Monday, October 25, 2010

The Death Penalty Debate rages on in Zambia

 “If you do wrong, be afraid, for [the one who is in authority] 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” (Rom 13:4).

Two weeks ago, I was invited by the European Union in Zambia to participate in their forum on the death penalty. In their invitation letter they made it clear that they were campaigning for the abolition of the death penalty from Zambia’s statute books. It was their second annual forum and it was under the theme “Death has no appeal!” The event was held at the Mulungushi International Conference Centre right here in Lusaka. I was invited because they were aware that I was a proponent of the death penalty. Towards the end of the forum, there was to be a short debate (30 minutes long, with each speaker speaking for 15 minutes) on the subject: “The death penalty constitutes a cruel and unusual punishment and has no place in a civilised society.”
Speaking in favour of this motion was my area Member of Parliament, Hon Given Lubinda. I was opposing it.
The first panel during the EU Forum
Before I give a summary of my argument in favour of the death penalty, let me state that when I saw the program, it was clear to me that the forum was biased in its composition. Clustered across the room were emotive posters supposedly of a dead person’s neck with signs of stitching after undergoing the death penalty. The event itself took about four and a half hours. The first speaker was His Excellency Derek Fee, an ambassador and delegation head of the European Union in Zambia. The second speaker was a Member of Parliament from Italy, Hon Marco Perduca, who was also a member of an organisation called Hands Off Cain. The third speaker was a lawyer, Mr Abraham Mwansa. The fourth speaker was also a Member of Parliament from Italy, Hon Elisabetta Zamparutti, who was also a member of Hands Off Cain. After the debate, the final speaker was the French Ambassador to Zambia, His Excellency Olivier Richard. These together took up about two and a half hours and they all spoke against the death penalty (although Mr Mwansa spoke against its mandatory nature rather than against the death penalty per se). Add to their voices that of Hon Given Lubinda, then you can see why my 15 minutes was just a drop in an ocean. The whole event was tailor-made to tilt in the direction of abolition.

With that out of the way, here is a summary of my presentation:

Ladies and gentlemen, God must have a sense of humour. Although my area Member of Parliament has visited my church at least once, we have never met until today. I would not have chosen our first meeting to be in an arena where we have locked horns over the subject of the death penalty. My one comfort, however, is that this is happening in a place where none of us has any home-ground advantage! I want to assure the MP that whatever the outcome of this debate, I remain his loyal subject.
The second panel during the EU Forum
When I accepted to come and speak at this event, it was before I saw the program. When I finally had occasion to see the program, I said to myself, “Conrad, what have you done?” The organisers have certainly marshalled together a formidable team to oppose the death penalty. If I had seen all these “excellencies” and “honourables” much earlier, I probably would have chickened out. But now I must proceed.

It must come as a surprise to many of you that I, a man of the cloth, should be the one opposing the motion that “The death penalty constitutes a cruel and unusual punishment and has no place in a civilised society.” Therefore, let me say this. I love all human beings—including alleged, convicted and real murderers. My own church participates actively in reaching out to prisons with the gospel of Christ’s love, including Mukobeko Maximum Prison. In fact, a number of prisoners who were on death-row and were pardoned by President Mwanawasa just before he died are my personal friends. I first met them while visiting Mukobeko. Let me also state that I am in favour of the President’s Prerogative of Mercy as it stands in our statute books, and so am grateful that some of these friends of mine who truly reformed while in prison were its beneficiaries. Having said all this, I insist that the death penalty should remain in our penal code for the reasons I will now go on to explain.
With Peter Kunda, once on death-row but pardoned by President Mwanawasa

Those who oppose the death penalty do so for the following seven reasons:
  1. The remedial view of punishment: This view asserts that punishment is supposed to be curative. If you kill the offender you are not helping him to become a better person.
  2. The deterrent view of punishment: This view asserts that punishment is supposed to deter other would-be offenders. Statistics prove, we are told, that the death penalty does not have this effect.
  3. The right to life: This view asserts that every human being—even a murderer—has an inalienable right to life. No one—not even the state—has the right to take his life away.
  4. Hon Given Lubinda debating
    Two wrongs don’t make a right: This view asserts that taking away anyone’s life is always wrong. The fact that a murderer took someone's life does not justify the state doing the same thing.
  5. The fallibility of human judgment: This view asserts that there have been instances when a judgment has been overturned by evidence found later. In the case where the punishment was death, it is too late to reverse it. An innocent life is lost because of an error in court.
  6. The sanctity of life: This view asserts that only God can give life and only God has the right to take it away. Anyone who kills is invading a sphere where only God has prerogative.
  7. The need to turn the other cheek: This view asserts that the Bible commands us to leave revenge to God and instead turn the other cheek when we are wronged. The death penalty goes against this command in the Bible.
I argue against all these seven assertions because (1) They give a false view of the basis of punishment, and (2) They give an equally false view of the basis for the death penalty.

The basis of punishment
The basis of punishment is not how successful it will be in rehabilitating the offender but rather whether it is fair with respect to the crime committed. In other words, the basis of punishment is justice. In the domestic sphere, our punishment is really a form of corrective discipline. The parents’ chief interest is not justice but the positive changing of the character of the child. But that is not the job of the judiciary. The work of the judge is to ensure a correct interpretation of the laws enacted by the legislative arm of government, to acquit the innocent (i.e. those who continue to obey the laws), and to prescribe fair punishment on those who break those laws.

So, whether the punishment meted out will reform the convicted criminal or deter other would-be offenders is not the business of the judiciary. The one question they should ask themselves is: “Does this punishment fit the crime that has been committed?”
Conrad Mbewe debating
The basis of the death penalty
Once we are clear about the basis of punishment, then we are ready to address the question of the death penalty. The one question we must answer is: “Is it fair to take away the life of person who maliciously takes away the life of another person?”

Thankfully, fairness is not a preserve of those with university degrees in law. Even a child has an inborn sense of justice. Many times when a parent or teacher has made a decision that has disadvantaged a child beyond what he or she deserves, you will hear the child cry, “It’s not fair!” Who taught that child the concept of fairness? We are all born with it.

So, when you hear a statement like, “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a foot for a foot, a hand for a hand, a burn for a burn, a wound for a wound, a bruise for a bruise, and a life for a life,” your heart responds, “Yes, that is only fair!” Anything less would favour the assailant, and anything more would favour the person assailed.

Perhaps this is the best place to address the question of cruelty. Every punishment is cruel. If you fine a person, you are taking away his property which he has earned after toiling for many years. Is that not cruel? When you imprison a person, you are taking him away for many years from his friends and family and locking him in an overcrowded little room where he is most likely going to get TB, HIV, etc. I ask; is that not being cruel? To remove cruelty from punishment is to remove punishment altogether. Rather, the cruelty a person experiences must be equal to the crime committed. That is only fair.
Hon Lubinda and Pastor Mbewe answering questions
What about the question of fallibility? Let us use this argument in the context of road and air transport. More people get killed in one country through human error on the roads than through the death penalty across the whole globe. (Also, one error in air transport results in the loss of hundreds of lives). Yet, I have never heard any human rights activists arguing for the abolition of road (and air) transport because of the possibility of human error. All I am asking is that we should be consistent. In the case of the transport sector we are doing everything possible to reduce the possibility of human error. Shouldn’t we be doing the same in the judicial sector also?

So, then, as I close, let me ask each one of you a question: “On the basis of justice and fairness, what punishment should be meted out on a person who selfishly, wilfully, and maliciously murders an innocent person?” I do not need to hear your answer. Your consciences and gut feelings have given you the answer, and I know what it is. I rest my case. Thank you!

* * * * * *
French Ambassador closing theForum

Let me state in closing this blog that, judging from the applause I got from the audience when I finished, I know what the answer to my final question was. The death penalty!

I tried to avoid using the Bible in case during the question and answer session that followed the debate, someone would use the argument that this was not a matter limited to Christians. However, I kept being asked, “God says, ‘Vengeance is mine,’ so why are you still insisting that the state should inflict the death penalty on convicted murderers?” So, I finally answered this question. The statement “Vengeance is mine, I will repay” is found at the end of Romans 12. At the beginning of Romans 13 (see text at the top of this blog), God tells us how he will carry out that vengeance. He says he will do it through the judicial arm of the state!


  1. Thanks Pastor Mbewe for this update on the debate which some of us, regrettably missed. Your arguments were succinct and convincing. I have no doubt these arguments stabbed the consciences of those who are paddling in the waters of human rights activism where the sanctity of human life only matters when it comes to the preservation of the murderer's life. I trust that your lone voice, in the midst of hundreds opposing your view, will echo in the minds of many for years to come. May our nation retain the death penalty for selfish, wilful malicious and premeditated murder in our statute books.

  2. Thanks, Isaac. I always appreciate the fact that you not only visit my blog but also share with me your immediate thoughts. Thanks again!

  3. I think it is a shame that the EU spends time and money advocating abolishing the death penalty, when, at least in the United Kingdom, the general public are actually in favour of bringing the death penalty back (see here and here and here)

  4. Pastor Mbewe, I really appreciate your liberality in sharing your comments and preaching through your blog and via MP3 download sites. Until reading your most recent blog, I would've argued for the abolition of the death penalty on the basis that if the most severe punishment is life imprisonment, then the offender has all of their natural life to hear the gospel, repent and be saved. But now I can see that the proper role of the judicary system is to see that justice is served - and this, according to Scripture, is service unto God. I am a pentecostal-flavoured believer but I confess, in your sermons you expound the Scriptures with passion and profundity that seems more pentecostal than many pentecostals I know!! Is there any link where we can find your itinerary? If you are coming to London, I would love to hear you preach. Well, thank you once again for your edifying ministry. God bless, Dave

  5. Ben, thanks for drawing my attention to the data on the three websites. The staggering facts there are hidden when abolitionists are giving their data. The overwhelming numbers in the UK, USA and Canada that are in favour of the death penalty only proves my argument that we are all born with a sense of justice and fairness. The death penalty is only just and fair, and if the ordinary people (and not the politicians with pocket agendas) are given the opportunity to vote on it, the result will always be the same!

  6. Dave, thanks for your gracious comments about my ministry. I am just about to update my itinerary on my blog for 2011 and so just keep your eyes there. In the Lord's providence, I only return to the UK in August 2012. If anything changes, again it will be posted on the blog. Thanks again for all you have said above.

  7. Pastor Mbewe,

    Thanks for this and your podcast sermons via itunes (which I pick every week). Your sermons on hospitality have been a great encouragement.

    On this I agree with you rehabilitation argument falls, but I also think it is impossible to establish a rational basis for the death penalty outside a theistic framework. I have responded to your point on my website. See On death penalty

  8. I have ready your incisive observations on your website and was tempted to post my response to you on the Zambian Economist. However, I thought I should first do it here. I agree with you that a rational basis to uphold the death penalty finds its strongest foundation in a theistic framework because values there are absolute. For instance, in that framework you can argue for a priceless value of human life on the basis that humans are made in the image of God.

    However, given that I had fifteen minutes in a context where others together had a good three hours, I needed to confine myself to that which was already common ground with the vast majority of my hearers--common sense. In my booklet, "The Death Penalty--True Justice of Archaic Folly," I work from a theistic framework and my arguments are more formidable. Again, thank you for your observation!

  9. Pastor Mbewe,

    Thank you for that clarification. If you have a PDF copy of your booklet it would great to read it.

    I'll update my comment with your response so that people can also see it.

    I look forward to hearing you speak when u are in London in August! Pastor King is actually my pastor. He told me about your 2011 visit.

    Thank you again!