Hanged by the neck until dead

There is a discussion on capital punishment on The hanging judge… and Death, part two…

I think I have discussed this moral problem to an extent on this blog. Just type keywords into the search box, or look at the Moral questions category. My own opinion is about the same as it always has been – abolitionist. However, there are horrifying cases of serial killers, terrorists, cannibals who rape and eat children, etc. that seem only to deserve execution after a fair trial with rock-solid evidence.

One problem is that human justice is fallible, and many cases call for mercy as well as justice. For example, a man who has murdered his wife because she abused him. He has committed something heinous and terrible, but is he a danger to society generally? Would it not suffice to give him a relatively short prison sentence in an open facility where he can reflect, expiate, put his soul right with God and seek psychological help if appropriate?

There are solutions by which society can rid itself of dangerous individuals without killing them. In the past, there were penal colonies, but they were usually rife with corruption, rape and bullying like in normal high-security prisons. There are successful examples in Northern Europe of open air prisons, where inmates are not allowed outside the outer walls, but live a more or less normal life inside. They can get a job and engage in hobbies, and socialise as human beings. The ideal is that the facility would be entirely paid for by the work of the inmates so as not to be a burden on the taxpayer.

What about the really depraved psychopaths? There are perhaps cases where they should be killed because no other solution can be envisaged. Method of execution? Nothing fancy, just a single bullet in the back of the head in a prison cell, Russian style. The body would then be certified as dead by a doctor and then cremated in an officially witnessed event. Perhaps, this could be a discretionary sentence in very extreme cases.

It is a difficult moral problem, and we can easily develop an unhealthy interest in electric chairs and guillotines (simply type those words into Google). Some people take the same interest in guillotines as in classic cars! It is tempting, and we English have a dark sense of “gallows humour”. It is unhealthy.

Justice should be positive and merciful whenever possible, and as concerned for the offender’s rehabilitation as for the safety of society. We are sickened by the way Jihadist groups and countries like Saudi Arabia still behead and hang people in public, and we discuss the possibility of bringing all that back into western society! There are no simple solutions, yet I am not a lawyer. There are principles so that the law should be impartial and apply to all alike, but there is a notion of equity and mercy. This should be considered next time any of us is called for Jury Service (I can’t be because I am a clergyman).

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12 Responses to Hanged by the neck until dead

  1. I’d like to be against the death penalty; I don’t feel comfortable with it. However, I rarely find the moral or theological arguments against it very convincing. I just settle with being glad we don’t have it in the UK any more.

  2. ed pacht says:

    I am against the death penalty, however Scripture is not, and Tradition is not; and yet I find myself unable to see any justification for it, or to comprehend that a Christian can support such a penalty. The OT specifically prescribes the death penalty in certain situations and the NT does not directly address the issue (though Paul recognizes that Caesar has the power of the sword). I do note that the death penalty in the OT is not very similar to the death penalty n such a modern country as the US. Then it was quick and certain, public and administered by the community itself. None of that is true of modern practice. Appeals drag on, for decades, and it is far from certain that any under such a sentence will actually be executed. We, rightly object to the circus atmosphere that attended public executions in times past and have reacted by relegating execution to hidden places and reserving the act to specialists. Is it right for the community in whose interest the deed is supposedly being done to be allowed to escape responsibility? I’m thinking of Jesus’ decision with regard to the woman taken in adultery. He did not question the Law that said she should be stoned, but challenged the judges/executioners: “Let him that is without sin cast the first stone.” Who among us is thus qualified to execute? I tremble at that. Are we not called to forgive and forgive and forgive again and again?

    No, I can’t make a tight and reasoned condemnation of capital punishment, but neither can I envision a situation in which I could favor it without abandoning much of the Gospel in the process. Can Caesar, i.e. civil government, rightfully impose such a sentence? Well, yes, I don’t think that can be denied. Can I, as a Christian, take a part in that imposition? For myself I have to say a loud NO. To others, there is this: Jesus commands us to love our enemies. He does not ask this, but commands. Perhaps there are times (in a just war, if such is still possible, in self-defense, in capital punishment) when killing may be permitted, but, so far as I can see if we cannot truly and actively love the one we are killing we are violating His direct command. For myself I see no way around this. For others, well, it’s not my place to judge.

  3. The Rad Trad says:

    A quick bullet in the back of the head after one appeal is the most reasonable solution. Elaborate execution methods often create more pain than justice and appeals protract the humanization of someone who committed a crime. This false compassion that leads people to oppose the death penalty is akin to the modern plea for mercy without penance and forgiveness without repenting. Crime, like sin, can well be a “condition” (social problems, bad rearing like Original Sin dilutes man’s judgment) but that cannot be an excuse nor is it something that is simply rehabilitated out. Even with contrition a penalty must be paid, even the most severe.

    • Maybe the problem is not so much the possibility of executing criminals but which ones to execute. In the early 19th century, children were hanged for stealing a loaf of bread. Following that extreme, the whole notion of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment are at stake, with a return of the survival of the strongest and fittest. That can go a long way, as some conservatives seem to advocate. A human person is worth his worldly wealth. That is for the reductio ad absurdam.

      Normally, a murder case is examined by weighing the mitigating and aggravating circumstances. Thus someone like Andrei Chikatilo or Ted Bundy, among other twisted psychopaths and serial killers can only deserve an ignominious and anonymous death in absolute obscurity. What about the crime de passion or someone who is severely retarded like Derek Bentley whose “Let the have it” was ambiguous and who was already under arrest? What about someone who did something stupid without thinking of the consequences? I think most jurisdictions work along these lines, and ideally, only the worst of the worst are condemned to death.

      As you say, the American system is revolting and expensive. The English system was three Sundays between sentencing and execution, barring one appeal. An English execution, Pierrepoint style, was very quick and left no opportunity for the condemned to panic and start thrashing around. The Russian method, as used for Chikotilo involved no ceremony, just a single bullet in the back of the head fired by a soldier who had no compunction about it.

      Another criterion is exactly the question of the possibility of rehabilitation. No way with someone like Ted Bundy, to cite an extreme, but maybe for someone who murdered his wife as a consequence of extreme provocation. The latter needs to be punished and cared for – perhaps something like 10 years and without the degrading conditions (rape, sodomy, bullying, corruption, gangs, etc.) of modern maximum security prisons.

      Thus I do admit of the possibility of capital punishment, but only when nothing else will do. It should never be a mandatory sentence, but via the discretion of the judge and jury. Obviously, the law would stipulate which crimes could be punishable by death, leaving the judge and jury to decide for an alternative like prison or a penal colony. For example, a judge would not be allowed to sentence a lesser crime or offence with death.
      This is of interest: Capital punishment by the United States federal government

      Russia still has capital punishment on its statutes, but it is very rarely used. Their policy seems to be healthier, keeping the legal possibility, but only using it when nothing else will do. Their method is usually shooting, but with the same basis as the English way – get it over quickly with no song and dance and not to give the body to the family or anyone else.

    • ed pacht says:

      If one is talking in purely secular and ethical/practical terms what RadTrad and Father are saying here makes good sense, expressing a blend of justice and secular compassion. However, I don’t think Christians have permission to go ahead on this basis. There are a couple of questions we have to ask ourselves: Do I truly love the person I find it necessary to kill? I keep harping on that because it is, after all, a direct command that we love our enemies. Am I qualified to cast the first stone? How does my own sin factor into this action? I certainly can’t give an all-purpose answer to these questions, and am seldom qualified to do much second-guessing, but I am convinced that we must deal with these considerations or we sin grievously.

      • Yes, love our enemies, but we need to be able to prevent them from killing us. I think it should be very rarely necessary to kill – just put him in a penal colony, something a little more humane than American supermax prisons. Would you live in a world run by devils like Bundy and Chikotilo, turning the other cheek when they rape, kill and eat your children? We do have a right to self defence.

        I maintain an abolitionist position, believing that there are other ways of protecting society from murderous monsters without it costing the taxpayer anything other than the initial building of the colony. But, if there isn’t this alternative, then the law has to consider capital punishment.

        It is a difficult one. Where is the line drawn? That is the awful responsibility of being a judge or a jury member in cases of extremely heinous crime and the usual shallow attitude of the psychopath / sociopath.

      • ed pacht says:

        Obviously we need protection against the Bundys and Mansons, but to administer such protection in a spirit of hate is a sin that, in God’s sight, is equal to theirs. To love is the highest imperative, and what we cannot do in love we simply cannot do. To follow Christ is neither easy nor intuitive.

      • I agree with you in that any punishment is designed to: 1. Protect society, 2. Deprive the criminal of his freedom as a punishment so that he may to some extent expiate his crime (vindictive), 3. If possible, rehabilitate the criminal in the event that he might be remorseful and seek forgiveness of his sin (medicinal). Justice may never be hateful or anything like a lynching mob. This is why we need law and not arbitrary vengeance.

  4. I have to be frank here and say that all of this stuff about “love our enemies” gets on my bloody nerves. Exactly the same mantra is applied to letting in millions of dangerous foreign migrants, all in the name of misplaced compassion. It is a goofy argument and a gross misinterpretation of scripture. We live in the real world, don’t we? Christ’s ordinances are for personal, deeply personal, moral correction, and personal salvation. The State is quite apart from the citizen, even a Christian state (which, arguably, never existed anyway). So, in what sense can a divine ordinance for personal correction be applied to the State, whose prime responsibility is the safety and well-being of its citizens? One of the most valuable lessons I ever learned, and I learned it the hard way, was that if you shew any weakness in front of bullies, you just encourage them. And this can be said of the criminal justice system. By going soft on the criminal, who should be made an example of, you just end up encouraging other criminals, and an increase in crime. People are cynical and opportunistic. If they know they will get away with it, they’ll just carry on doing it. Taken to its extreme, “love your enemies” will only bring about rampant lawlessness, disorder and menace.

    As I see it, this is a crisis of responsibility. On the one hand you have the criminal, who won’t accept the consequences of his actions (which, if the death penalty existed on our law books, could mean execution by the state, depending upon the crime). And on the other, the cowardly politician or judge who would rather palm off responsibility to a prison warden rather than ordering the criminal’s death. Actions have consequences. Some crimes are so evil that they deserve death, in my view. But this is not about trying to perfect life on earth but keeping some semblance of justice, under God, in this fallen world. We are never going to be rid of murder. I am under no illusions that murder was ever less evil, less tragic, or less prevalent in one age or another. But people should be personally responsible. If the penalty is death, accept it like a man. And practitioners of the law should be dispassionate too. Just because you feel personally uncomfortable about ending a man’s life doesn’t mean that maintaining the life of someone who felt no discomfort is the answer.

    This is why the hanging judge’s comment: “God have mercy on your soul” should be understood very closely. I am no theologian. I found ethics a profoundly boring topic at Heythrop, but I do know in my gut what is right and wrong. And it seems far more “right” to me, legally, economically, ethically, and expediently for the State to purge a man’s mortal flesh in the hope that God will preserve his soul, rather than to maintain his life, just because it is his life, in a prison where he will undoubtedly fall back into his old, sinful thoughts and resentment. So may the command “love your enemies” be understood in an alternative way?

    • I have little else to say at an intellectual level.

      I am very impressed by the film The Changeling, directed by Clint Eastwoood who has turned out to be a highly sensitive artist, more than the trigger-happy gun-slinger he once portrayed.

      Here is the scene of the execution of Gordon Northcott in 1930, a twisted psychopath with whom no one would have any sympathy, any more than Ted Bundy or many of the other serial killers, cannibals, child rapists/killers, etc.

      If you see the film, it is seen how Northcott played with the mothers of his victims and enjoyed inflicting suffering. His characteristic shallowness of a psychopath is clearly seen. Once we see what that man did, we can almost take pleasure in seeing him hang like the Nazi war criminals in 1946.

      Clint Eastwood (who doesn’t appear in the film, but directed it) brings out many things like the “Don’t make me walk so fast”. Indeed time is running out for us all, and we all face death and judgement at our own level. Northcott sings Silent Night just before the hangman moves the lever to spring the trapdoor. None of us is convinced by the shallow show of piety, like when he praised himself with the priest for having made his (insincere) confession. I would not imagine that Northcott found redemption in any way.

      There is another side to capital punishment even of such monsters, the immortality of their souls. According to some mediums, not all such souls go to hell, but are stuck somewhere between earth and the “next world”. These demonic souls are like demons of angelic origin who continue to do evil on earth. Some manifest themselves as poltergeists and ghosts. I suppose it would be the same thing if these “things” were allowed to live in a penal colony and they died old of natural causes or murdered by fellow inmates – evil souls. It is indeed a terrifying mystery.

      Watch the execution, preferably in the content of the whole film. You will have no sympathy with Northcott, but one might reflect on an alternative to sending such a soul into a position in which he could do even more evil as a dis-incarnate entity. Perhaps the next 40 years of his life in a penal colony might help to bring his soul round as an old man who has worked and suffered for that length of time.

      Here is an account (quite gruesome) of the execution of the real-life Northcott:

      Northcott was hanged in San Quentin on 2nd October 1930. There are many conflicting accounts of his last words but the most reliable source is the Los Angeles Times, which reports that Northcott finally quailed in the face of his impending death, mumbling “Don’t hang me. Don’t hang me”. He was a pale and shivering wreck, his quivering body had to be carried up the scaffold and his eyes were covered at his own request so that he need not see the gibbet. Witnessing his execution were 140 people. Some accounts report that Northcott’s knees sagged as the trapdoor opened, his collapse took the slack out of the rope and thus the fall was too short to break his neck. He apparently took 11 minutes to strangle to death. This was not mentioned in the Los Angeles Times article.

      We will never have a definitive answer, but these are points for reflection.

    • ed pacht says:

      Patrick is quite right that the so-called ‘love’ that excuses anything and denies consequences is at least potentially a very negative thing. This is not love at all in that it denies the seriousness of the person’s own actions and the responsibility he or she has for those consequences. It is a denial of personhood. Real live is tough love and reaches toward a person’s real needs – not toward his desires.

      Patrick is also right in what he says (if I’m paraphrasing correctly) about the basic amorality of society as such. The NT has little if anything to say about what Caesar should or should not do, counseling, in fact, both obedience and respect even to evil rulers so far as it is possible. Scripture, in fact, in both Testaments is quite clear that the civil authority has the power of the sword. The OT prescribes capital punishment by the (more-or-less) theocratic Hebrew state, and the NT does not deny such a power to Caesar. Arguments to the contrary inevitably fail.

      However, the state is NOT entirely apart from the citizen. It’s actions do not take place without individual human action. Though instituted by God, the state is fundamentally the government of humans by humans, whose actions and attitudes reflect what individual moral principles they hold, sometimes, nay, often, in some degree of conflict with what the state asks of them, Ultimately individual morality, positive or negative, does and must have a profound effect on the workings of the State. It was, for example, changes in the individual moral conviction of increasing numbers of influential citizens that ultimately led to abolition of slavery; and, on the other hand, it was increasing changes in a worse direction on the part of powerful citizens that opened the way for the depravity of Nazism and Bolshevism. In the latter cases, it appears to have been a weakness of individual morality in society that made the negative changes possible.

      What the NT requires of us as Christians is a moral fiber radically different from what is seen as ‘normal’, and the defining word is ‘love’ (agape). It does not require this of us merely in our personal life, but in all of our life, including our life as citizens in society. What is permitted for the state as such to do, is not permitted to individual Christians, even if they serve as officials of the state. (which in modern ‘democracies’ we all do, if only as voters). We as individual Christians and as citizens of our nations are bound to an admittedly supernatural commitment to love, not merely of ourselves and our families, not merely of our neighbors (defined by Christ as including those we don’t think of as such), but even of our enemies. That can’t be set aside, for these things are the most direct commands that our Lord has given.

      Does that mean that we can/’t do things to another that that other thinks hurtful? On the contrary, real love requires that we do what is best for the other, even when they do not see it that way. “Love your enemies” is not disposable and can’t be set aside, but the squishiness that ,much of modern thinking puts on this term is unacceptable. It is not OK to let people do whatever they want without consequences. It’s not good for their victims, for society in general, or for their own souls. Real love requires discipline, restraint, and consequences. And it is the state that is responsible for bringing order.

      However, as is always the case, the NT is primarily concerned with the inner man, and it is attitude that reigns supreme in our actions. Are there times when it may be right and even necessary for killing to be done? You know, I can’t make a conclusive argument to the contrary, but Jesus’ command asks a yet deeper question: Can we kill while truly loving the one(s) we dispatch? Patrick quoted the traditional ending to a death sentence: “May God have mercy on your soul.” Such a sentiment, if deeply meant, may indeed be an evidence of this kind of love, but then again it may be a mere rote repetition of hypocrisy — but at least it does express the need of the kind of attitude required.

      Thus, to execute with hate (or to witness execution with hate) is seriously sinful (as BTW is the treatment of prisoners as less than human — love includes respect). As I said before, an individual Christian must examine himself, when asked to take part in execution, whether pulling a trigger, pushing a button, declaring a sentence, or even merely voting, whether he is acting in love. If not, he can’t do it without sin. If so, well that’s another whole question, one I can’t answer objectively.

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