The sanctify of life has always been championed by the Christianity. Stemming from the 5th Commandment, “Thou Shalt Not Kill”, or more properly interpreted, murder, Christianity and the Church has taught it is sinful to take a life without serious applications. There is a big difference between killing and murdering obviously. The fact that this distinction is made, in no way lessens the Church or Christianity’s teaching on the sanctify of life, but only saddens the Church when killing becomes necessary. This brings one to very complicated situations that needs addressed.
First and foremost, revenge killing, murder, abortion and euthanasia are always morally wrong. It is murder to willingly without sufficient cause to take another human life. All Christian Churches, especially the Catholic Church, has made numerous condemnations against abortion and euthanasia. Numerous documents exist that condemn these atrocities. Pope John Paul II himself referred to today’s culture as the culture of death in which the value of human life has been removed.
Human life through abortion has been commercialized and human beings have been reduced to objects. Human life through euthanasia has reduced life to a choice instead of a gift. These social movements have eroded the moral sense of right and wrong in regards to life. While society hopes to cloud the moral objectivity of murder, Christianity has stood strong in condemning these actions.
Yet, despite the Church’s condemnation of murder, Christian social teaching does not forbid necessary killing. There is a large difference between justified killing and murder. Let us first look at war itself.
The Church, especially in the West through St Thomas Aquinas, has taught Just War Theory. This theory does not praise war but laments the unfortunate necessity of it when evil forces arise. Aquinas pointed out that war can only be justified when defensive in nature. Furthermore, certain codes of conduct were necessary. These codes are reflected today in how civilized nations conduct war. Use of extraordinary weapons without sufficient cause are forbidden, as well as weapons that can cause massive death and torture. Furthermore, attacks on civilians, as well as unarmed soldiers and prisoners of war are regulated. It no longer becomes killing, but murder when the enemy is captured or disarmed and then killed. This is reflected in Aquinas but also again in modern law regarding war crimes.
Self defense of a nation justifies killing in war, but only to the extent of defense and destruction of evil. The same ideal is applied to individual self defense. One who uses deadly force because it is the only alternative in preserving one’s life does not break the 5th Commandment, but instead preserves one’s own life. Again, this is because the 5th Commandment forbids murder not killing!
Sometimes, one can look to the Old Testament and see the many sanctions of God being very warlike. These motifs are human words describing the divine in the sacred texts. It does not mean to interpret a God who has blood lust. God as the author of life and death can strike down an evil king, for God’s vengeance is justice. Yet, we see God very much involved in Israel’s history, helping Israel strike down her enemies in war. We also see in the books of laws, many codes that demanded death for certain offenses.
Interpretation of spiritual or physical death can always be argued, but it is without a doubt, that before Christ, the world was indeed more dark. God did not magically become different after the coming of Christ, transferring an eye for an eye to turn the other cheek, but God was always the same. It was the time and the interpretation that differed.
In fact, an eye for an eye mentality found in scripture was actually utilized to minimize violence not condone it. It looked to prevent excessive revenge and only justice. Yet, those before the time of Christ, during the fallen era of Satan, were more inclined to sin without the abundance of available grace through Christ’s death. This does not mean barbaric actions ceased to happen after Christ, but it does point that Satan had a greater grasp on more souls than he does now. God, before the coming of Christ, through the commandments hoped to guide fallen humanity through the prophets as best he could, but until the coming of Christ, without grace, humanity was at a greater risk of evil influence. Attempting to curb Israel’s inclinations was the best the prophets could do during these times. In fact, Christ even pointed out regarding marriage laws, that Moses permitted certain evils only because of the stubborn nature of the people. This applied to all cases in morality. It would be through Christ that the fullness of law could understood and enacted.
Hence when we review many of the old ways regarding killing in the Old Testament, it must be understood under those lights. God never sought the death of innocence, but in fact, like with Abraham and Isaac, rejected human sacrifice or death. Yet, when we see God push forward just punishment upon the wicked, as in the case of the plagues upon Egypt, we cannot associate His justice, as the author of life and death, as wrong. We cannot apply justification in war and defense towards our own actions, the way God did in the Bible.
Yet, we see many Christian extremists misuse Scripture, especially the Old Testament, to justify killing, when in reality they are committing murder. One classic example of this is the Book of Leviticus and its condemnation of homosexuality and the proposed punishment of death. These old laws are not justification for Christians to murder homosexuals, but with misuse and wrongful interpretation of ancient laws can lead to evil outcomes.
Hence, defense that is appropriate to the action is the only time the taking of another life is justified. This may appear on a larger scale such as a battlefield, or in individual self defense. These issues again are only a last resort.
The final social issue that clouds the morality of killing and murder is capital punishment. The idea as whether the state has the right to deny a person of life is debated in Christianity. While there does exist a historical tradition for the state’s right to execute, these ideas need to be understood in the context of the time period it was developed in. The largest concern in regards to capital punishment is the right of the state to defend society from harm. When this is taken into account, in the past, did sufficient prisons exist to defend individuals from dangerous criminals? Also, was the person a persistent threat? For self defense to exist, there must exist immediate threat or potential for that threat to continue.
In today’s prisons, the chance of escape is very low. The idea of an immediate threat is also almost none existent in a modern system. The only possible situation may be if the criminal is a mobster who can order hits from within prison. Yet, if the person is imprisoned, no longer a threat to society, can that person be morally executed by the state?
Whether the action was heinous or not is not the question. The question is does the person pose an immediate threat to society.
Some would contend this is not an issue and that the state has legitimate authority to execute dangerous criminals who commit the most heinous crimes. Unlike vengeance which is carried out with emotion from the party injured, the state is a legitimate authority that presents justice. Does the state hence represent God in someway in carrying out sentences? This was definitely a medieval ideal where kings and queens were ordained by God to rule. Yet, many states are far from pure and just. Communist nations murder its own citizens everyday in the name of justice.
Yet if a state has legitimate authority and is utilizing its authority in a just way for the protection of society, does it have an authority from God to execute a dangerous criminal? Is the sentence of death, even if the person can no longer hurt anyone, justified? Whether revenge or justice, is it condoned?
Ultimately it comes down to whether one believes the state has authority from God to execute criminals. This is somewhat still a debated issue, especially since in the modern era, incarcerated criminals are usually no longer a threat to society. I would contend that, while the state is a neutral and just authority void of vengeance, it still cannot in good conscience take a life within the modern ability to confine criminals. Of course culpability is lessened for those involved in the legal process than a street mob, but the ultimate price of taking a life is forbidden by anyone.
If the state cannot show proof that the execution is for the defense of society, then it truly has no grounds to execute from a Christian perspective. The only authority to execute for the sake of execution is God. God alone is the author of life and death not the state.
Again, this is taking into account, modern prisons and the ability of the state to protect the people through the prison system itself.
When the state does execute for the sake of execution, it takes the role of God. Furthermore, this removes the chance of a person to live a life of repentance while in prison.
Many Christians dismiss this type of murder by the state as not important because the individuals are criminals and evil. They would rather focus on abortion and the innocents who die. Both issues are important because both involve murder. Life must be preserved at all stages and situations. Also bear in mind, many times, innocent men and women can also be executed.
So while state execution does have a history and may be justified even in the past, it is very hard to foster a Christian defense of its application today. Still be it, the state, as a neutral voice of justice, must ensure that the execution is humane and without torture. Of course this is after the fact that it remains an immoral action regardless of circumstance surrounding it.
It is indeed difficult to defend the wicked, but the value of life must be protected for all. God is author of life alone. Only in cases of self defense is killing permitted in Christianity and that applies to everyone.
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