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From a moral Christian point of view, I cannot understand the idea that we should punish anyone. In America, which is a highly Christian-dominated society, there is little resistance to capital punishment from the "right wing." My understanding is that Christians are not supposed to judge. God will judge everyone when their time comes. Isn't Christian morality about tolerance and acceptance, and not revenge? "Turning the other cheek?" "Love thy neighbor/enemy as thyself?" Are Christians simply turning a blind eye to this action?

June 25, 2007

Response from Peter S. Fosl on July 10, 2007
One might say, I suppose, in a kind of sociological way that Christianity is whatever Christians say it is. So, if people who call themselves Christians endorse capital punishment or punishments of other kinds, then those practices are Christian practices. But this isn't terribly satisfying for many, because people wish to believe that there is some sort of "true" Christianity against which the practices of people who call themselves Christians can be tested. And, anwyay, after all it does seem that it should be meaningful to speak of better and worse Christians.

For myself, I think it probably impossible to speak of true Christianity in general. It is, however, I think meaningful to consider whether or not people meet the standards of Christianity they themselves or at least the authorities of their sects endorse. So, while it may be impossible to speak of better and worse Christians in general, one might speak of better and worse Catholics or Presbyterians or Baptists.

According to the standards of most Christian sects, as I understand them (which may not be very well), I think you're onto something. In particular, I think that most "Christians" aren't consistent about their views regarding crime and punishment, at all. In fact, the beliefs and conduct of most "Christians" in general seem to me well described by Ambrose Bierce's definition of a Christian: "Someone who follows the teachings of Christ insofar as they are not inconsistent with a life of sin."

Having said this, I would caution you about a possible conflation in your question between two different things. Judging someone to have been morally wrong may be and often is very different from judging that person to have committed a crime. Sometimes one may commit a crime but still have done the morally correct thing--those who defied and broke segregation laws were criminal in their conduct but morally right nonetheless. So, it may be possible to judge people legally and even punish them for their crimes but judge them approvingly or not judge them at all from a religious point of view.
Response from Thomas Pogge on July 22, 2007
There is indeed a tension between capital punishment and the teachings of Christ. One can ease this tension somewhat by highlighting the contribution of penal institutions to the protection of innocent people, who are safer when criminals are taken off the street and potential criminals deterred. This does not justify the death penalty, nor our kind of prisons in which inmates are routinely raped and abused, but it does help justify penal institutions of the kind we know from the more civilized states.

I see much greater tensions between Christian teaching and many other policies we pursue, especially internationally. We pressure very poor countries to undertake “structural adjustment programs” -- cutting public funding and raising fees for basic education and health care -- so that they can better service their loans to our banks, which loans are often taken out by brutal dictators who use the money we lend them to buy the arms they needed to stay in power. We allow our banks to help such tyrants and their supporters to transfer embezzled funds into the international banking system. We pressure very poor countries to enforce the intellectual property rights of our pharmaceutical firms by ensuring that their populations have no access to generic versions of medicines on which one of our companies has a patent. We tolerate severe poverty of nearly half the world’s population, which kills about 18 million people annually including over 10 million children, even while such poverty could be eradicated at half the cost of our military budget. We impose severe sanctions on Iraq, and later a botched occupation, each of which have needlessly killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians. We refuse to intervene in Rwanda, Sudan, and Myanmar, where enormous massacres and suffering could have been prevented at minimal cost. We detain thousands of poorly selected terrorism suspects indefinitely without charge or trial while subjecting them to every kind of recreational and premeditated abuse. Much more than our penal institutions, such policies -- often associated by their perpetrators and supporters with Christian language and values -- are an indelible insult to Christ and His teachings.

We are a Christian-dominated society in that there is a lot of talk about Christ and His teachings. We are not a Christian-dominated society in that many of our policies are plainly incompatible with Christ’s teachings and perpetrated by people who plainly have no expectation that they will ever have to answer to Christ for what they did to further their political ends while invoking His name.


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