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Reviewed by:
  • The Death Penalty: An Historical and Theological Survey, and: Against the Death Penalty: Christian and Secular Arguments Against Capital Punishment
  • Jonathan Snyder J.D.
The Death Penalty: An Historical and Theological Survey, by James J. Megivern (New York: Paulist Press 1997);
Against the Death Penalty: Christian and Secular Arguments Against Capital Punishment, by Gardner C. Hanks (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press 1997).

The Christian Church and the Problem of Capital Executions: Killing in the Name of the Lord?

In 1976, US bishops in the Catholic Church appealed to the Pontifical Commission for Justice and Peace in Rome to help settle a debate on capital executions. The Pontifical Response said that the “bishops have spoken out and acted firmly in defense of life against abortion and euthanasia. . . . There is an inner logic that would call Catholics, with their sense of the sacredness of life, to be consistent in this defense and extend it to the practice of capital punishment.”1 This document encouraged more bishops to take a stand against state executions, in the same year that the Supreme Court lifted its 1972 ban by declaring certain “capital punishment” statutes constitutional in Gregg v. Georgia.2

Such is the principle of “the consistent ethic of life”—the ideal that every life is sacred and that a human cannot take the right to life from another human, whether it be an unborn fetus, combat soldier, terminally ill patient, or convicted murderer. From a Christian perspective in the United States, this is a troubling situation. Those of us within the faith are essentially united against the practice of abortion, but seem divided when it comes to capital execution. At a time when the majority of US citizens offer support for state executions (“tough on crime”), the silence of Christian voices is unusual and confusing in light of the Church’s anti-abortion activism.

In 1997, two Christians—one Catholic and one Protestant—made their voices heard. Dr. James J. Megivern, a philosophy and religion professor at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, concluded his work, The Death Penalty: An Historical and Theological Survey, a project that had its genesis in 1979. Gardner C. Hanks also introduced his work, Against the Death Penalty: Christian and Secular Arguments Against Capital Punishment, in 1997. Hanks wears many hats, among them professional librarian at Idaho State Library and the Idaho State Death Penalty Action Coordinator for Amnesty International. He also has served as spiritual advisor for Idaho death row inmates, and is active in the Mennonite Church.

Megivern’s work attempts to explain how capital execution has lasted so long in Christian societies. From the Preface:

The lack of English-language histories that explained how capital punishment came to be the common practice throughout centuries in Christian Europe I found puzzling. How had it come about that churchmen in the High Middle Ages had adopted a position of staunch support of this singular practice of deliberately destroying human life? There simply had to be more of a story behind this intriguing phenomenon, but, whatever it was, the standard literature did not seem to include it. The [End Page 553] widely used church histories, especially, were strangely silent, seeming to take it for granted that there was nothing incongruous in such endorsement.3

Megivern’s 641-page volume then tackles the history of capital execution, and the role of Christianity in it, in chronological order. The Death Penalty covers the time period of A.D. 175 through 1996 in eleven chapters. Roughly half of the book is devoted to the twentieth century alone, largely due to the scarcity of records from earlier times. Megivern picks up on the early church after the record of the New Testament, when Christians were an oppressed religious group under the harsh Roman regime and likely victims of executions themselves. It continues through the establishment of Christianity as the official Roman religion, which resulted in an even harsher penal code, now bearing the mark of divine authority. For centuries, the Church sank itself deeper and deeper into a pattern of violence as it struggled to defend itself against heresy. Execution became a major tool in this battle. During this era, church officials...

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