The Humanitarian European Union
by JUSTIN D. BARNARD
Director of the Institute for Intellectual Discipleship
April 25, 2008 - In the wake of a recent US Supreme Court ruling upholding the constitutionality of a specific lethal injection protocol used in capital punishment, the European Union (EU) has issued as statement urging the United States to continue its de facto moratorium on the death penalty until the “complex issues” have been “thoroughly debated.”
In its statement, the EU reiterated, “its longstanding position against the death penalty in all circumstances and accordingly strives to achieve its universal abolition, seeking a global moratorium on the death penalty as the first step. We believe that the elimination of the death penalty is fundamental to the protection of human dignity, and to the progressive development of human rights.”
The EU statement continues explaining that, “any miscarriage or failure of justice in the application of capital punishment represents an irreparable and irreversible loss of human life. No legal system is immune from mistakes and there is no reliable evidence that the death penalty provides added value in terms of deterrence.”
The EU is certainly correct in pointing out that a miscarriage of justice involving the application of the death penalty is irreparable. Moreover, given what Christians believing about the deep and pervasive effects of the Fall, it is true that “no legal system is immune from mistakes.” However, it is not clear from these observations alone why death, as a penalty for particular crimes, is thereby out of bounds. If anything seems to follow from such facts it is this: the death penalty ought to be applied with a measure of gravity befitting its finality and our own epistemic fragility.
Of course, the EU’s reasoning does not merely depend upon these two observations alone. Rather, it is principally rooted in the claim that “the death penalty provides [no] added value in terms of deterrence.” Thus, the EU’s position is simple. Punishment is principally (if not exclusively) about deterrence; the death penalty does not deter. Therefore, the death penalty ought not to be used as a form of punishment – especially in light of its finality and human fallibility.
In a 1949 essay, Christian apologist C.S. Lewis gave the EU’s position a name. Lewis called such a view “the Humanitarian Theory of Punishment.” According to this view, punishment serves one of two purposes: to deter or to cure. As noble as these purposes sound, Lewis argues that the logical consequences of such a position are intolerable – since it strips from punishment the central role of justice. Lewis is worth quoting at length.
“The older view was that mercy ‘tempered’ justice, or (on the highest level of all) that mercy and justice had met and kissed. The essential act of mercy was to pardon; and pardon in its very essence involves the recognition of guilt and ill-desert in the recipient . . . But the Humanitarian theory wants simply to abolish Justice and substitute Mercy for it . . . Mercy, detached from Justice grows unmerciful. That is the important paradox. As there are plants which will flourish only in mountain soil, so it appears that Mercy will flower only when it grows in the crannies of the rock of Justice: transplanted to the marsh-lands of mere Humanitarianism, it becomes a man-eating weed, all the more dangerous because it is still called by the same name as the mountain variety.”
Because of their implicit commitment to the Humanitarian theory of punishment, the signers of the EU statement cannot conceive of the possibility that a criminal might actually deserve death. But that is because they view the “development of human rights” as “progressive.” This is short-hand for saying that progress in the area of human rights depends upon the collective, (essentially good)will of human beings – since, having killed God, we are the makers and arbiters of human rights.
While Christians should be aggressively opposed to miscarriages of justice – and perhaps ready to admit, given the historic context of race relations in this country, such miscarriages have occurred all too frequently – we should not deliberate about the nature of punishment and its use by the state from the vantage point of an implicit atheism and faulty anthropology.