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Death penalty is unchristian

By Jay Parini
updated 9:43 AM EDT, Thu May 8, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Jay Parini: Botched Oklahoma execution reminder that few civilized countries do this
  • He says state-sponsored killing fosters a culture of violence in U.S.
  • Parini: Dickens, Tolstoy found death penalty repulsive, hypocritical, unchristian
  • Parini: Odd that many who oppose abortion are OK with the state taking a human life

Editor's note: Jay Parini, a poet and novelist, teaches at Middlebury College. He has just published "Jesus: the Human Face of God," a biography of Jesus. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. Explore fascinating cases of America's capital punishment system on "Death Row Stories," a CNN Original series, Sundays at 9 p.m. ET/PT beginning July 13. Join the conversation: Follow us at facebook.com/cnn or Twitter @CNNorigSeries using #DeathRowStories.

(CNN) -- The recent and ghastly botched execution of a man in Oklahoma has rekindled my thoughts on capital punishment -- a practice outlawed in most civilized countries. Indeed, most of the industrialized world looks with horror on the United States, in this regard, as a primitive and backward country.

Just in passing fact, capital punishment was banned in the Netherlands in 1870, in Costa Rica in 1877, in Colombia in 1910. In allowing the death penalty, the United States stands with Libya, Uganda, Cuba, Egypt and Equatorial Guinea, among our other peers.

Jay Parini
Jay Parini

It's a sad commentary on justice in this country that, in a nation so plagued by capital murder, we should make it a state practice as well. Do we not see the connection? You would guess that a nation obsessed with guns and violence -- just read the papers -- might at some point notice that when the state participates in this brutality, there is a tacit agreement that the most complete response to provocation is death.

Two of the greatest writers of the19th century, Charles Dickens and Leo Tolstoy, passionately opposed the death penalty. Both were also Christians, and they understood perfectly well that the Sermon on the Mount makes it clear that, under the old dispensation, an eye for an eye was appropriate. But Jesus said bluntly that not only should we never kill anyone, but we must turn the other cheek, resisting evil in a nonviolent way. This wasn't something Jesus imagined was up for grabs.

Dickens, the Shakespeare of the novel, argued against capital punishment on many grounds, but he was especially concerned about the matter of determining guilt in such an absolute way. Can we ever really know for sure that someone did something? The death sentence is inevitably delivered by "men of fallible judgment, whose powers of arriving at the truth are limited, and in whom there is the capacity of a mistake or false judgment."

The death penalty in America
Study: Many on death row are innocent
Botched execution in Oklahoma

Tolstoy wrote a stirring essay in 1908 called "I Cannot Be Silent" in which he described a multiple hanging, and found it repulsive on every level. He noted the priest who attended the execution and how he mumbled something about God and Christ to the condemned.

After a vivid account of the hanging, he says with an ironic twang: "All this is carefully arranged and planned by learned and enlightened people." He notes that the government who commits this killing is involved in the process "from the lowest hangman to the highest official -- all support religion and Christianity, which is altogether incompatible with the deed they commit."

Incompatible indeed. It has always struck me as bizarre that many of those who object most strenuously to abortion because it involves taking a life will quite happily condone capital punishment, as if this is somehow not taking a life. Does it make it less immoral for the individual, in its collective guise as "the state," to kill someone? Killing is killing, and when you give this ugly deed an official name -- capital punishment -- it's still killing, and is grotesque for a supposedly humane nation to condone such a practice.

As if we needed reminding, our Constitution bans punishments that are deemed "cruel and unusual." In the eyes of the civilized world, murder is cruel and unusual punishment, best left to vigilante outlaws, the criminally insane and rogue states. State-sponsored murder fosters a culture of violence that permeates our society, creating a punitive state of mind that does nobody any good. And it has surely proven ineffective in preventing further killings. Indeed, it generates them.

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