September 29, 2011
“Justice has been done” declared President Obama when he announced the successful raid in Pakistan which led to the killing of Osama bin Ladin. I began to understand my discomfort with the idea that this death was “just” as I read Michael J. Sandel’s Justice (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009). He outlines various philosophical traditions of justice, and while he does not name a specifically Christian ethical tradition, we fall clearly into that strain of ethics that considers justice as having to do with virtue or character. This coming Sunday (October 2nd) The New York Times will be publishing letters debating the question as to whether or not the killing of a prisoner can or should be considered ‘just’. There are those who consider justice to be about the welfare of the most people and others who think of it primarily in terms of freedom or liberty and who find that within a social contract the taking of a life for certain dreadful crimes is ‘just’ even while recognizing that uneven application with a majority of those receiving the death penalty are poor and black is unjust. It will be an interesting conversation.
I was accused recently of “using a couple of Bible verses to justify a political position” from the pulpit when I thought I had preached about the predominant biblical concept of ‘justice’ in distinction to other philosophical traditions. The trigger that caused my parishioner’s comment was that I talked explicitly about capital punishment at the end of a week in which there had been the publicly and internationally discussed execution of a man called Troy Davis about whose guilt there was significant public doubt. A number of our parishioners had participated in protests and vigils, asked for prayers to be said and were otherwise struggling with a profound sense that a wrong was being perpetrated by the state in our name. For some (probably many) this death seemed profoundly and absolutely wrong. For others (self included) it seemed as though every legal avenue for review of the original conviction had been used and the law followed in a state who have decided that certain crimes (in this case the killing of a police officer) deserve or merit death.
I oppose the death penalty on the basis that it is manifestly unjust in its application. Until now, I have allowed for the theoretical possibility that it could be the ultimate sanction and possibly a deterrent preventing some heinous crimes. I’ve changed my mind about that possibility, partly through understanding that the utilitarian deterrent argument is not supported by the facts and partly through revisiting the tradition of Christian ethics and its more recent expression in Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue (originally published in 1981).