Today the Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty for underage youths (younger than 18) is unconstitutional in the sense that it is cruel and unusual punishment. I thought I would develop some thoughts on justice I've been pondering.
First justice is blind. It is neither loving nor unloving; it just is. The best standard of justice I can think of is the lex talonis: "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth." The idea is that justice in its blindness exacts one eye for an eye taken. Less than an eye taken is mercy; more than one eye is vengence. But blind justice with her scales exacts the exact equivalent of the crime.
Of course in practice it will often be impossible to determine what the equivalent penalty is. Then there is the matter of intent. Here I note that the Old Testament considers it just for a person to take the life of someone who has accidentally caused the death of another. The cities of refuge were established as locations of mercy for those who killed accidentally. They did not protect those who murdered intentionally.
The OT also has all kinds of penalties even if your animals do damage to someone else's property. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Intention comes into play in the dispensation of mercy, but is irrelevant for justice.
Jesus indicates that we are to live individually as instruments of mercy. In other words, justice is not the concern of the individual Christian. Mercy is.
On the other hand, Paul indicates that authorities are servants of God to execute wrath on wrongdoers (Rom. 13:5). I would argue that there is therefore nothing intrinsically unchristian about the death penalty as a punishment for those who have intentionally murdered others. Further, the Bible does not treat human life as if it has absolute value. On the contrary, physical life is a rather low value in comparison to eternal concerns.
Interestingly, I would further argue that the idea of prison as a place of reformation is not a clear secular idea, except insofar as it benefits society as a whole (the utilitarian argument). Society does not "owe" a criminal the opportunity to reform. That is, the reformation of criminals is not motivated by justice.
But how are we to view these things as Christians in a country where it is possible for us to affect the system in Christian ways that go beyond justice?
I think as Christians we care about the criminal in ways secular philosophy has no reason to. We want criminals to be redeemed if at all possible. As Christians, therefore, I think we will discourage the use of the death penalty so that criminals are given as long as possible to come to Christ. We will push for prisons as places of reformation because God loves the whole world.
These are some quick thoughts, largely undeveloped. I think I observe all kinds of cultural factors at work in this debate, and they interestingly seem to be affecting both Christians and pagans. I do not object to the current trajectory. I just find it fascinating that the world seems to be arguing for positions that seem more specifically Christian.
But I think other systems are not intrinsically less Christian, such as the old French sense that a life must be taken for a life. I think of Les Miserables or The Three Musketeers, where the death penalty is dispensed without prejudice or vengeance--only as justice.