Pithy Post: The Death Penalty Re-imagined

Seven year-old Bran looked on as his father, Lord Ned Stark of Winterfell, executed  a condemned criminal. On the ride back to the castle, Ned tried to explain to his young boy:

“Do you understand why I did it [instead of a paid executioner]?…we hold to the belief that the man who passes the sentence should swing the sword. If you would take a man’s life, you owe it to him to look into his eyes and hear his final words. And if you cannot bear to do that, then perhaps the man does not deserve to die….A ruler who hides behind paid executioners soon forgets what death is.”  A Game of Thrones, 16. 

I appreciate this fictional story. But what I appreciate about George Martin’s story in A Game of Thrones is not that it tacitly supports the death penalty. I am not interested in debating for or against the death penalty in this post. I certainly don’t think it is right to force a seven year-old child to look on as a man is beheaded.

However, what I find compelling about this story is how Martin helps us to imagine an alternative culture; rulers use the death penalty, yet they take the criminal’s life so seriously that they will not let themselves be removed from the horror of his death. This type of imaginative story-telling helps us cut through the polarizing rhetoric in our culture that construes ‘the opposition’ either as “soft on crime” or “callous about life.” It invites us to imagine new possibilities and ways of framing this incredibly difficult and political issue.

As a Christian, there are certainly parts of the story that resonate with me. My faith declares that the oppressed ought to receive justice, yet we hold that in tension with the highest respect for God-given human life.

Again, I am not interested in advocating for or against the death penalty in this post. But I would be really interested to hear your thoughts about this story. Feel free to begin a dialogue below.

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