Monday, December 05, 2005

Nguyen Tuong Van, Capital Punishment, the Death Penalty and the Christian

Sometimes when the media is whipping up an emotional frenzy, and the masses are convinced that they are both righteous and right, and we are so immersed in the values of the world: what is good and fair and correct, that it is difficult to think clearly about what the Bible says and how we under God should view any situation.

Take the recent hooha over the execution of Nguyen Tuong Van for drug-trafficking in Singapore. He was convicted by the Singapore courts of carrying more than 25 times the amount of heroin that attracts a mandatory death sentence under the Misuse of Drugs Act of Singapore. Human rights activists were more than glad for a new hobby-horse to ride on.

But a Christian is not a human rights activist per se. We are not to allow our view of the world to be swayed by values promoted by the media, whether seemingly bad (rampant free sex, over-the-top boozing, gratuitous violence) or seemingly good (charity, democracy, rights). And we are not to follow the latest global trend in sensationalised moralism or rights-activism: human rights, animal rights, environmentalism etc, without putting on our Bible glasses.

In thinking about the capital punishment and the death penalty, perhaps there are 4 aspects to consider:
  1. whether human life is valuable in the first place;
  2. if human life is valuable, then whether there are any circumstances in which a human life may be taken permissibly and deliberately;
  3. if there are circumstances in which a human life may be taken permissibly and deliberately, whether the present circumstances warrant the cutting off of such life; and
  4. if the circumstances warrant the taking of a life, then what is the place of mercy and forgiveness?
Why the fuss about taking a human life?
Ask any human rights activist why he campaigns so fervently for human rights. Why human rights over animal rights? Why animal rights over plant rights? Why plant rights over soil/rock rights? Why is human life so innately valuable?

The chances are, he wouldn't be able to give you a good answer. Just because, he'd say, and refer back to some international treaty on human rights. Amnesty International admits that "Human rights are the basic freedoms and protections that people are entitled to simply because they are human beings". Says who?

I suggest that a pagan human rights activist can give no good grounds for fighting for human rights. "Just because" is not good enough.

For a Christian though, it is a different story. Rather early on in human history, God himself tells us why a human life is valuable:
I will demand an accounting for the life of his fellow man. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man hall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man. (Genesis 9:5b-6)
Humans are valuable because He Who Made The World and He Who Determines Value has deemed them valuable. And they are valuable because they have been made in the image of their Creator (Genesis 1:26-7).

Justice is a concept that is deeply rooted in all societies and cultures. Much jurisprudential ink has been spilled without any concrete reason why we should do justice.

And what is justice anyway? Is the concept of justice merely the result of the evolutionary product of historical social contracts? Or is justice based on moral standards that govern human behavior that are derived from the nature of human beings or the cosmos in general? Should laws have any correlation to ethics and justice? Wait. What are ethics and justice in the first place and who determines what is ethical and just?

Cutting through these somewhat conclusionless arguments, we are told definitively that justice is that God renders every man according to his works. Justice is two-sided: to those who deserve a reward, it is unjust to keep it back and to those who deserve punishment it is unjust to disregard it. Justice renders every man his due, whether by way of reward or punishment.

Jesus that God will not overlook even the most insignificant action that deserves a reward. He said to those who gave even a cup of water in his name would receive their reward (Mark 9:41). At the same time, he taught that God would not overlook even the most insignificant wrong-doing, but warned that we will have to give an account, even for every idle word (Matthew 12:36).

Justice, then, includes the double aspect of reward and retribution. Retribution is not to be confused with revenge. The difference is clear: retribution renders to the perpetrator what is due, not what gives the victim or the society satisfaction. In retribution, justice (or what is due) is not exceeded. We must not, however, like Lamech, pay the perpetrator back more than he deserves (Genesis 4:23-4). Revenge on the other hand, is purely selfish. It does to the perpetrator as much as would give the victim or the society satisfaction.

If retributive justice is the Bible's stand, and if punishment is deserved, then it must be imposed without flinching by those who have the responsibility for administering justice in society. If we are to be just, if we are to do justice, then we are not at liberty to neglect or modify this duty when we find it unpleasant or when the wave of popular public opinion turns against it.

Can taking a human life ever be just?
If retributive justice is giving the perpetrator what he deserves, are there crimes so heinous that they should justly attract the death penalty?

The laws God gave to Moses in Exodus 21 state explicitly that there are. Amongst them: whoever strikes a man so that he dies, whoever strikes his father or mother and whoever curses his father or mother.

The principle is that of retributive (not vengeful) justice:
you shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe. (Exodus 21:23-25)
Who can decide if taking a human life is just in a particular case?
Paul seems to be clear enough on this:
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God's wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed. (Romans 13)
Here, Paul is telling the Christians in Roman that even what moderners might term a violent regime was set in place by God and therefore Christians should submit to them. And God has given the authorities, as God's servants, the power to enforce such God-ordained submission.

Was the Taking of Ngyuen Tuong Van's Life Just?
It would be just if Nguyen Tuong Van got what was deserved. If the punishment did not exceed the crime.

The Singapore prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong thinks the punishment does fit the crime. The Age reports him to have acknowledged that,"It is never a light thing to do, to decide that somebody has to hang...[but] 26,000 doses on the street represents an enormous amount in terms of the misery it can cause to addicts and their families, the destruction of lives".

Of course, one can never predict definitively how many addicts might have died as a result of the heroin that Nguyen Tuong Van would have imported into his adopted homeland of Australia had he not been caught. One can never tell how many times the heroin would have been cut (mixed with other substances, many times with fatal effects). One will never know how many families have been kept in tact, or young lives been saved by the consequential deterrent effect of Nguyen Tuong Van's execution. A case in point closer to the recently hanged man: if Nguyen Tuong Van's twin brother had not taken heroin, he would not grabbed a samurai sword and slashed a man horrendously, effectively ruining him for life.

So it is difficult to say that the punishment does not fit the crime because one man's greed and action might have had unthinkable effects on hundreds of victims in Nguyen Tuong Van's own country.

It is good to know, in any case, that the Singapore government has given thought to the matter and does not take human lives cheaply nor execute people arbitrarily (reference the Singapore Parliamentary hansards for debates on the issue). It is also good to know that the Singapore courts are widely acknowledged as being free of corruption and bribery. And it appears that it is in good faith, as servants of God, as avengers who carry out God's wrath on the wrongdoers, that they impose capital punishment on such drug offences.

What About Mercy?
Scripture tells us that there is a better way forward than retributive justice: to accept the wrong done to ourselves by extending mercy (undeserved favour) and grace and forgiving the crime against us.

But mercy and forgiveness is the prerogative of the one against whom the crime has been committed, to whom the wrong has been done.

Mercy is not a right of the perpetrator. The perpetrator cannot arrogantly demand forgiveness from the victim and expect it to be doled out freely, because that would be unjust. The fans and supporters of the perpetrator cannot demand clemency by name-calling, emotional black-mailing, economic sanctions, or even alleging injustice. True justice demands real punishment.

What about us?
Then we must remember that this is how God, the true and perfect Judge of the world sees us. Then we must remember that looking down at us from his high throne, God is not concerned about our puny little anti-death penalty banners, or our squeaks of indignation about the death penalty. He is concerned about the absolute, mandatory death penalty that hangs over each and every one of us, because we have all turned away from God. First, the physical death of this life. Then, the eternal death of the life after. And God would be unjust to accede all our pleas and cries for mercy and forgiveness and clemency. Because rebellion against God carries the just sentence of death. And a just God would never, and could never, neglect the death penalty in this case.


That he gave his own son, Jesus Christ, to take the punishment for us. For Jesus himself, such punishment was undeserved, for he alone of all humans led a perfect life in submission to God. But by his death on the cross, the punishment of the rebellion of the whole world, of all generations, races, nations, was taken by one man, that we might be saved.

Forgiveness can never be demanded. But our great and infinitely gracious God forgives freely and completely all who come to him through Christ.


At December 06, 2005 11:17 pm , Anonymous Gilbert Koh said...

At December 08, 2005 2:48 am , Anonymous Pete said...

Great post you've got there. I came by way of the sydney anglican forum where your post is listed.
Cheers, Pete

At December 18, 2005 7:39 pm , Blogger Dave said...

Socially, exaggeration is often whimsical. But when a government dramatically inflates numbers to help justify a death sentence, the integrity of both the trial and its governing body becomes questionable. In this case, the government is Singapore, the trial was for Van Tuong Nguyen, and the bloated number is 26,000.

Press from around the world quotes Abdullah Tarmugi, the Speaker of Singapore Parliament, in writing about the potential consequences of Van's actions, "almost 400 grams of pure heroin, enough for more than 26,000 doses."

But how was 26,000 doses (or "hits") derived?

It turns out that what constitutes a hit of heroin is not an easy thing to count. There are dozens of factors to consider; contact your local Needle Exchange for a comprehensive list. However, after collecting statistics from over a dozen sources (including police reports, narcotics web sites, health information, and workers from needle exchanges), the number of hits from a gram of pure heroin averages out to little more than 14.

Van Tuong Nguyen trafficked 396.2 grams of heroin into Singapore. This is approximately 5,600 doses.

The numbers 5,600 and 26,000 are obviously incongruous, as are reports that 400 grams of heroin would "ruin 26,000 lives". In fact, 400 grams of heroin would not come close to ruining even 5,600 lives. Rather, the heroin would most likely supply people already abusing it. With a little more research, we can estimate how many lives would be adversely affected by 400 grams of heroin during one year:

As many as 67, and as few as 6.

Van Tuong Nguyen would not have sent 26,000 people to their deaths from 400 grams of heroin. Nor would the lives of 26,000 people have been ruined. Far more likely is that six people would get a year's worth of hits. And for this he was executed?

Call it dreadful, call it dense, call it incomprehensible ... but do not call it justice.

At January 06, 2006 4:04 pm , Anonymous Anonymous said...

See Huichieh's posts on this. Starting from here.


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