Thu | Sep 20, 2018

You have no right to life

Published:Wednesday | February 10, 2016 | 12:00 AM

The letter came from the St Catherine District Prison (as it was called then in the 1980s), and from a man on death row. I was then the pastor of the Phillippo Circuit of Baptist Churches.

He said he had read my articles in the newspapers but had never seen one with my view on the death penalty, and he was urging me to write and make the public aware that even though he was convicted and sentenced to hang for murder, he had a right to life.

In my weird brain, I thought to myself, "What a curious expression and claim, for who can really guarantee life to anyone?"

This question of mine still occupies my mind, and I have chided the notion of a 'right to life' in sermons and studies arguing that life is a grace gift from God and not a right per se.

Very recently, it came back to me, so I asked an eminent lawyer friend if there is a conceptual difference between a right to life and a right not to be subjected to cruel, inhumane or degrading punishment.

He patiently walked me through sections of the most popular human-rights documents and a few prominent cases to show me that there is a conceptual difference.

Let it be abundantly clear that I do not agree with capital punishment, nor do I agree with the glib arguments about a right to life.

Christians who are horrified at my view here should bear in mind a caution from theologian, philosopher and lawyer John Warwick Montgomery: "... The Church's [reason for being] is the saving of souls. A live prisoner is at least in principle capable of conversion; a dead prisoner is not." (See his Christ As Centre and Circumference: Essays Theological, Cultural and Polemic, 2012, p. 599)

As I tell worshippers in the churches where I serve as pastor, "I am half-crazy in some of my views, so feel free to question me after any sermon."

Ponder this before you attempt to drop the fraction before crazy. Despite the fact that Jamaica has ratified most of the international human rights treaties, what is really there to prevent our authorities from hanging you after you have been found guilty of a most 'heinous murder' and sentenced to be hanged?




International opprobrium and castigation, all after the fact of your death? Think of the numerous ancient and recent breaches of international law by countries minus meaningful sanctions! Bear in mind, too, that developed and developing countries not only have the ability to do it, but have, in fact, eliminated citizens whom they regard as dissidents, enemies of the state, or inimical to the country's security.

Even if I fully concur with the milder and more defensible right not to be subject to cruel, inhumane or degrading punishment, there is still no airtight, guaranteed entitlement here. There is many a slip between rope and neck, remediable only long after the fact.

I am just saying that we should raise questions on a so-called 'right' that we cannot safeguard in prospect but only attempt to address or remedy in retrospect after a breach.

Life is foundational to the enjoyment of every entitlement or good in life, but life itself is not a right but a gift or loan from the Almighty.

- Clinton Chisholm is a theologian. Email feedback to and