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Religious perspectives on the death sentence of Dzhokar Tsarnaev

Religious perspectives on the death sentence of Dzhokar Tsarnaev

AP Photo: Bombing victim leaving the hospital

The Boston Globe reports that religious leaders in Boston are conflicted on the sentence for Dzhokar Tsarnaev. Tsarnaev was found guilty on all counts for the Boston Marathon bombing and was sentenced to death last week by a federal jury.

Catholic, evangelical, and congregational faith leaders largely rejected the death penalty, but churchgoers and some leaders expressed conflicted feelings around the juror’s decision.

From the article:

“You don’t want to see another life gone, but when you know the family, you’re sad,” said Kathy Costello, 54, a member of the Dorchester church and a teacher at Pope John Paul II Catholic Academy, where Martin went to school.

Writing for CNN, Jay Parini feels no conflict in opposing the sentence. Parini is a writer and poet who teaches at Middlebury College in Vermont, but he expresses his opposition as a matter of his Christianity.

Referring to the Sermon on the Mount, Parini criticizes Tsarnaev while firmly identifying the death penalty as state-sanctioned violence.

From his op-ed:

I have no sympathy for him. He killed and maimed innocent people, believing that this violence would somehow make up for the violence to Islamic people wrought by American bombs. But violence is never the right answer.

Capital punishment is murder by the state; it cannot be justified. It will do nothing to comfort anyone who suffered from the horror perpetrated by Tsarnaev. If we allow ourselves to get sucked into the violence that has been done to us, we in turn become that violence.

Have you struggled with this ruling? As a Christian, do you think the death penalty is ever appropriate?

Posted by David Streever


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David Murray

No doubt these days. The problem of the Episcopal church these days is the two extremes of it that can’t allow any difference of opinion. Frankly, the growing number of ‘nones’ for right – life is more complex than simple positions.

bonne route

JC Fisher

As an Episcopalian, I follow my Church’s discernment that the death penalty is always wrong.* However, I think that sentencing a TEENAGER to death is especially heinous. Kyrie eleison!

* And all Episcopalians (Christians, people of faith, people of conscience) who believe likewise (and, if asked in court, say so) are, of course, AUTOMATICALLY excluded from serving on juries in such cases: a separate travesty in and of itself.

Anand Gnanadesikan

I’m conflicted about this. On the one hand, we should not fool ourselves that locking someone up in a SuperMax prison for life, with one hour a day outside a cell and little human contact, is necessarily more humane than putting someone to death. I’d also point out that unless you are an extreme pacifist who believes the US was wrong to fight Nazi Germany, the argument that “it is wrong for government to kill” doesn’t hold water. One can find evidence for an ethic found in the New Testament that says that rightfully constituted authority may “bear the sword” in defense of innocent life.

Because of this, I think there may be a limited number of cases where the death penalty can be justified as a lesser evil. When a prisoner contracts a murder from behind bars or kills a prison guard, it is arguable that the only choices are driving them mad through solitary confinement or the death penalty.

That said, I would argue that this has not been shown that killing Tsarnaev is necessary to protect innocent life. It is also the case that execution has costs for those carrying it out, which should not be minimized.

Philip Snyder

Does the Bible allow for Capital Punishment? Sure. Is this a case where it should be used? Probably.

One of the goals of justice is to “balance the scales.” In most cases, the scales can be balanced without recourse to capital punishment, but in the case of multiple murders, planned and executed to kill the maximum number of people and there is zero remorse and the likelihood that the perpetrator will kill again and will be violent – even in prison – then I believe Capital Punishment is warranted.

And do not be fooled. There no such thing as “life without parole.” Likewise, putting a person in prison will not keep them from being violent or even from killing again.

Harry M. Merryman


Your comment is provocative in many respects.

First of all, please explain the Christian justification for capital punishment. Keep in mind that TEC, the Roman Catholic Church, and most of the mainline protestant churches have called for the abolition of the death penalty. (TEC’s position is over 50 years old.) Also, the Rabbinical Assembly and the Union for Reformed Judaism both officially oppose the death penalty and urge its abolition.

You say there is “zero remorse” and that there is the “. . . likelihood that the perpetrator will kill again and will be violent—even in prison.” What role should remorse play in imposing the death penalty, and how would you evaluate its sincerity. Moreover, how do you know that the perpetrator in this case does not now feel remorse or will not in the future? Does it matter? How do you support your contention that he will be violent again, even in prison?

You say that “one of the goals of justice is to ‘balance the scales.’” I take it this comes from your understanding of Hebrew Law and its antecedents in the Code of Hammurabi. Does the Gospel lead us to confirm this understanding when it comes to the ultimate penalty? Please explain.

You state that “. . . there is no such thing as ‘life without parole.’” Within the last 25 years, please provide data to support this assertion. Moreover, even if this were true, is this a sufficient reason to impose the death penalty? Are you saying that the system’s failure to properly enforce a lesser sentence constitutes a rationale for the imposition of a harsher one?

Hunt Priest

When I heard about the sentence I had the same feeling in the pit of my stomach that I had when I heard about the bombing. Despair and overwhelming sadness. We will never get out of this cycle of violence and death until as a society we stop perpetuating it. An eye for an eye never worked. It is a base human response– I fully understand why those who were horribly injured and the families of the victims would want the perpetrator to die (I suspect I would if I were in that situation). But as a Christian (which among other things, means a follower of a savior who himself was a victim of capital punishment), I believe I am called to a higher standard. Mercy, compassion, forgiveness, life. And as a citizen of a so-called civilized nation, despair sets in sometimes because I don’t know how we can turn the tide of violence when we support a system that perpetuates it. May God forgive Tsarnaev who killed innocent people and our American system that kills the guilty and the innocent in ways large and small. Lord, have mercy.

Carolyn Peet

We are indeed called to a higher standard as followers of Christ. We should not condone the murder of unborn children (except where the mother’s physical life is at stake), and we should not condone the state’s execution of criminals. I am not conflicted in this stance at all, under any circumstances.

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