Mercy and Punishment: Buddhism and the Death Penalty

By Alarid, Leanne Fiftal; Wang, Hsiao-Ming | Social Justice, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

Mercy and Punishment: Buddhism and the Death Penalty


Alarid, Leanne Fiftal, Wang, Hsiao-Ming, Social Justice


THE DEATH PENALTY EXISTS AS THE MOST SEVERE FORM OF PUNISHMENT AVAILABLE worldwide. Over one-half of all nation-states have abolished the death penalty either by law or by not conducting executions. The United States is one country that actively uses capital punishment. The Death Penalty Information Center (2000) reported that the year 2000 was "perhaps the most significant single year affecting death penalty opinion in United States history." In that year, Governor George Ryan of Illinois temporarily suspended the use of capital punishment in Illinois and appointed a commission to investigate errors made in capital cases. Gallup and Harris Polls reported that public support for capital punishment had dipped to 64% -- the lowest level in 19 years. Harris Polls showed the support rate decreased to 50% when respondents were given other options, such as imprisonment for life without parole (Ibid.). Recent social science research also supports this contention (Jones, 1994; McGarrell and Sandys, 1996; Sandys and M cGarrell, 1995; Whitehead, 1998).

The death penalty abolitionist movement has been stronger in Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, and parts of South Africa. From a worldwide view, the United States has been criticized by other countries and by human rights groups for continuing to use capital punishment, especially for minors under 18 and mentally ill persons (New York Times, March 28, 1999). Capital punishment generally retains moderate public and political support in North America, South America, Eastern Europe, and countries of the former Soviet Republic. Death penalty practices are used in North Africa, the Middle East, and Asian countries such as China, Japan, Singapore, and Taiwan (Hood, 1996).

According to Table 1 (located at the end of the article), 87 out of 195 (44.5%) nations and territories in the world currently retain the use of the death penalty as a form of punishment. Thirteen countries have abolished the death penalty for most civilian crimes, but capital punishment is still used in "exceptional circumstances," such as wartime or under military law. For 20 countries (10%), the death penalty is retained under statute for civilian capital crimes, but an execution has not taken place in the last 10 years. Finally, 38% of all nation-states have abolished the death penalty for all crimes (Amnesty International, 2000). The United Nations conducted a survey to determine why some retentionist countries were reluctant to abandon the death penalty. The countries cited a number of reasons, including retribution, cultural customs, early law (e.g., Islamic), general deterrence, specific deterrence, political unrest, political instability, and religious influences (Hood, 1996).

Religious Influences and the Death Penalty

The relationship between religious views and attitudes toward capital punishment has found support in the literature. Studies conducted in the U.S. found that Protestant fundamentalists (defined as those who interpret the Bible to be the literal word of God) were more likely to hold attitudes in favor of the death penalty than were members of other religious factions and denominations (Borg, 1997; Grasmick et al., 1993; Young, 1992). Even though most mainstream religious philosophies oppose violence and the taking of human lives, including death associated with capital punishment, the death penalty is indeed debated from religious views (Hanks, 1997; McBride, 1995). Both abolitionists and supporters of the death penalty often use the New Testament to defend their opinions, with supporters also favoring the Hebrew scriptures to justify their beliefs (House, 1991; Langan, 1993; Sharp, 1994; Szumski, Hall, and Bursell, 1986; Williams, 1992). While one view may quote the "eye for an eye" Bible passage, Pope John Paul II recently issued a statement calling for an end to capital punishment.

Religion thus remains a powerful societal force in criminology and criminal justice. …

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