As an ecumenical expression of solidarity with our recent “A Catholic Call to Abolish the Death Penalty,” German Reformed theologian Jürgen Moltmann has issued the following brief statement (translated by Dr. Steffen Lösel), which I have been requested to post here at Catholicmoraltheology.com. Following his statement, I have provided a short comment.
Dr. Moltmann’s Statement:
The unjust killing of Troy Davis has filled the world with pain and abhorrence. This is not the America, which is respected in the world and which is praised for its democratic humanitarianism.
As Christians, we receive our salvation from the justifying righteousness of God. We reject all forms of retributive justice. We reject the death penalty in the name of God.
Democratic governments are governments of the people. Just as the people are not allowed to lie, steal, or kill, neither are governments. We Germans know, how cruelly dictatorships lie, steal, and kill. We reject the death penalty in the name of democratic humanitarianism.
A Comment from Tobias Winright:
We are grateful to Dr. Moltmann for sharing this statement with us. His more theological paragraph about the connection between our reception of “our salvation from the justifying righteousness of God” and our rejection of “all forms of retributive justice” echoes especially our quotation in our “A Catholic Call” from Protestant theologian Karl Barth (Church Dogmatics, vol. 3, part 4, pp. 442-443, cited by John Howard Yoder in The Death Penalty Debate: Two Opposing Views of Capital Punishment, p. 132). For us Catholics, similar reflections were offered by Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, who is the Preacher to the Papal Household, in some of his Lenten homilies in 2004 and 2005. For example, in his third Lenten sermon from 2005, Fr. Cantalamessa (explicitly drawing on the work of literary-critic turned anthropologist René Girard) preached that “Jesus unmasks and tears apart the mechanism of the scapegoat that canonizes violence, making himself innocent, the victim of all violence…. Christ defeated violence, not by opposing it with greater violence, but suffering it and laying bare its injustice and uselessness…. ‘One died for all.’ The believer has another reason–Eucharistic–to oppose the death penalty. How can Christians, in certain countries, approve and rejoice over the news that a criminal has been condemned to death, when we read in the Bible: ‘Do I indeed derive any pleasure from the death of the wicked? says the Lord God. Do I not rather rejoice when he turns from his evil way that he may live?'” (Ezekiel 18:23) In my view, this theology may be behind the Catechism‘s rare allowance for the death penalty (#2266-67) as a form of “legitimate defense” rather than as an expiatory punishment (which should be “medicinal” or restorative rather than retributive).