The capital punishment debate

Published: Sunday | November 9, 2008 Comments 0

The following article was submitted by the Public Theology Forum, an ecumenical group of local ministers of religion from different denominations.

Our nation is in a broken state. Insecurity is driving deep fear and panic among the people. The public is deeply frustrated because our leaders cannot find the way to fix the social, moral and economic crises.

The social deterioration of our nation as a result of the state of crime and violence has catapulted the issue of capital punishment back on to the front burner of public debate. Many see it as a quick fix to our crime-and-violence problem. Listening to the daily passionate voices clamouring for the resumption of hanging comes with a kind of divine certainty that their cause is just that murderers deserved to be hanged. They see capital punishment as a legitimate form of retribution.

The growing brutality of criminals unleashing fear throughout the land has fuelled the growing call for revenge against these evil predators. The deep pain and loss felt by victims within a social context where about 70 per cent of serious crimes are not solved constitutes another strong reason for the growing public support for capital punishment.

Even within the Church some members of the clergy have taken a public stand in support of capital punishment. They are of the view that the death penalty is a just payback for the crime of taking an innocent life. They base their belief on a reading of scriptures that elevates the Old Testament legal code as the standard by which the nation should deal with murderers.

an eye for an eye

The reference to an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, has become a rallying cry of righteous indignation to the pervasive presence of crime and violence. Jesus' response to this retributive way of life gave no room for revenge: "You have heard that it was said. 'You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy, But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you" (Matthew 5:43-44)!

Proponents of capital punishment have selectively promoted one aspect of moral failing (murder) to demand death by hanging, but they neglect to mention that the same punishment of death is applicable to other moral failures such as adultery according to the Old Testament.

During the time of Jesus, the law required capital punishment for the crime of adultery. Jesus was confronted by a group who brought a woman to him who was accused of being an adulterer. He was expected to confirm the Mosaic Law that the woman should be stoned to death. With the bloodthirsty crowd waiting for vengeance, Jesus took a stand against this Mosaic law that saw many persons, especially powerless ones such as women and foreigners, as scapegoat for the prejudices of the powerful elites. Jesus invited those who were without sin to cast the first stone. In shame they departed as Jesus counselled the freed woman, "go and sin no more".

An enlightened reading of the approach used by Jesus seems to suggest that no criminal deserves capital punishment. He stated that the purpose of his mission was to give people fullness of life! (John 10:10) Therefore, we all have a fundamental obligation to respect and protect the life of all persons, even murderers! Judgement and retribution belong ultimately to God and not to the realm of flawed humanity.

For those of us willing to point finger within the Jamaican context, the challenging question that must be answered is: when last have we murdered someone? Did you say that that question is not applicable to you? Are your hands clean? Think again! In the Jamaica of today many persons are being murdered by omission and commission. We tolerate structures of injustice that send persons to early death. We collect taxes from companies that manufacture and distribute substances such as tobacco and alcohol that directly contribute to the death of many in our land.

decaying social system

In our decaying social system we see others as commodities to be used. The current wave of abductions, rape and murder of our children and women confirm that we are reaping what we have sown! The dehumanising policies that permeate our social and economic order of development are unsustainable. We use building blocks to construct our nation that were not genuine parts.

Our unstoppable murder rate is directly link to a corporate failure of nurturing a culture of respect for life. Life after birth is increasingly becoming an impossible dream for many of our citizens. They feel that they are being used by others who are more privileged for their own end. When disrespect thrives in any culture then the worth of human life also diminishes. Persons who lose their strength to act as moral agents will not be able to choose right over wrong. It does not follow that because we regard murders as the most despicable immoral beings, that they do not deserve the respect of life that they denied others!

Retributive justice insists that punishment must fit the crime. However, to agree that punishment must be, proportionate does not necessarily mean that murderers deserve death penalty.

critical areas

Our flawed justice system is not consistent in this matter of retributive justice. Our socio-political culture operates a security and justice system that is generally acknowledged to be flawed to the point where it fails to deliver justice in those critical areas that impact upon our security. It is more likely for the poor, because they are poor, to be denied or given inferior justice. Who can forget the shocking case of the policeman who admitted that he had manufactured evidence in the murder case against an accused person? He was brave enough to publicly confess his wrong.

What about those innocent persons languishing in our prisons because of the wrongful accusations of other policemen? If the death penalty were to be carried out against them and subsequently they are discovered to be innocent, what form of compensation can return them to life? Will those who carried out the act be subjected to the same treatment?


Isn't it better to have a form of punishment that is not beyond redress if it is found out to be wrongly carried out? The receivers of justice are usually the economically wealthy and socially privileged because they hire the best attorneys to defend their rights. What is deemed to be the due process of law does not necessarily mean the "just process of law". Petty thieves or un-employed young men found with some ganja might spend a longer time in our prisons than our white-collar criminals who destroy the lives of many persons who are robbed millions of dollars and then walk free to destroy more lives!

In the Jamaican context, it is cheaper to carry out hanging than to imprison. On all fronts, it cost less to reinstate capital punishment because poor people's lives are considered to be cheap. The real hard work of renewal and transformation of society requires priority attention and resources to stop the socio-economic and spiritual haemorrhaging, especially within our inner cities. Instead of hanging our citizens we must seek a more humane way of holding murderers accountable for their heinous crimes.

criminal behaviour

We can find better ways to isolate the criminals from our communities by ensuring that criminal behaviour at all levels is not tolerated. Their time spent in our correctional institution must major in helping wrongdoers to rediscover their moral consciousness, assess their actions and seek to make amend for their evil ways.

A just punishment by the state is that which helps the criminal to take full moral responsibility for his/her life-denying behaviour. Since punishment by death terminally removes the opportunity for any moral reform of the individual then the death penalty cannot be considered a just punishment.

Members of the Public Theology Forum are Ernle Gordon, Roderick Hewitt, Stotrell Lowe, Marjorie Lewis, Richmond Nelson, Garnet Roper, Anna Perkins, Ashley Smith, Burchell Taylor, Karl Johnson, Wayneford McFarlane and Byron Chambers, co-ordinator.

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