Social and Pastoral BulletinNo. 86Oct. 15, 1998

A Christian Reflection on the Death Penalty

Sakai Takumi
The Melchisedec Association of St. Ignatius Church

Our association belongs to St Ignatius Church and has taken the name of Melchisedec, the Great Priest who appears in the Old Testament as the King of justice and peace. As Christians we take modern social issues as of our own, and after reflecting together on Christian schemes to find solutions to them we, firstly, look for solutions viable to each one of us. We think this is a way for evangelization.

We just started, formally, our activities as a small group in St Ignatius church this year and, every first and third Wednesday evening, we meet in the assembly hall.

Sponsoring conferences on ecological problems and the situation of the disabled, as well as conducting exposure programs, we have for the time being reflected together on those issues.

Last September we selected the theme “A Christian Reflection on the Death Penalty”. We watched first a video in order to make personal reflections on the issue, and then we invited to our meeting Fr. Nishio Joji, from Tamazukuri church (Osaka), who is actively involved in the problems of the death penalty.

Although we made an unreasonable demand on Fr. Nishio asking him to use easy language in explaining to us the issues involved in the death penalty, in just one hour and a half, he agreed to it and divided his talk in 4 different sections:

  1. What kind of punishment the death penalty is?
  2. Is the death penalty a deterrent of crime?
  3. Need of spiritual care of victims
  4. Death penalty in the Bible.
What kind of punishment the death penalty is?

To begin with, regarding the punishment of death penalty, since there are no limits to human retaliatory spirit and since revenge has often provoked more revenge, the Lord made a contract with Moses: “ should give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand...” (Exodus 22:23-25) These words are not a stimulus for a retribution like, “ if somebody takes your eye you can deprive that person of his/her eye” , but “ stop your revenge at depriving a person of his/her eye when s/he takes your eye” , in other words, the teaching is to put a break to retaliation.

At times when national authority and national systems were not well fixed yet, the means of retaliation against crimes were practically left to just personal vendettas. Nevertheless, once the States established their own systems they could not overlook any longer retaliation upon retaliation and, as a result, systems of punishment as retribution were fixed. This way they became vicarious executers of vendettas.

The established rule “if you are beaten, answer back” and “punishment equal to the damage done” was so easy to understand that it was taken as a matter of fact, but nowadays the development of the human rights thinking and its general acceptance have given place to rethink the legal background of the norm “if you are beaten, answer back”. The results are that a new way of thinking has been born.

That is to say, a crime must be detested by itself, but criminals are not to be removed by executing or isolating them from society. They should receive punishment suitable to their crime and they should be given time to repent and to rehabilitate their lives. The principle of educational punishment by which people who commit a crime should be brought back to society as true human beings has come into light now.

When one considers the criminal code and its legal procedures from the point of view of “punishment suitable to the crime”, no matter how similar the crimes are, the social circumstances under which crimes are committed are different, as well as the education, the family environment, the childhood of the criminal.

Consequently, each person is due to receive a personal sentence, and it should be natural that punishment differs from person to person. This is called “consideration of extenuating circumstances”.

Considering the death penalty from the point of view of educational correction, if a person is executed there is no more hope to reestablish him/her back to society to be rehabilitated as a true human person, and since this is a rejection of using the means of letting a criminal without freedom for a while, in order to restore him/her to society rehabilitated, it can be said that the death penalty is, by itself, a proof that “there is no other punishment available for some crimes but to kill fast, and that way law is powerless”.

Furthermore, according to the view of retribution, that is “punishment as equal to the crimes committed ” , a criminal who has killed 10 persons will have to be executed ten times, what in fact means that the legal system approving death penalty has lost its legal force.
Is the death penalty a deterrent of crime?

The death penalty as a deterrent of crime will mean something like this: “I planned to kill that person but I will not do it, because if I commit this crime they will execute me”. The presupposition is that criminals are in a cool state of mind when they perform a crime which is not usually the case, and then the argument of deterrence loses its meaning.

But even considering the death penalty as a deterrent factor against crime by comparing the number of serious crimes having or not having the death penalty, we should not simply compare the number of serious crimes in countries favoring the death penalty with those which have abolished it. Unless we take statistics to compare the occurrence of serious crimes in countries that have abolished death penalty with the number of occurrences in the same countries when they approved death executions, we can not have a right point of comparison to make a just judgement on the efficacy of deterrence. Such surveys are not available yet.

In the case of Japan, the reason she offers not to sign the International Treaty for the abolition of the death penalty is that the majority of the population, as public opinion shows, is for retaining the death penalty. Nevertheless, when the data are collected, the item, “if conditions are met I am for the abolition of death penalty” is interpreted as “if conditions are not met I am against the abolition of death penalty”. As a result, the number of those wishing to retain the system of death penalty reaches the majority. But this counting mechanism has been publicly exposed.

Thinking on those terms, the opinion that stresses the death penalty as a deterrence against crime can not be taken as grounded on true objective information at all.

Need of spiritual care of victims

The need for the psychological care of the victims. Fr. Nishio said that he was not able to find a ready answer to those who favored the death penalty when asked pointedly, “you talk only about abolishing the death penalty, but what do those favoring abolition think of the human rights of the victims?”.

Fr. Nishio said that what he wanted to stress at this moment was that victims with psychological suffering due to wounds need medical care, not consolation or religion, and a system for assisting them materially has to be expanded. This is a priority ahead of discussing the abolition or retention of capital punishment.

Death penalty in the Bible

Fr. Nishio proceeded then to the death penalty in the Bible, a most important issue for us Christians.

We must, firstly, reflect that there are many passages in the Bible approving capital punishment. Take Exodus 21:12 for instance: “Anyone who strikes a man and so causes his death, must die”. Stressing such a passage we can be told: “is not this a clear proof that the Bible, you Christians evaluate so highly, is for death penalty?”, or maybe we are asked “Is not the Catholic church unclear about the issue of capital punishment?”. How should we answer?

As I explained before, talking about the origin and development of the opinion on educational punishment, there were times when the system of death penalty, the same as wars, was considered “a matter of fact”. And even now there are many people who think the same way.


Considering such a point of view, and because of historical circumstances that accepted capital punishment, the fact that the passages of the Bible on the death penalty were interpreted literally and widely accepted is nothing to surprise anyone.

Nevertheless, once we think about punishment not as retribution but in consonance with the concept of educational punishment, we find the need to learn rightly and to put into practice the just will of God as it is expressed in His words, more than to make a literal interpretation of the Bible.

Consequently, there are proves in many passages of the Gospel where Jesus stresses the respect for human rights, like, for instance, when he cured a man covered with leprosy who was abhorred by society and sent him back healed to the priest, as evidence that he could return to live in society (Luke 5:12-14).
If, today, we apply with flexibility the thinking of the Bible to our modern problems, I think that we can make a right reading of the word of God regarding the death penalty also.

Catholics and Death Penalty

Finally, Fr. Nishio explained that the Pope John Paul II has shown his attitude of being against the death penalty, and that the “Catholic Catechism” will soon offer a clear stand on the issue. I received the impression that we Christians have to question again our attitudes towards capital punishment, and that the time has arrived to take a clear stand.

After listening to the talk of Fr. Nishio we thought we would like to continue reflecting as Christians on the issue of death penalty, without forgetting the respect of the victims and their families, of those of the condemned and their families, and of the rights of prison officers also.

The day we held our meeting we were worried about the difficulty of bringing Fr. Nishio to Tokyo, due to a coming typhoon, but we have to thank God because the typhoon cleared rapidly and we could hold our meeting safely.

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