The Archbishop of Canterbury on the death penalty

After listening to the BBC interview of the Archbishop of Canterbury by John Humphrys, I visited his website to learn more about him. In a different interview, which took place prior to the execution of Saddam Hussein, that is linked there, I read this:

ES One pressing question in Iraq at the moment is of course is that of Saddam Hussein’s execution; do you believe that he should be executed?
ABC Once again, I’m not a believer in the death penalty as a general principle. He’s being tried under a jurisdiction which has the death penalty; he seems to be undoubtedly guilty of what he’s been charged with but I think I’d have to separate out the morality of the death penalty from ‘should Saddam Hussein be hanged?’, because I don’t believe in the death penalty. I think that Saddam Hussein is manifestly someone who has committed grave crimes against his own people and grave breaches of international law. I think he deserves punishment, and sharp and unequivocal punishment; I don’t think that he should be at liberty, but I would say of him what I have to say about anyone who’s committed even the most appalling crimes in this country; that I believe the death penalty effectively says ‘there is no room for change or repentance’.

I have to say that I don’t fully understand the Archbishop’s comment in light of something he said in his more recent interview with John Humphreys. It appears that his position could be stated this way:  The death penalty is immoral because the condemned is not permitted an opportunity to repent and change. This implies that the Archbishop believes that repentance and change is only possible in this life. At least, it implies that this was what he believed at the time of the interview quoted above.

Yet, when speaking with John Humphrys about God’s relationship with people after death, the Archbishop said, “God has an eternity with which to go on working…” In this particularly case, the Archbishop was referring to a little girl who died of cancer and her distraught parents. Now read this exchange about Humphreys’ own post-mortem state:

John Humphrys: What happens to me ultimately if I don’t open that door?
Rowan Williams: If you don’t open the door you’re not fully in the company of God. And it’s your choice.
John Humphrys: And after death?
Rowan Williams: What I’d love to think of course is that after death a possibly rather unusual experience might happen in which you’d say Good god, I got it all wrong.
John Humphrys: Too late then.
Rowan Williams: No.
John Humphrys: After death?
Rowan Williams: I think we continually have the choice of saying yes or no.
John Humphrys: So that death is not the end of us?
Rowan Williams: Death is not the end of us. I think that’s rather axiomatic for a religious believer.
John Humphrys: Quite so.. but I said ‘us’ meaning ‘us non- believers’.
Rowan Williams: Non-believers?
John Humphrys: Yes.
Rowan Williams: God alone can judge how much of your resistance to God is culpable, to do with selfishness, laziness of spirit, bloody-mindedness, and how much is just due to whatever it is that gets in the way. God alone can judge that. The willingness, the openness of the heart, even the wish to believe, God can work on that.

The implication here is that there is still a hope for Humphry’s change even after his death. Granted, the Archbishop treads lightly but I believe the implication is still there. And it would make sense to me if it were. After all, CS Lewis, also an Anglican, implies as much in his book The Great Divorce.

The problem for me is this: how can the Archbishop assert that the death penalty is immoral because it prevents the future repentance and change of the condemned while believing that there is hope beyond death that God continues to work on people? If death is not the end, if there is hope for “healing” and the changing of “no” to “yes” after one dies, then doesn’t that mean that the execution of someone does not prevent his repentance and change? If so, then the moral objection is eliminated. According to the Archbishop, even though a society says that it’s not willing to consider repentance and change for the condemned, that  does not mean that society has the final word in the matter.

On the one hand, I agree with the Archbishop; the death penalty does effectively say that there is no room for repentance and change… in our society for this crime. However, on the other hand I think that the death penalty makes another statement. It says that our society places a high value on human life. It says that those who are prepared to use their moral freedom to deprive someone of life must be prepared to compensate with their own lives. This is a principle found in the Bible and I do not believe it is immoral.

Additionally,  I’m not convinced that there is hope beyond the grave for those who leave this life outside of a relationship with God through Jesus. That’s not what is indicated in the Scripture as far as I can tell, but I confess that I’m nowhere near as intelligent or well-studied as the Archbishop of Canterbury. I could be wrong about this…and that would be just fine with me if I am.

1 Comment

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One response to “The Archbishop of Canterbury on the death penalty

  1. Dudley Sharp

    The Archbishop is wrong, period.

    God states that the wages of all sin is death – any and all deaths.

    Therefore, with the death penalty, as with any other death, God gives us the opportunity to change and repent.

    It appears, strongly, that the Archbishop is denying God’s wisdom on this point.

    Furthermore, there is this excellent writing.

    From an American Friends, Quaker, biblical scholar Dr. Gervas A. Carey: ” . . . the decree of Genesis 9:5-6 is equally enduring and cannot be separated from the other pledges and instructions of its immediate context, Genesis 8:20-9:17; . . . that is true unless specific Biblical authority can be cited for the deletion, of which there appears to be none.”

    “It seems strange that any opponents of capital punishment who professes to recognize the authority of the Bible either overlook or disregard the divine decree in this covenant with Noah; . . . capital punishment should be recognized . . . as the divinely instituted penalty for murder; The basis of this decree . . . is as enduring as God; . . . murder not only deprives a man of a portion of his earthly life . . . it is a further sin against him as a creature made in the image of God and against God Himself whose image the murderer does not respect.” (p. 111-113)”

    Carey agrees with Saints Augustine and Aquinas, that executions represent mercy to the wrongdoer:

    “. . . a secondary measure of the love of God may be said to appear. For capital punishment provides the murderer with incentive to repentance which the ordinary man does not have, that is a definite date on which he is to meet his God. It is as if God thus providentially granted him a special inducement to repentance out of consideration of the enormity of his crime . . . the law grants to the condemned an opportunity which he did not grant to his victim, the opportunity to prepare to meet his God. Even divine justice here may be said to be tempered with mercy.” (p. 116).

    synopsis of “A Bible Study”.from Essays on the Death Penalty, T. Robert Ingram, ed., St. Thomas Press, Houston, 1963, 1992. Dr. Carey was a Professor of Bible and past President of George Fox College (now University).

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