsatisfying passion, completely antithetical to the more difficult virtue of forgiveness. But where revenge is easily understood as a motive one might give in to, forgiveness is a sign of greater strength, and far better for one's own psyche.
Can one truly forgive a murderer, someone who has wantonly taken the life of another? A good friend, a Presbyterian pastor, did. The murder of his sister made national headlines when she was shot for no reason while vacationing in Florida. Yet both he and his brother-in-law (the victim's husband) found the courage to privately and publicly forgive the murderer. Why?
The drink of revenge distorts and embitters the soul, but the meat of forgiveness strengthens it. One who forgives proves himself to be of greater integrity, authority, and power than the person who has offended him. Forgiveness doesn't mean forgetting, nor does it mean not grieving, and it certainly doesn't mean pretending to like the murderer. Paths of forgiveness include the fire of grief, the wrenching and breaking (and cleansing) of the spirit. Forgiveness heals and frees the victim. Paths of revenge merely feed passions, and are bitter, spiteful, hateful and full of malice and darkness.
True justice, or true righteousness, is to forgive the offender while dealing clearly and without vengeance in administering punishment for his crime. Why should the state adopt a motive for punishment that not only indirectly repeats the initial offense, but also is rooted in a dissolute and empty passion?
Murderers are responsible for their behavior, not their mothers or their bad upbringing or the underlying power relationships of their environment. They have made a choice; the power of the will is involved in the decision to commit heinous crime. Forgiveness does not mean forgetting what the criminal has done, nor does it mean letting him off easily. Yet, all crime -- including murder -- is rooted in an interior disorder. Those who kill others, whether as an act of temporary emotion (such as someone who finds his spouse caught in an affair), or as an act of extremely defiled cruelty and violence, have wrecked interior lives. They live in misery, not necessarily on an emotional level, but depending upon the person, there are always psychological torments present in the lives of those who lack basic integrity.
It may seem radical to say, therefore, that the murderer is to be pitied rather than hated because he has made his soul a hellish place, whether it is felt by him on an immediate level or not. The cocksure smirks of the denizens of hell would be plastered across the psychopath's face whether we put him to death or not. It is a demonic sign, and where there are demons -- even if the demons are merely psychological afflictions -- there is torment. I see criminal smirks and empty bravado, even totally lack of affectation or regret, as signs of torment, and they do not bother me. For me to react in a similar fashion -- with violence and hatred -- by putting him to death does nothing more than carry me closer to his level of hell, whether it is sanctioned by the state or not. It does not satisfy my own sense of grief and loss.
Where the murderer lacks decency and compassion, we should show him what true decency and compassion is, otherwise we become just like him. Where the murderer has no value for life, responsible state policy should rather affirm life, rather than confirm the murderer's impulse to end it. Otherwise, we are doing nothing more than making a mockery of the principle of justice as exemplified by Christ himself.