Capital punishment and assisted dying

Human life is precious.  Christians believe that all humans, no matter how frail, tiny or fallible, bear the image of God.  Because of that men and women have a duty, both to themselves and to others, to conserve and respect human life.

The New Testament makes it clear that death is natural and inevitable.  There are several descriptions of heartfelt compassion in response to the grief of someone mourning a loved one. However, there is also an assurance that death on earth is not the end of all existence.  Because God is eternal, humans are also living in the context of eternity.  This leads to a conclusion that there is not an absolute duty to save every life no matter what the cost.

There is absolute clarity that murder is wrong.  The Bible is so explicit about this that it demands special protection for people who might be considered expendable in a ruthless, godless world – disabled people, those innocently caught up in war, and people who are too old or too young to look after themselves.

There are, however, some tragic circumstances in which the death of one person creates the circumstances in which others can thrive.  Christians do not all agree about the exceptional circumstances in which the death of a person is justified because a greater good can be achieved.  In particular, assisted dying and the death penalty are subjects about which Christians have had heartfelt debates over the years.

Capital punishment occurs in the Bible in response to crimes of exceptional gravity.  This has persuaded some Christians that it is still necessary as a last resort.  However the World Council of Churches, which draws together Christians around the globe, works vigorously to have the death penalty abolished worldwide.  Their argument is that an irreversible punishment makes it impossible for people to do what God longs for them to do – plead for forgiveness and change their ways.

When a person’s life brings them nothing but pain and distress, particularly when there is no cure for their condition, Christians agonise over the most godly course of action.  Some have come to the conclusion that allowing someone to choose the timing of the end of their life through assisted dying is merciful in the same way that God is merciful.  However, the hospice movement, which was pioneered by Christians, has always insisted that the love of God for every person means that no one is living a life without value.  They also insist that vulnerable people should never be made to feel a burden to their family or society, which can be an intolerable pressure in places where euthanasia is legal.  Most Christians advocate the very best use of pain control and compassion, rather than allowing anyone to intervene to accelerate death.

What the Bible says about it

An extract from the Bible:

Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.  If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also.  If someone takes your cloak, do not stop him from taking your tunic.  Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back.  Do to others as you would have them do to you.

Where to find it:

Luke 6:27-31

About these words:

These are words of Jesus urging his followers to resist evil, but without resorting to violence.

And they said…

Martin Luther King jnr, North American clergyman and civil rights campaigner, 1929–1968:

Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.

Joey Barton, Queen’s Park Rangers footballer:

Violence always comes from a place of misunderstanding and low to zero self-worth.  Well, mine did anyway.

Martin Luther, German theologian, 1485–1546:

No Christian shall wield or invoke the sword for himself or for his cause.  But for another he ought to wield and invoke it, that wickedness may be hindered and godliness defended.

Bruce Kent, British theologian and peace activist:

One day it is going to dawn on the human race that war is as barbaric a means of resolving conflict as cannibalism is a means of coping with diet deficiencies.

Pope John XXIII, 1881–1963:

For a Christian who believes in Jesus and his gospel, war is an iniquity and a contradiction.

What the Bible says about it

An extract from the Bible:

There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under heaven:
a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance.

Where to find it:

Ecclesiastes 3:1-4

About these words:

This is the beginning of a poem written about three hundred years before Jesus, which he would have known well.  It is now part of the Old Testament.  It makes clear the Jewish and Christian belief that the times of the beginning and end of life are in God’s hands, but there are complex decisions to be made about the way human beings interpret his desires for the world in practice.

And they said…

Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury:
At present, we can show love, care and compassion to those who at all ages and stages of life are contemplating suicide.  We can try to intervene, to support them to embrace life once more.  We can do all in our power to surround those who are terminally ill with the best possible palliative care, including physical, emotional and spiritual support.  We can redouble our efforts to alleviate suffering.  We can show that we love even when people have given up on caring for themselves.  We can support our doctors and nurses as they act consistently in the best interests of their patients, affirming life and caring for the vulnerable.  We risk all this for what? Becoming a society where each life is no longer seen as worth protecting, worth honouring, worth fighting for?

Dame Cicely Saunders, 1918-2005, founder of the hospice movement:

I have had much correspondence with the former chairman of the Euthanasia Society [now known as Dignity in Dying] … and I took him round Saint Christopher’s [hospice for those who are terminally ill].  He came away saying, ‘I didn’t know you could do it.  If all patients died something like this we could disband the society.’  If you relieve a person’s pain and if you make him feel like a wanted person, then you are not going to be asked about euthanasia.

Susan Sarandon, who won the 1996 Oscar for her performance as Sister Helen Prejean in ‘Dead Man Walking’, a film about the death penalty:

It’s good to have to think about death.  Death’s what’s real in life.  It’s just that we find ways to be busy.  If we lived every day with death, we would live a different life and it would not necessarily be a depressing one.  It would probably be more joyful.

You know, I often lose the ability to prioritise.  I’m rushing to get lunch for the children, and put the toilet paper on the toilet paper thing, and read the scripts, and it takes a kid getting sick or something to remember that it’s not so important that there’s stuff all over the floor and maybe, just maybe, you should play with your kids.  People say that if we think about death all the time we’d go mad, but maybe we’d go sane.