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Thursday, April 13, 2017

On The (Original) Redemptive Purpose of Death Row

This being holy week, I thought I’d post an abbreviated excerpt from a short piece that came out last fall. The piece is an on-line response to Marah McLeod’s excellent article on death row, in the Ohio State Law Review.  Here’s the excerpt from the larger (but still small) response.

The word “penitentiary” comes from the word “penitence,” and comes from the idea that punitive confinement could bring spiritual penitence, and with it, redemption of the soul. McLeod notes that death row today is justified on purely secular grounds, while acknowledging that vestiges of the religious purpose of death row remain and that it is not uncommon to see authentic religious conversions among the condemned.

I found McLeod’s discussion of the origin of death row intriguing given the role of religion in arguments for and against the death penalty today. In the domestic discourse, I am primarily referring to Christian arguments for and against the death penalty, and since Christians are deeply committed to redemption of the soul, McLeod’s discussion led me to think about death row and the redemptive purpose once served there.

I concede at the outset that I am now writing from a particular perspective—one that cares about redemption of the soul—and that my thoughts will likely not resonate for those who do not share that perspective. The lens is clearly Christian, although it may be other things too. Bottom line is that for anyone, Christian or otherwise, who cares about things like repentance and redemption of the soul, here’s the rub:

No matter how long the condemned spend on death row, their opportunity for redemption is still artificially shortened by the state when they are executed. The death penalty takes away days, months, years from a person’s life—that’s the point, that’s the penalty. What if the time the state takes is the time that person needed for redemption?

Karla Faye Tucker is a prime example. I was reading about her for this Response when I came across a talk about the death penalty by none other than TV evangelist Pat Robertson. I had wondered what someone like Robertson would say about the redemption question, and there it was in the transcript, someone in the audience had asked him about it. Here is what he said:

Very good point, I’ve had it raised before, and I think it’s—she had 13 years of appeals, and during that period of time, she had a profound religious conversion, and had she been executed within a few weeks of her sentence, that never would have happened, and I don’t know what the answer is. Some things you have to leave to the Lord, but in order to accommodate that, you’d have to essentially do away with the death penalty entirely because you never know at what point of time somebody would have an experience . . . . Frankly, the point you raised is excellent and I don’t have an answer for it, I really don’t.

 I’m not sure if Pat Robertson saying the point is excellent and he doesn’t have an answer for it makes me feel better, or worse. But there it is.

An even better example may be Charles “Tex” Watson, who was once Charles Manson’s right-hand man. Watson was convicted of multiple murders and sentenced to death, but his sentence was commuted to life in prison when California temporarily abolished its death penalty in 1971. He has since become a born-again Christian and ordained minister, serving those with whom he is serving time. He has also founded Abounding Love, a prison outreach ministry dedicated to sharing the Good News. All this came about after he became a “lifer.” What if he had been executed instead?

Redemption is hard for an angry twenty-something. But time works changes, and what is true generally is true of angry twenty-somethings as well. Sometimes redemption takes growing up, staying sober, and living with regret. In short, sometimes redemption takes time. So I am back to my original question—what if by executing the condemned, we take away the time it takes?

Calvinists would probably answer that if God had laid claim to that soul, redemption would have happened in some way. But I am not a Calvinist, and so I am far less confident about knowing how God resolves the tension between predestination and free will. As such, the possibility that by executing the condemned, we may take away the days, months, even years necessary for something incredibly important to happen—again, at least from the perspective of those who care about redemption of the soul (for whatever reason and in light of whatever tradition)—is a prospect I find deeply troubling. Almost as troubling as the fact that I am just now thinking about these sorts of things for the first time.

This is not to say that any of these insights are new. A little research uncovered Saint Augustine making the same point over a thousand years ago, and the Catholic Catechism codifying it for the last twenty-five. As it turns out, viewing the death penalty through the lens of redemption is not new; it was just new to me.

And this is interesting, too. To the extent Christian values and rhetoric have played a part in the death penalty discourse here in the United States, they have tended to focus on the corporal aspect of capital punishment—respect for life on the one hand, “eye for an eye” on the other. What I have not seen in the religious arguments that permeate the public discourse is a concern for redemption of the soul.

Perhaps this is because of where it takes us; for those committed to redemption, the central challenge would appear to be justifying the death penalty over the redemption-maximizer of life without parole. But whatever the reason and wherever it leads, those who profess to care about things like repentance and redemption should at least be talking in those terms.


Posted by Corinna Lain on April 13, 2017 at 09:11 AM | Permalink


Great post, Corinna. Last night, we showed "Dead Man Walking" as part of our law school's film series. During the discussion afterwards, this issue was raised by one of our clinical professors who has decades of experience representing defendants in capital cases. He noted that, counter-intuitively, trying capital cases in extremely religious and conservative counties can be advantageous for defendants because jurors are likely to be concerned about cutting the opportunity for redemption short. It was a "new" lens for me, too, and one that I hadn't ever thought about as either a law professor or a Christian.

Posted by: Tracy Hresko Pearl | Apr 13, 2017 10:17:16 AM

If the soul outlives the body, and it is the soul that redeems, then it can redeem without/after the body. Pre-death redemption is no more genuine/authentic or admirable than post-death redemption--especially if one's life was cut short and they therefore had objectively less time to redeem.

A merciful god(s) would not judge a redemption based on whether it happened before or after death, rather than its authenticity. An omnipotent merciful god(s) would know that post-death redemption was coming and would give a post-death person time to redeem.

Also, people can have moral conversions without them being religious conversions, since people can have morality without having religion. An atheist conscientious-objector is just as authentic as a religious conscientious-objector.

Posted by: DawkinsHarris | Apr 13, 2017 10:51:22 AM

If democrats want people to find God(s), wouldn't it be quicker to teach the Gospels in high school before they've committed any crimes, rather than wait until after they've committed crimes that result in life-in-prison and then give them a chaplain in prison?

Posted by: AgeOfAquinas | Apr 13, 2017 11:09:10 AM

It does seem odd that we wait until after people have committed heinous crimes to expose them to philosophy (like Aristotle's Ethics, Kant's Morals, Mill's Utilitarianism and On Liberty, and Sartre's Existentialism), rather than have them read these books at the beginning of high school--as preventative medicine.
There always seems to be enough time in high school for English literature, but never enough time for anything that's actually important--like morality or how to file one's taxes.

Posted by: Sidgwick | Apr 13, 2017 11:36:08 AM

The Roman Catholic position, as I understand it, allows for imposition of the death penalty in some cases (for example, proper conviction and continued danger to others), but prefers and encourages government use of non-lethal alternatives whenever possible. This distinguishes the death penalty in Catholic theology from abortion and euthanasia which are more broadly condemned. Pope Francis has called for the end of the death penalty both because of its inconsistent application and because of its cutting short the possibilities of repentance and redemption. His views do not, however, alter traditional Catholic teaching. Augustine himself, I believe, both legitimated imposition of the death penalty while also advocating mercy for purposes of redemption.

Posted by: Kurt Lash | Apr 13, 2017 12:02:33 PM

Redemption does indeed some like a very Christian concept. I am not sure even other religions have an equivalent concept. It does not seem like the sort of concept that in a secular republic should influence public policy.

Posted by: Jr | Apr 13, 2017 1:02:16 PM


Prāyaścitta (Sanskrit: प्रायश्चित्त) is the Sanskrit word which means "atonement, penance, expiation".[1][2][3] It refers to one of the corrective measures in dharmaśāstra as an alternative to incarceration or other forms of danda (punishment) when someone is convicted of certain categories of crimes.[3] The word is also used in Hindu texts to refer to actions to expiate one's errors or sins, such as adultery by a married person.[4][5]

Posted by: SecularKarma | Apr 13, 2017 1:28:31 PM

If mentally-handicapped people aren't capable of redemption (because they're not capable of complex moral reflection, which is why they can't be held responsible for their actions), is it OK to execute them?

Or is this simply a way to also include non-mentally-handicapped people into the non-executable realm--so all people are non-executable?--even those who commit murder in prison.

As an early commentator suggested, if God gives people who are killed by cops time in purgatory for redemption, why wouldn't he also give people who are given the death penalty time in purgatory for redemption--before sending them to hell?

Posted by: Purgatorio | Apr 13, 2017 1:51:16 PM

Purgatorio: I believe it involves one's trajectory. If one is rightly oriented towards God, you'll get there, however long the path. Even a repentant thief on a cross. If you are oriented away from God . . . Well, in Larry Solumesque terms, ones trajectory is fixed at death and what God does with us then is constrained by that trajectory. Christians believe a call to repentance can make a difference this side of the grave and thus their desire that souls have time to hear and consider that call--and change the direction of their life and ultimately their eternity. Even CS Lewis, whose Christian theology made room for post-death embrace of God, imagined such moment occurring with a soul whose life had already been oriented towards God--though the soul did not know this while they lived. All of this support's Corinna's basic point that Christians would pray that the condemned be given as much time as possible to reorient their lives.

Posted by: Kurt Lash | Apr 13, 2017 4:07:33 PM

I'm not a religious scholar, but my sense is that Kurt is right about what we do in life setting our course for the afterlife; that's the reason why repentance & redemption are so important in Christian doctrine. That said, what I was principally interested in, in this essay, was the socio-political phenomenon that the Bible Belt is also the death belt, and the same folks who profess to care deeply about redemption while living (whether misguided or not) are the same that cite the Old Testament's "eye for an eye" in supporting the death penalty. And the fact that the redemption question is out there, but just not in the mainstream death penalty discourse here in the US--that's just fascinating to me. One might reasonably say that religious thought, particularly from one viewpoint, ought not animate public policy, but it's still very much a part of the discourse here (on both sides) and so it's just interesting that redemption isn't a part of it. In my mind, it should be (at least when debating the topic in religious terms).

And fwiw, I think we could prevent the murders that drive the death penalty more by taking steps to ensure little boys & girls aren't raped or kept in cages & severely abused, than by focusing on what they read in school. So many of these killers had incredibly traumatic childhoods, which the science shows leads to emotional detachment, and in turn loss of empathy. A capital defender once told me "monsters aren't born that way, they're made" & the data largely supports that claim.

I'm out until early next week, thx for comments everyone.

Posted by: Corinna Lain | Apr 14, 2017 9:23:44 AM

"No matter how long the condemned spend on death row, their opportunity for redemption is still artificially shortened by the state when they are executed. The death penalty takes away days, months, years from a person’s life—that’s the point, that’s the penalty. What if the time the state takes is the time that person needed for redemption?"

I would put it differently. Death row gives people a deadline to decide about eternal things. They can't put it off any more. Thus, it significantly enhances a person's likelihood of redemption. It sounds trivial, but it is true: we all need a deadline. Also, a distinct point. we all need to be jolted out of our everyday life and made to think about The Big Things. That's why the death of a loved one can also be redemptive.

Posted by: Eric Rasmusen | Apr 14, 2017 10:34:21 PM

The question is still important for a Calvinist such as myself. God has foreordained who is to be saved, but we can't tell whom He has chosen, and He wants us to help with the process--- even though He could accomplish it by other means than our evangelism, death rows, or whatever. It has to be a mystery as to why He uses the means He does, just as it has to be a mystery as to why He doesn't save everyone by a wave of the wand. But we should want to please Him, and that means figuring out what He wants us to do about death row, among other things.

Posted by: Eric Rasmusen | Apr 14, 2017 10:38:37 PM

This line of reasoning seem to march quickly into places the author doesn't really want to go.

If someone intends to murder you, do you have the right to kill them in order to protect yourself? Secular law says, yes, but according to this reasoning the answer is, no. Especially if you are a Christian. If you allow the person to murder you, you go to Heaven. Shouldn't you want that? In addition, you allow them to acquire the regret that it seems redemption requires and you give them time to think about it. However, if you protect yourself and kill them, then you have robbed them of any chance at redemption.

Now, if you do not believe in redemption, are you exempt from this requirement?

This line of reasoning, one may say, only applies to state violence. That seems rather arbitrary, since the reasoning is that the violent unredeemed should have *every* possible chance to live long enough to acquire redemption. Why, then, should this be limited only to state behavior (unless, of course, one is not actually engaging a genuine discussion about faith and, rather, is just trying to win the death penalty debate).

This line of reasoning also misconstrues the entire point behind redemption. Redemption is not being forgiven for bad things done on this earth. Redemption is being forgiven for offenses against divine law. You don't have to murder someone to understand an offense against divine law, and to be called to repent. "But what if that's what it takes?" someone may ask. "What if murdering someone plus having 20 years to think about it is what it takes?" My next question is, "Is it really the act of murder or is it the proximity to death that makes the convict consider the divine and the afterlife?"

However, what if the violent unredeemed, in fact, killed an unredeemed person and shortened that person's chance at redemption? If the violent unredeemed person does find redemption, though, it seems ok to execute him/her since the reason for holding up the person's execution no longer exists.

It seems, then, that the reasoning can be readily reduced to the mantra that the violent unredeemed are the only ones who should be guaranteed natural death. All the victims are simply prices to be paid for redemption. And once redeemed, they are candidates for execution.

Lastly, I should point out that I'm not necessarily saying that the answer to is, no. However, I am quite skeptical that those pushing this line of reasoning would be willing to live in accordance with the necessary conclusions that this line of reasoning actually leads to. So, until we have that discussion, I'm not very comfortable with using Christianity to slap around the "death belt" (give me a break).

There are valid reasons why Christians should oppose the death penalty, and those reasons are worthy of discussion. This one seems disingenuous.

Posted by: YesterdayIKilledAMammoth | Apr 14, 2017 11:56:04 PM

Eric--nice point. I think you're right that a death sentence can (at least in theory) provide a deadline, and that might motivate someone into repentance & redemption. Torture also might motivate someone to repent, but we don't do that (although, yikes, we have...). I see a difference here between motivating redemption and depriving someone of the possibility of it. But I credit the point. Impending executions would appear to do both--motivate in the time that remains, but also cut the opportunity short.

Yesterday--I'm not sure I follow any of what you said, but I did get the "disingenuous" at the end, and to that I can assure you, you are mistaken. I'm so thankful to have been asked to write the response to Marah's piece, because it was in doing so that I finally figured out why, for me, the death penalty is morally wrong. I've had many people over the years ask why my faith doesn't tell me to oppose the dp on the merits, as opposed to its procedural flaws (if we could just get this right, I'd be ok w/ it). My answer has always been I don't know, it just doesn't. That changed in the process of writing the response to Marah's piece, and the above excerpt is my attempt to express that.

This, btw, from philosopher Jeffrie Murphy, was an aha moment in my research for the response essay: "Physical death, on the Christian view, is not the end of the person and is not the gravest of evils we can imagine or inflict. Physical death is the beginning of a process that can end either in what is the gravest of evils—eternal estrangement from God—or the greatest of goods, eternal communion with God."

Posted by: Corinna Lain | Apr 18, 2017 12:28:06 AM


That's fine. It was a moderately complex thought, so it's not for everyone. I suppose if I had to boil it down cable news style for easy consumption, it'd go something like this:

Your reasoning does not lead necessarily to the conclusion that the death penalty is immoral or against the Christian faith. Your reasoning here is, in fact, a non-sequitur.

All the best.

Posted by: YesterdayIKilledAMammoth | Apr 18, 2017 5:31:31 AM

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