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Forgiveness and Punishment

The finality within the death penalty debate

by Brian Radcliffe

Suitable for Key Stage 4/5


To encourage students to consider both sides of the death penalty debate (SEAL theme: Managing Feelings).

Preparation and materials

  • You will need a leader and two readers.

  • You will also need an up-to-date edition of a national newspaper.

  • Have available the TrueTube video ‘Death Penalty Debate’ and the means to show it during the assembly. It is 1.35 minutes long.


Leader: There are some dreadful crimes committed in our supposedly civilized society.

Open the newspaper and pretend to browse through the pages.

Many people would consider that the worst ones are the murders, particularly those that involve young children or the elderly. Murder victims never have the chance to live out the full term of their lives.

You may wish to comment on an up-to-date specific news story.

Opportunities are denied. Hopes are brought to an end. Potential is never fulfilled.

It's tempting to say that some of these crimes are unforgivable. The consequences of certain murders are so horrendous that our initial reaction is that the perpetrators deserve no clemency at all. That's when people begin to clamour for the return of the death penalty. What's your view?

Pause to allow the students time to think.

Have you thought through the issues?

Have you looked at the arguments from both sides?

That is what we're going to do today. The following video clip sums up both sides of the argument.

Show the TrueTube video ‘Death Penalty Debate’.

Time for reflection

Leader: It's easy to agree with some of the arguments for bringing back the death penalty. Let’s listen to some of them again.

Reader 1: It's clear that the present imprisonment system doesn't fully satisfy the yearnings of the victim's family for justice. In fact, it often appears to send the message that, although it is bad to murder, the punishment is not as final as the murder itself. The murderer will still live. Restoring the death penalty would send out a very strong message for any potential murderer to consider. After all, would it be worth committing a murder if it resulted in the murderer's own death? Maybe a more serious punishment would result in fewer murders because the threat of the death penalty would act as a strong deterrent.

Leader: Is that the opinion you hold about the issue? If so, it's quite understandable. But let’s also listen to the other side of the argument.

Reader 2: I think we need to consider two factors: the chance for the criminal to change and the fear of making mistakes. Justice is one thing, but it can easily get mixed up with revenge. If we want someone to die for their crime, are we any different from the murderers themselves? Is killing justified simply because it's done by the state? Christians believe that Jesus clearly showed that everyone deserves the chance to change. He offered the chance of a new start to several criminals, including the man who hung on a cross next to him. Do we, as human beings, have the right to say that someone cannot change?

However, the bigger concern is that, unfortunately, even judges and juries sometimes make mistakes. There are instances where a guilty verdict has later been overturned when new evidence has come to light. Men and women have been set free from imprisonment, pronounced innocent and given the opportunity to make a new start in life. But, as the video clip expressed it, ‘You can get out of prison, but you can't get out of the grave.’ The death sentence is final.

Leader: The problem is that each one of us is a flawed human being, and the flaw is that we often make mistakes. With the death penalty, there is no room for mistakes. There's no second chance.

In the end, I wonder whether we can ever completely demonstrate what true justice is. Surely justice should involve not only punishment, which is deserved, but also the chance to be redeemed - to regret, to turn around and to change. That is all-round justice.

My final thought comes again from Jesus. He was once faced with a situation where a woman was about to be stoned to death because of adultery. Jesus was offered the chance to take part. He declined and said, ‘Let the man who is without sin [in other words, the person who has done nothing wrong] cast the first stone.’ The onlookers were very embarrassed because they realized that they were all imperfect and deserved to be judged for their own mistakes. Every one of them walked away, leaving Jesus and the woman alone. At that point, Jesus gave the woman the opportunity to change. Maybe we should all take a look at ourselves before coming down too hard on the crimes of others.

Dear Lord,
Thank you for the intelligence you have given to each one of us, enabling us to think through the difficult issues in life and death.
Please help us to consider all aspects of the difficult subjects that we face in life.
Please remind us of the teachings of Jesus as we consider them.
Please help us to understand the careful balance between justice and forgiveness.


You may wish to use the song ‘Dead man walkin'' by Bruce Springsteen, which tries to portray the feelings of a man about to suffer the death penalty.

Publication date: June 2016   (Vol.18 No.6)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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