Some claim that since arguing against capital punishment is a way of devaluing life. Since human lives are worth so much, how can mere imprisonment ever pay the price due for taking such a life? If all we ask of a murderer is life in prison (at most), then we are in effect saying that is all the life they took was worth.
I have some questions, and then some comments for this way of thinking:
1. Why do we need to think of “lives” in economic terms? Is this what Mat. 10:27-31 teaches? [I don’t think so]
2. At what point do “lives” cease to have value – or decrease in value?
3. What is the social location of those who see Christians opposed to capital punishment and conclude from that opposition that life should be devalued?
4. What (if any) is the positive rhetorical impact of capital
punishment? (Other than the suggested(?), “Since we value life [unless that life is forfeit] we will kill killers [and others guilty of capital offences?]”)
5. What (if any) is the negative rhetorical impact of capital punishment?
Now some observations on “value”:
My youngest brother has a degree in forestry. I’ve been to years of
school yet I’ve never had any classes in forestery or any similar subjects.
I remember years ago, back when he was still in school, we were all at a cousin’s house in Illinois. Robert was impressed with the large trees surrounding the house, and started telling us how much each tree was worth (he’d just taken a course in tree valuation). I remember a particular Red Oak that Robert said was worth $30,000.
My questions then were: To whom? Under what conditions?
We may ask how much a life is worth. Scripture doesn’t address this question in any systematic way. When Dinah is raped, her honor (her life?) is worth the lives of every person in Shechem’s village. At least that’s what it costs them. What are the lives of billions of miserable sinners worth? The life of Jesus, we might say.
But why do we need to translate these things into market terminology? I know that capitalism and the market system is an important part of our culture, but have we reached the point that people are valued in the same terms as pork bellies, cars and mansions?
A thousand years (or so) ago when Anselm formulated the penal
substitution theory of the atonement, he used pictures drawn from the society of his day. In this age of capitalism, do we lay a veneer of market economics over that theory – and stretch it co cover our ethics also?
In other words, the question, “How much is a life worth?” strikes me as a wrong question of the same sort as “Have you stopped beating your wife yet?”
Just looking at my own children – moving beyond the abstract “a life” to some particular lives – I cannot set a value on their lives. I can buy life insurance for them – but nothing could replace them. No money, no thing, no retribution would be sufficient. If my car is totaled, I could replace that. If some evil person destroys my books, he could pay restitition and I could get new ones. Because they are things, they can be replaced. People are not things, and cannot be replaced.