The Eighth Amendment to the US Constitution bans cruel and unusual punishment and has been the basis of many challenges to various forms of execution, including the latest one to reach the Supreme Court – the use of lethal injection. Seven of the nine justices voted to uphold lethal injection as a viable form of execution. But one of the justices, John Paul Stevens, although upholding the use of lethal injection, challenged the Court and Congress to seriously reconsider the use of capital punishment in general.
Justice Stevens, in a welcome surprise, said that he had come to the conclusion that the death penalty carries such high risks of error and discrimination, while doing so little good, that it is unconstitutional.
The Supreme Court Fine-Tunes Pain
From am archly conservative Court, who did not really consider the real issue at all – is the death penalty itself unconstitutional, bur rather discussed how much pain is acceptable, this voluntary, unofficial statement that the death penalty is unconstitutional in and of itself, is most welcome and should, hopefully, spur some real challenges to the death penalty, that will force the Supreme Court to face the real issue here, rather than getting involved in what, in this case at least, turned into a bizarre and rather troubling discussion of how much pain the government can inflict on a human being before that pain is “cruel and unusual.”
The moral basis of the death penalty is, according to its supporters, based in Mosaic, that is Old Testament, law. Supporters of the death penalty often cite cases like Sodom and Gomorrah and the Flood, to support their contention that the death penalty does not violated Christian ethics. Yet, the very core of Mosaic law, the Ten Commandments, say, “Thou shall not kill.” The real moral basis for the death penalty is the Code of Hammurabi, which says. “Sn eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” The Code of Hammurabi is older than even the Ten Commandments. But, the fact that it id so ancient does not necessarily make it the best choice, now does it?
And this contradiction becomes even more pronounced when the New Testament, especially the teachings of Jesus himself, come into the equation. There is sufficient Scriptural evidence from the Gospels to conclude that Jesus would be vehemently opposed to the death penalty. Paul, in his revision of Christ’s message, is another matter. He was much more accommodating of Roman civil law than Jesus or his original followers. The early Roman Christians became martyrs in large numbers because of their refusal to resort to violence even in self-defence. So, the death penalty is really very much contrary to the teachings of Christ and the beliefs of the early Church. It is not until the fourth century accommodation with Roman imperial power that Christianity became more tolerant of executions and other forms of legal violence.
The United States, at least according to the religious fundamentalists in this country, is a state founded on and meant to uphold Christian moral principles. If that is true, which is very debatable, why does the United States Supreme Court not strike down the death penalty? And why are those people who most vehemently argue for a more Christian state the most outspoken and most intractable supporters of the death penalty? Is it perhaps the fact that these so-called “good Christians” are complete hypocrites?
As Jesus said in the Garden of Gethsemane when Peter cut off the ear of a Roman centurion during Jesus’ arrest, “Those that live by the sword shall die by the sword.” And to those Christian hypocrites who support the death penalty, I say, “Judge not, lest ye be judged”….and found wanting.