China Bridge (神州橋樑)_2006/Mar

Martyrs, criminals and the death penalty

There are now 6.5 billion people on earth, give or take a few tens of millions. With so many religions, races, nations and cultures on this planet, what do people all have in common? We are all born and we will all die. Births will outnumber deaths for another half-century, before the population stabilises. The human race is ageing and people are dying in steadily increasing numbers, now roughly 100 a minute, 6,000 an hour, a million a week.

There is an old Hindu riddle: “What is the most amazing thing in the world? Everybody knows they will die, but everybody acts as though they will live forever.” All religions wrestle with the problem of death. All religions agree that ignoring the problem will not make it go away, and all agree that trying to escape to a life of eating, drinking and making merry only worsens the situation for everyone in the long run. Every year, Christians observe the 40 days of Lent in memory of Jesus fasting for 40 days at the beginning of his public ministry, and then Holy Week. Our Lord did not run away from his mission in life to die of old age or another natural cause, rather he was condemned to death. So this column will ponder the death penalty.

The scandal of the Cross

Before the glory of Easter, there was the bloody ordeal of Good Friday. The second best-known execution in history occurred four centuries earlier, when Athens sentenced Socrates to death. He serenely drank hemlock, a much easier way to die.

Many Chinese noted that Confucius, other Chinese sages, and the Buddha all left this world peacefully, whereas Jesus was executed as a criminal. So they concluded that Jesus was at best a lesser teacher. A challenge for missionaries from late Ming dynasty times has been to reconcile “holy” and “sentenced to death by a decree from the proper authority.” Yet the folly of the Cross has required an explanation from Pentecost onwards.

Death penalty in Chinese history

Were any notable figures in Chinese history put to death? The First Emperor burned books and buried scholars alive in a merciless attempt to rid China of contrary viewpoints. Later generations of literati condemned Qin Shihuang (秦始皇) so strongly that no subsequent Chinese emperor ever tried to imitate his brutality. The following 2,100 years saw few martyrs in China. Perhaps the reader can recall cases which this writer has overlooked, but there was no long list of martyrs in traditional China, nor a mystique of martyrdom, in contrast to the early centuries of Christianity and Islam.

Then Western influences battered China. In 1898, after the failure of the Hundred Days of Reform, the Six Martyrs were condemned to death by the reactionaries. One of them, Tan Sitong (譚嗣同), chose not to flee but rather to allow himself to be arrested, saying, “Every revolution needs a martyr.” Much blood was shed during the Boxer Rebellion. The controversy surrounding the canonisation of the Chinese Martyrs in 2000 provides more proof that one person’s martyrs are another’s villains.

Who is the martyr?

This January, there was a controversial article in Bingdian (冰點) on the events of 1900, so that magazine was shut down. Different historical interpretations of violent death still evoke passion. On 29 March 1911, an attempt in Guangzhou to spark a mass revolt against the Qing Dynasty failed. The Nationalists erected a monument to the Seventy-two Martyrs and the Communists have carefully maintained it. The years leading up to 1949 and immediately following saw huge numbers of executions for political reasons. The winning side never considers the losers to be martyrs but simply criminals.

Compassion and due process

Every country has criminals, and with rare exceptions, every traditional culture has executed them. The Roman Empire in its final century curtailed death sentences under Christian influence, and Japan executed no one for 347 years, from 724 to 1071, due to Buddhist compassion (China Perspectives, No. 62, p.5).

To its credit, imperial China had a review process for capital convictions and abolished the slower, more painful forms of execution in the late 19th Century. The number of death sentences passed and carried out depends strongly on due process in gathering evidence, examining witnesses and allowing for judicial appeal. Around 1950, a United States judge commented on punishment in the USSR under Stalin, saying, “If I had to choose, I’d rather take the harsh Soviet penal code with American due process than the lenient US penal code with Soviet due process.” Yet a judge in the Wild West in the late 1800s said about a horse thief “Of course I know he’s guilty! But we have to give him a fair trial before we hang him.” And after 11 September 2001, new questions have arisen about due process in the US.

China and the death penalty today

There are numerous executions in China. Amnesty International counted 27,599 death sentences during the decade 1990-99, of which 18,914 (66 per cent) were carried out. These are just the cases found by reading newspapers and listening to the radio. Executions of several convicts at once are likely to be reported, in contrast to the one-by-one shootings. A guess is that the total was closer to 10,000 a year. No downward trend is in sight. The Strike Hard Campaigns of 1983, 1996, 2001, and 2004, which lead to many executions in a short period of time, may be repeated. For 2004, we know of 3,400 executions in China out of 3,797 worldwide (China Quarterly, No.183, p.750). In round numbers, China has one-fifth of the global population but nine-tenths of the executions.

Rethinking the death penalty

A number of countries have abolished the death penalty. They are reluctant to hand over even a heinous suspect to any nation that still executes people. Both China and the United States have encountered difficulties in extraditing their nationals from such countries for trial. A number of Chinese have fled overseas, allegedly after sending vast sums of ill-gotten gains ahead of them to a foreign bank. Rather than pleading and promising, on a case-by-case basis, not to execute the accused if found guilty, it might be less trouble for countries that still have it, to abolish capital punishment, speed up the extradition process and to feed the criminals for the rest of their lives. The vast majority of those on death row are men, not women.

Defenders of the death penalty cite opinion polls in their favor. But public opinion can change and has been changes on this question. Few nations which abolished the death penalty have ever restored it.

Christians and the death penalty

Half a century ago, a cartoon published on Good Friday showed three crosses and two Roman soldiers standing beneath them. One asked the other, “Without capital punishment, how could society defend itself?” Pope John Paul II was the victim of an assassination attempt in 1981. He later visited his assailant in prison to offer forgiveness. The late pope came out strongly against the death penalty, arguing that in this day and age it is hard to conceive of a case where the death penalty would be necessary. Locking the criminal in prison is enough to protect society.

Other Christians reply that the death penalty is approved in the Bible, citing passages such as Leviticus 20. Yet in Daniel 13, young Daniel saves Susanna from death by stoning, and according to the Law of Moses (Daniel 13:62), the three evil old men who had falsely accused her, were themselves stoned. It has been centuries since a false accuser faced the penalty he intended to inflict on his victim.

Abolition of the death penalty

Samuel Johnson wrote, “When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” Knowing the day and hour of one’s death provokes a serious look at the deeds of a lifetime. Hangings for various crimes were common in 18th century Great Britain. Even some juveniles were hung by the neck until dead. But then people presented alternatives, such as shipping criminals overseas to settle a new British colony.

In the US territory of Michigan in 1835, a man was hanged following a sensational murder. There was a huge cheering crowd in front of his gallows. The only problem was, he was innocent. His “friend” later felt remorseful and confessed to the crime. On 1 March 1847, the new State of Michigan abolished the death penalty for all crimes except treason, hence March 1 is International Death Penalty Abolition Day.

Political pressure determines life or death

Chairman Mao once said, “If you cut off people’s heads, they do not grow back.” Alexander Solzhenitsyn, a scientist by training, called execution “an example of what physicists refer to as an irreversible change.” When there is political pressure to find and execute the culprits, either on politicians wishing to get reelected by being tough on crime, or on unelected authorities wanting to demonstrate graphically that they are taking action for the public good, hasty trials and false convictions are more likely. In the 21st century, is this the best we can do?

One of the last statements of Jesus was, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Lk. 23:34). Police, judges and juries do not always have the correct facts. If the convict is sent prison and new evidence later comes to light on the case, then it is not too late for a retrial.