With more botched executions and Tennessee senators voting to reinstate the electric chair, the age-old death penalty debate resurfaces.
For Christians, the issue is quite revealing. Jonathan Merritt (RNS) reported on a study by the Barna group, showing that while 90% of practicing Christians believe that Jesus would oppose execution, 40% support it anyway. That is some serious cognitive dissonance. I don’t think this is what Jesus meant when he said, “Don’t let your left hand know what your right is doing.”
Now, I’m not so naïve as to think that a blog will settle the issue once and for all. However, perhaps a few thoughts and pointed questions can help bring some harmony to the dissonance.
The search for a “humane” way to kill people is failing. According to a study by Amherst College, 3 out of every 100 executions are botched. Execution by lethal injection has a 7% failure rate, often resulting in excruciating, slow and painful deaths for the inmates. Other means of execution are considered “cruel and unusual punishment” and are unconstitutional.
It’s true that many of the people who endure such brutality committed worse brutality against innocent people. However, the purpose of the Justice System is not to make victims out of criminals. These botched executions should concern us.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of execution is the risk of false convictions. PNAS estimated that no less than 4.1% of death row inmates are innocent. On average, our state governments murder more than two innocent people every year.
Is it worth the risk of murdering even one innocent person?
To answer that, we should ask the obvious question: why execution?
It’s cheaper than life without parole, right? Aside from that being a disgraceful reason to take a person’s life, it isn’t even true. Capital cases cost the taxpayers millions of dollars more due to the strenuous process in place to ensure innocent people are not executed. Though, as we’ve already seen, the process isn’t good enough.
One of the primary objectives in execution is to deter others from committing the same crime. Though, contrary to popular belief, most criminologists agree that execution has little to no deterrent effect. Execution does nothing to curb the homicide rate.
For Christians who believe in the judgment of the dead, we must also consider the risk of sending a person to judgment before they’ve repented and received the love of God in this life. Throughout the Bible it is usually the criminals and outcasts who were most effective in bringing the Kingdom of God to earth. What gives us the right to take that opportunity away, to shut the doors of the Kingdom on them, to inhibit the manifestation of the Kingdom on Earth?
So, what aspect of execution is worth a high botch rate, a high risk of killing innocent people, a much higher price than life imprisonment, no deterrent effect, and denying a person’s opportunity to repent?
We are obsessed with revenge. We cheer as Clyde Shelton (Gerard Butler) in Law Abiding Citizen mutilates the men who brutally murdered his family while he watched. We breathe a sigh of relief during Gladiator as Maximus (Russell Crowe) slowly pushes his knife into the neck of Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), the one responsible for Maximus’ family’s death and his own plight.
Our hearts are filled with righteous anger each time we turn on the news to hear of another rape or murder. We long to see those responsible brought to justice.
But, does our sense of justice line up with God’s?
As I perused the comment sections of articles concerning the recently botched execution of Oklahoma inmate, Clayton Lockett, the responses reflected a common sentiment.
“I hope he suffered like his victim,” one commenter said.
“I see no horror here. Just a rapist and murderer getting his just due…” said another.
The thirst for revenge doesn’t exclude the Christian community. At an online Christian news outlet, one (presumably Christian) commenter said, “So who cares??? I sure don’t. He deserved much worse then [sic] what he got. He buried a young woman ALIVE. I don’t think it was bad enough for this scum.”
Ancient Near Eastern societies had laws to ensure justice for victims as well as protection for criminals from receiving a harsher punishment than the crime they committed. We call it the Lex Talionis (Latin: “Law of Retribution”). The Torah establishes the Lex Talionis, stating, “But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise” (Ex 21:23-25).
However, you don’t have to read far into the New Testament to find that Jesus replaces the Law of Retribution with the Law of Grace. “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person” (Mt 5:38-39).
A mere four verses later, Jesus makes this startling command:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:43-48).
The only New Testament passage I’ve seen Christian execution advocates use to support their position is Romans 13. Though, if we back up and read the verses immediately preceding Paul’s “the government is a minister of God” speech, it’s hard to imagine that he would endorse execution.
“Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord. On the contrary: ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom 12:17-21).
Try to imagine Jesus sitting in the theatre, nodding in approval while our silver screen heroes administer their own vigilante justice. Picture him looking on with satisfaction as poison fills the veins of the latest death row inmate. Would he share the sentiment of many others that the world is a better place without the 15,700+ convicts executed in America since the year 1700?
Mohler argued that execution is “the ultimate punishment for the most serious crimes.”
Yet, you and I took part in the most serious crime ever committed. We murdered the Son of God. We turned him into a scapegoat and sinned our sins into him so that he would perish rather than the rest of us.
How did he respond?
He looked down from the cross at the people who spat on his face, ripped the flesh from his back, pushed thorns into his skull, and nailed him to a tree and said, “Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they’re doing.”
If we were unsure about what Jesus meant by “love your enemies,” we can be sure now. What more could Jesus have said or done in order to convince us that he does not support killing enemies?
The only one worthy to judge humanity issued his verdict for the most heinous crime ever committed, and his verdict is forgiveness.