Asahara Shoko the founder of the Aum Shinrikyo cult and thirteen other former senior members of his group, were executed in July. They were found guilty of crimes, including among others the sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subway, in 1995. Nevertheless however, death penalty or capital punishment, is an issue the Japanese need to ponder over more sincerely and realistically.
His Holiness Pope Francis approved the revision of number 2267 of the Catholic Catechism that refers to the death penalty, due to the reason that the death penalty is something we cannot accept. It is an attack on the non-aggressive nature of the human person, as well as on human dignity.
Nonetheless, it is reported that over 80 percent of the people of Japan approve of the death penalty. What could be the reason behind this? Why is it that so many take such an ambiguous attitude towards this issue, despite their lacking an adequate knowledge of it? We may perhaps be able to state that this is as it were, something unique to Japanese.
The truth is there are multiple issues linked to the death penalty, but I personally wish to focus here upon the judgment of human beings, and the forgiveness of God. Our Lord Jesus said, “Stop judging!” (Mt 7:1), while St. Paul declared, “Beloved, do not look for revenge but leave room for the wrath; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” (Rom 12:19).
When we seek to judge someone or something, what we need is a sort of a norm whereby we may judge, and even more, at times it is desirable on our part to take a firm attitude when necessary to certain issues. At the same time however, can we human beings really be able to conceive of such a norm? The first thing we need to realize here, is that we are weak and uncertain creatures.
What is the true significance of forgiveness as revealed in the Bible? Jesus said to the woman caught in adultery, “Neither do I condemn you. Go [and] from now on do not sin anymore.” (Jn. 8:11). Jesus in this way does not condemn her as guilty, but rather, enables her to begin a new life. This sort of forgiveness is closely related to love. (cf. Col 3:12-14). Forgiveness moreover is a process. In other words, it is usually accompanied by pain, suffering, and conflict.
The death penalty is directly related to life, and hence, we should not attempt to judge and solve a problem merely by emotion and feeling. Indeed, it is vital on our part to make allowance for the feelings of the bereaved. Yet in Japan, in many cases the death penalty is imposed not in accordance with the law of the nation, but through the free choice of the people responsible in the Ministry of Justice.
Simultaneously however, on the other hand, we should not view this problem in too naïve a manner. Rather, we need to ponder over it more realistically. For instance, how can we reduce the number of desperate criminals around us? How can we learn true forgiveness? To avoid false accusations, we may need to accept for example, a life imprisonment. At any rate, we need to probe this issue more sincerely and patiently.
God does not want life to be lost, whatever the case may be. God is life itself. “As I live—oracle of the Lord God—I swear I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from your evil ways! Why should you die, house of Israel?” (Ez 33:11).