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Ethics and Religion Talk: The Death Penalty

Ethics and Religion Talk, Ethics, Religion, Death Penalty

What is Ethics and Religion Talk?

“Ethics and Religion Talk,” answers questions of ethics or religion from a multi-faith perspective. Each post contains three or four responses to a reader question from a panel of nine diverse clergy from different religious perspectives, all based in the Grand Rapids area. It is the only column of its kind. No other news site, religious or otherwise, publishes a similar column.

The first five years of columns, published in the Grand Rapids Press and MLive, are archived at More recent columns can be found on by searching for the tag “ethics and religion talk.”

We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up on the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

//The Rapidian

Marritta asks: When I was a Christian, I believed in the death penalty because it was biblical. Almost as soon as I became an atheist, I did a 180. My reasoning was that if there is no god, all that's left is humanity; therefore, life is the only thing that's sacred. So, we should preserve it at all cost. Now, I'm not so sure. What should we do with mass murderers, pedophiles, rapists? Many of these offenders are sociopaths with no conscience or empathy, and psychology is beginning to recognize that, most likely, they cannot be rehabilitated. So, what is the ethical thing to do with them?

Father Kevin Niehoff, O.P., a Dominican priest who serves as Adjutant Judicial Vicar, Diocese of Grand Rapids, responds:

“In October of 2017, Pope Francis provided further insight into the Catholic Church’s teaching on the death penalty as ‘inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person’ (L’Osservatore Romano, 13 October 2017). While recognizing the rights of the human person, ‘the efforts of the state to curb the spread of behavior harmful to people’s rights and to the basic rules of civil society correspond to the requirement of safeguarding the common good’ (Catechism of the Catholic Church, p. 546). The Church teaches that ‘legitimate public authority has the right and the duty to inflict punishment that is proportionate to the gravity of the offense’ (ibid.).

“Ethical treatment of individuals requires that one begins with recognizing that despite the crime or sin committed the individual has rights. This is demonstrated by the legitimately authorized member of society attempting to rehabilitate the offender. If the offender cannot be rehabilitated, then society has the right to remove the individual(s) to protect the common good. This removal in the United States tends to be incarceration.

“There is no sin that is ‘unforgivable’ regardless of how heinous. Even if someone may not be rehabilitated, he/she has a right to humane treatment even if removed from society for life.”

The Reverend Colleen Squires, minister at All Souls Community Church of West Michigan, a Unitarian Universalist Congregation, responds:

“In 1961 the Unitarian and Universalist faiths merged to form the new Unitarian Universalist denomination. In that same year our denomination voted and approved a General Resolution stating our opposition to the death penalty. In 1974 and several other times throughout our history we have made a repeated declaration of our opposition to the death penalty. At the core of our faith in our First Principle, We affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person.

“Like many of us who find Unitarian Universalism as adults we began life in different faith traditions. I too was raised in a faith that support the death penalty and I had to grapple and reconcile my beliefs. It became clear to me that on the issue of the death penalty I had to be less concerned about the actions of other people regardless of the heinousness of the crime and more concerned about my own actions. I am responsible to honor our First Principle and therefore I live in opposition of capital punishment.”

Dr Sahibzada, the Director of Islamic Center and Imam of the Mosque of Grand Rapids, responds:

“Poisonous snake’s biting will end life. Therefore, action will be taken to end the life of the dangerous species to save other lives. Murderers will be handled in a same manner to protect lives. The future criminals will learn lesson. It will minimize crimes and finally put an end to heinous crimes.

“Heinous crimes against humanity have become like contagious disease due to lack of true firm deterrent to curtail them in totality. There must be zero tolerance for crimes.”


My response:

Our prison system is design to punish, not to rehabilitate. And from the evidence, no punishment, whether life in prison or the death penalty, has proven to be an effective deterrent against other potential murderers. The death penalty prevents the murderer from killing again, whereas life in prison, even life without the possibility of parole, leaves open the possibility of the murderer taking another life in prison.

I construct my ethical system based on biblical and other early Jewish rabbinic sources. Biblical support for the death penalty is based on the notion that human life is sacred and the deliberate taking of life demands an equal payment. So my response is that I support the death penalty for those who are mentally competent and are found guilty beyond any shadow of a doubt to have committed intentional murder.

I object to the state killing someone found guilty only beyond a reasonable doubt, because as long as there is doubt, there is a possibility of error; and as long as that possibility exists, the state should not impose a non-rescindable punishment. If there is any shadow of doubt, the next best option is life in prison without possibility of parole.


This column answers questions of Ethics and Religion by submitting them to a multi-faith panel of spiritual leaders in the Grand Rapids area. We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up in the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

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