'Christian' societies and the death penalty

By Simon Barrow
February 29, 2008

Radio shock-jock and Sun tabloid pundit John Gaunt has been bigging up the death penalty on TV this week. His millions of followers can't be wrong, he reckons.

The primer for this is that 99 per cent of Sun readers responding to a poll in the light of some recent gruesome UK murder cases want to string 'em up, it seems.

Two issues came into the subsequent exchange on BBC TV's This Week. Democracy and Christianity. The former was taken to be a synonym for emotive mob rule; which is actually, like all kinds of naked populism, rather demeaning to the people whose views it presumes upon. (Actually, polling on this issue suggests a more complex pattern of response.)

On Christianity, Mr Gaunt and former Conservative minister Michael Portillo well encapsulated, between them, the main paradoxes of Christendom - Christianity as a vehicle for civic and national order.

Gaunt said that 'we' were still a 'Christian society' (based on wafer-thin 2001 census data). But he didn't want to face up to "thou shalt not kill", and Jesus didn't get a look-in (of course). The upshot, Gaunt said, was that, whatever anyone else may think, "I believe in revenge" and so do 99 per cent of Sun readers - and if their wishes are un-Christian, "so be it".

So we still call ourselves Christian, but we don't have to behave Christianly, and anyone who does is, frankly, "out of touch". That's Christendom.

Mr Portillo, a death penalty sceptic in the European context (not everywhere), hit a different kind of nail on the head, though more subtly. Most 'Christian societies', including the highly religious USA, had employed the death penalty historically, he said. Quite. That's Christendom for you, too.

On the other hand: "But I say to you... love your enemies, do good to those that curse, you pray for those who persecute you." Not an injunction which one might expect a state to enshrine easily, existing as it does by force as well as consensus. But still the calling of a church that wishes to be the Body of Christ, many of us would argue. Confusing the two can have deadly consequences. Literally.

Incidentally, I had an interesting encounter with John Gaunt on TalkSport Radio a year ago. Well, I say encounter. Mainly it was being shouted at by the self-appointed megaphone of People's Democracy. Not surprisingly, he was none-too-keen on Ekklesia's idea that cultivating non-violent alternatives was a legitimate part of remembering the victims of war.

"Go hang", he said. Or words to that effect. Then he pressed a switch and cut me off.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.