At the time of writing Australians await with ambivalence the execution of the Bali bombers. It is widely expected to happen this weekend.
Many strong emotions are expressed about this sentence—from outrage that it has taken so long, to indignation that we condone the barbarity of execution.
These men killed over 200 people, 88 of whom were Australians. They did it in a cold-blooded manner, not targeting military personnel or strategic objectives but apparently innocent holidaymakers. There is no doubt they are guilty for they are proud of their work. They are totally unrepentant, and seem to enjoy their notoriety.
One victim’s mother recently said: “The day that I wake up and they’re dead, I will be happy.” Yet other victims’ families do not want them executed.
The reasons for peoples’ opposition to the death sentence varies. Some are simply opposed to the death sentence. Others think the death sentence gives the bombers what they want: martyrdom. Still others think the death sentence is too light. As one mother put it: “If it was my choice, crudely, I would have their penises shot off so they can’t reproduce and their hands cut off so they can’t make another bomb and then let them rot in prison forever.”
Few topics demonstrate so clearly Australia’s moral confusion.
Our political leaders are opposed to capital punishment. They have removed it from Australian law. They oppose it on the world stage of diplomacy. They appeal against execution on behalf of all Australian citizens overseas irrespective how heinous their crimes.
But yet as politicians they wish to maintain public support. And the public have never agreed with the blanket rejection of all executions. The public have a well-developed intuitive sense of ‘justice’ that requires retribution for crimes. In particular the public have not agreed with clemency being shown to the Bali bombers. So the politicians are going very softly on these executions.
Some people oppose capital punishment as a matter of absolute morality. It is always wrong under all circumstances. They argue that executions are essentially barbaric. They reject retribution and vengeance. They say that executing people reduces us to the same level of guilt as the killers—even if we are killing the guilty and the guilty killed the innocent.
But most people argue against executions for pragmatic reasons. The courts often make mistakes and the death sentence allows for no errors. It never rehabilitates anybody. It does not prevent crime happening. In the case of the Bali Bombers they argue that there will be riots against the West, and the raising up of other terrorists. Furthermore, they argue that it will increase the likelihood of the execution of some Australians who are also awaiting execution in Indonesia. But the logic of pragmatism does not adequately meet the victim’s appeal for justice.
Vengeance is the motivation for justice as it calls for retaliation and retribution. It gives people what they deserve. It is what justice is all about. Remove retaliation, and justice is reduced to amoral social engineering. Without retributive justice, governments become totalitarian tyrannies.
Like anger, vengeance is right—and like anger it is very difficult to control. We should be angered by criminal inhumanity like rape, paedophilia, torture and the holocaust. Not to be angry at such iniquity is to share in its guilt for we are accepting evil. Even mercy requires justice—for without justice, mercy becomes the acceptance of evil. Without the right to exact punishment, forgiveness is meaningless acquiescence.
But the problem with vengeance is the difficulty to control it—especially if victims administer it. It is hard for victims to remain cool headed enough to be sure of the guilt of the perpetrator. Vengeance easily gives rise to payback killings and communal vendettas.
Furthermore it is difficult for the victim or their families to deliver justice without losing control and exceeding just retribution. It is important that two eyes are not taken for one or two teeth removed for one. In sinful hearts, righteous indignation easily spills over to excessive punishment.
But what of capital punishment—taking away somebody’s right to life?
Rights always imply duties. Our right to life is the duty not to take it from others. The very passage that teaches the right to life also teaches the punishment for taking a life. “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed” (Genesis 9:6). The death sentence is part of the justice and mercy of God.
But it is not up to us to avenge ourselves. God has given the work of justice to governments—“the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.” (Romans 13:4). We are to turn the other cheek rather than to repay evil for evil. “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’” (Romans 12:19).
God is angry, and in his just anger punishes sin—even with death. He warned Adam against eating the fruit saying “in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” (Genesis 2:17). As the scripture teaches us “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23) and “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Hebrews 9:22).
That is why Jesus died to pay for sin—not his but ours. His death atoned for sin—turning aside God’s righteous anger. When Abel’s blood was shed by his brother—it cried out for justice. When Jesus blood was shed for his brothers—it fulfilled justice and declared mercy and pardon to all who trust in him. By his execution God upholds justice while extending mercy.
Yet while it is true that the wages of sin is death, “the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23).