Executing justice.

Author:Leithart, Peter J.
Position::CORRESPONDENCE - Letter to the Editor

Joseph Bottum's prudential claim ("Christians and the Death Penalty," August/September) that Christians must deny secular democracies the fight to enact stories of high justice is challenging and attractive. After all, who wants to grant civil authorities who cannot bring themselves to recognize their responsibility for unborn babies power over life and death?

Yet he argues that Romans 13 does not necessarily warrant the death penalty, suggesting that "Paul certainly had no illusions that the reigning authority of Rome was anointed or godly. The 'sword' he mentions is a metaphor for police powers that does not necessarily imply approval of the death penalty."

Whatever he meant by "sword," as a Pharisee, Paul certainly did approve the death penalty, and if he believed the death penalty was permissible for Israel and not other nations, he chose a misleading way to make his point. Moreover, in the passage Bottum cites, Paul claims the powers are agents of vengeance, conflicting with Bottum's own claim that the state is not "a sort of hired agent or substitute avenger." In Romans 12-13, Paul's exhortation to suffer injustice without vengeance is rooted not only in hope for divine vengeance but in an expectation that wrongs will be avenged by civil powers. Paul had no illusions about Roman justice, but even so he describes the civil ruler--resumably Roman--as a "deacon of wrath."

Peter J. Leithart

New St. Andrews College

Moscow, Idaho

It is to be expected that, as a Christian, Joseph Bottum would bring specific Christian theological arguments as to why the death penalty is wrong. But it is curious that nowhere does he mention or comment on Genesis 9:5-6, in which God Himself states that as part of the new (Noahide) covenant with humanity, human beings (and not God) have the responsibility of taking the life of a murderer. Furthermore, this is a covenantal requirement precisely because human life is qualitatively different in its unconditional sanctity: "and at the hand of every man's brother will I require the life of man. Whosoever sheds man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed, for in the image of God made He man."

Rabbi Cary Kozberg

Columbus, Ohio

Joseph Bottum assumes that the newly minted Catholic attitude can be legitimate when seen against the backdrop of Catholicism through the ages. The last pope's personal pastoral opinions (on the circumstances, if any, when the death penalty can be rightly exercised by the state) substitute the prevailing winds of European opinion for the Catholic tradition, much as the revisionists in the liberal Protestant churches do. I feel sorry for you that you feel that you must defend this laughable development in Catholic teaching. As a traditionally minded Anglo-Catholic, I must say that the Catholic Church's strange new position on capital punishment is one major reason why I would find accepting Roman Catholicism, at best, a compromise with a defective faith.

R. Scott Pennington

Lexington, Kentucky

The basic error Joseph Bottum makes is in thinking that there is no level of justice between an entirely temporal punishment and a punishment that fully and perfectly satisfies the universal demand for justice built into the fabric of existence itself. He reinforces this supposition by repeatedly using phrases like "cosmic justice" and "restoring the universe": Since it is obvious that no state can effect universal justice, then obviously no state can have as its proper end such cosmic justice.

And yet, at root, the justice that is the state's proper aim is the justice that pertains to the sovereign temporal community as its rightful common good. Being sovereign, its power and duty includes a view to the justice that completes the community itself. Admittedly, the state is not the sole sovereign entity (there are other states) and k is not the final sovereign being (since there is an eternal order), so the common good of the state is not final, universal justice. But the justice that completes the state includes punishments that are the proper redress for the disruption of the common good of the state. If a person were so utterly opposed to the common good as to attempt to overthrow the very existence of the state (by insurrection, say), then the proper level of correction is one that opposes the preferred good of the insurrectionist by disrupting his life. And this is properly within the state's scope of action, even after it has stopped the insurrection and no longer is in any danger.

Tony Montanaro

Stafford, Virginia

I appreciate Joseph Bottum's noble sentiments, but I wonder how his principle that "Jesus turned all our stories inside out, ... especially the old, old ones about blood and blood's repayment," which he applies to capital punishment, would apply to the story of war and just-war theory. Both are weighty issues that deal explicitly with "high cosmic justice," so if he argues that a government overreaches its authority to execute justice by attempting to "balance the books of the universe" in repaying blood with blood, then does that mean there can never be any just criteria for one nation to retaliate against another after an unprovoked attack--an attack that in...

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