Skip to main content

Death penalty is unchristian

By Jay Parini
updated 9:43 AM EDT, Thu May 8, 2014
  • 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 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.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

Part of complete coverage on
updated 6:29 PM EDT, Wed August 6, 2014
She depends on her iPhone and plays Plants vs. Zombies. At 75, death penalty opponent Sister Helen Prejean hasn't slowed down.
updated 6:46 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
As manufacturers cut off supplies of lethal injection drugs, states look for new drug combinations for executions.
updated 2:21 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
One death has reopened the debate about capital punishment and lethal injection.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Mon September 8, 2014
An infographic illustrates America's record on executions by race, state, year and method since the death penalty was reinstated more than 30 years ago.
updated 8:03 AM EDT, Wed May 7, 2014
More than 14,000 people have been executed under U.S. law. About 3,000 more are slated for execution on death rows across the nation.
updated 7:16 AM EDT, Mon September 8, 2014
Clayton Lockett's botched lethal injection and deadly heart attack raises disturbing questions about how the U.S. executes death row prisoners.
updated 12:10 PM EDT, Sat April 5, 2014
After John Thompson survived 14 years on death row he had to figure out how to return to the world.
updated 9:46 AM EDT, Wed May 7, 2014
Just weeks away from execution, see the evidence that saved John Thompson's life.
updated 6:23 PM EDT, Mon March 31, 2014
Death row inmate John Thompson describes his reaction after Louisiana set his official execution date.
updated 6:24 PM EDT, Mon March 31, 2014
A first-time meeting between death row inmate John Thompson and his appellate lawyers yields mutual skepticism.
updated 6:24 PM EDT, Mon March 31, 2014
Death row inmate John Thompson confronts a proposed shift in legal strategy aimed at saving his life.
updated 5:30 AM EDT, Fri March 28, 2014
Teresa McAbee, age 11, was found dead, floating in a Florida lake. Repercussions from her murder continue nearly 30 years later.
updated 5:38 AM EDT, Fri March 28, 2014
Longtime Miami-area homicide detective Marshall Frank has met some really bad people. He reveals three steps to coax killers to confess their crimes.
updated 4:11 PM EDT, Thu March 27, 2014
A mother convicted of a murder to which her son has confessed won't be executed Thursday as judges review her post-conviction motion.
updated 6:17 PM EDT, Tue March 25, 2014
Never imprisoned before, ex-cop James Duckett describes his first moments as a convicted killer on death row.
updated 11:57 AM EDT, Tue March 25, 2014
Why wasn't a key piece of evidence shown to jurors? Can a simple notebook prove a man's innocence?
updated 12:01 PM EDT, Tue March 25, 2014
A retired homicide detective examines the strange case of an ex-cop sentenced to death row for the murder of an 11-year-old girl.
updated 1:30 PM EDT, Fri March 21, 2014
He's been a priest, a nurse and an attorney -- but nothing could prepare Neil Kookoothe for his discovery in the case of Joe D'Ambrosio.
updated 12:05 PM EDT, Tue March 18, 2014
Joe D'Ambrosio, like many inmates, claimed he was innocent. As he learned, claiming it is one thing. Proving it is another.
updated 12:06 PM EDT, Tue March 18, 2014
Although his conviction was overturned, prosecutors tried to keep an ex-death row inmate locked up before his new trial.
updated 3:46 PM EDT, Fri March 14, 2014
Why did Joyce Ride, mother of NASA's first woman in space, fight to free Gloria Killian? "I'm profoundly annoyed by injustice."
updated 12:01 PM EDT, Tue March 11, 2014
Judge the murder case against former law student Gloria Killian for yourself. Take a look at the evidence.
updated 3:40 PM EDT, Wed March 12, 2014
When police questioned an unwitting Gloria Killian after a brutal murder, she used a poor choice of words.
updated 3:40 PM EDT, Wed March 12, 2014
Well into her 32-years-to-life murder sentence, Gloria Killian met a friend on the outside who was willing to listen.
updated 3:41 PM EDT, Wed March 12, 2014
Prison lifer Gloria Killian's defense team finds a previously unknown letter that may help win her freedom.
updated 4:10 PM EST, Fri March 7, 2014
Legal intern Diana Holt refused to believe that death row inmate Edward Lee Elmore was a killer. So began the fight of their lives.
updated 7:31 AM EST, Fri March 7, 2014
Examine the evidence in the murder case against Edward Lee Elmore.
updated 4:30 PM EST, Wed March 5, 2014
Three weeks before his execution date, Edward Lee Elmore asked his attorney a heartbreaking question. Watch her tearful response.
updated 4:28 PM EST, Wed March 5, 2014
Diana Holt was searching for alternate suspects in a brutal murder case. What she discovered made her head spin.
updated 1:51 PM EST, Wed March 5, 2014
A law student was sent to meet a death row inmate accused of a horrible murder. Their meeting triggered the beginning of an amazing story.
updated 4:16 AM EDT, Thu March 27, 2014
Virtual "killing sprees" in Iran and Iraq led to a spike in the number of executions globally last year, according to Amnesty International.
updated 6:15 PM EST, Tue March 4, 2014
Watch a frank, online discussion about the death penalty and the case of Edward Lee Elmore.
updated 7:57 AM EDT, Thu August 22, 2013
Some death penalty opponents will admit it: the worst of the worst of the worst, DO deserve to die.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Thu March 20, 2014
Execution chamber
Killing people by lethal injection will soon be as old as burning heretics at the stake -- at least in the civilized world.
updated 1:01 PM EST, Fri January 17, 2014
Before Ohio executed him by legal injection, inmate Dennis McGuire appeared to gasp and convulse.
updated 1:58 PM EDT, Tue June 18, 2013
Death row inmates deal with demons in different ways. William Van Poyck chose to write.
updated 12:54 AM EST, Thu December 19, 2013
A shortage of lethal injection drugs contributes to a dip in the use of capital punishment.