Retribution and Capital Punishment

“It’s in the Bible, Isn’t It?”

Authored by: George F. Kain , Dale Recinella

Routledge Handbook on Capital Punishment

Print publication date:  December  2017
Online publication date:  December  2017

Print ISBN: 9781138651579
eBook ISBN: 9781315624723
Adobe ISBN:


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Retributive theory is based on the correlation between the gravity of the crime and the severity of the punishment. Retribution is often cited as justification for the use of capital punishment and appears to be the primary basis of support for the death penalty in the United States (Bohm, 2017). Numerous authors have written on the many meanings of retribution, and for some authors, the concept of retribution is imprecise. Retribution is frequently referenced as having developed from the concept of lex talionis, and later from the biblical quotation “an eye for an eye.” In this chapter, we explain what retribution actually is, in large part by illustrating in detail what it is not. Our research reveals that modern-day biblical support for retributive capital punishment is not at all dictated by biblical quotations often cited to justify its use, and, in fact, those phrases have an entirely different meaning—counter to the very words often used to justify a vengeance-based theory. The implications of our findings should have a significant impact in reframing the justification of retribution and, ultimately, our analysis leads us to the conclusion that the American death penalty cannot be justified by references claiming to be biblically retributive.

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