Part 1 dealt with the issue of abortion. Another common issue discussed is euthanasia. This post is about neither. This is about an issue that is seldom connected with being pro-life, at least in my experience: the death penalty. Certainly, as Christians we read plenty about what is punishable by death in the Old Testament. We don’t enforce nearly as many things as the Old Testament lists, but we still have our items on the list here in America. The question that some of my pro-life friends have asked is whether you can really call yourself pro-life if you support the death penalty? On the one hand, we read the following from Paul:
1Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities
For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God.
2Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves.
3For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same;
4for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil.
5Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also (F)for conscience’ sake.
6For because of this you also pay taxes, for rulers are servants of God, devoting themselves to this very thing.
7Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor. (Romans 13.1-7 NASB)
This is often used to justify the government having the authority to invoke the death penalty on “the one who practices evil.” I’m not sure that is the only argument, but it the one that I have used almost exclusively, and the one I have heard used almost without exception. While I currently find this a pretty weak argument, that is not the point of this post. My question here is whether we as a Christian should support, oppose, or be ambivalent toward the death penalty. I think that a serious Christian, endeavoring to walk with Christ, and become more like Him, should probably look at the life of Christ for our example. One such example of particular relevance here is the story of the woman caught “in the very act” of adultery. (See John 20.2-11)
While this passage is not in some of the oldest manuscripts, it has been accepted as part of our canon, and certainly seems in character for both Christ and those around Him. Can’t you just see the Jewish leaders bringing this woman to Jesus exultant at the chance to trap Him and make Him either look unsympathetic and harsh, or soft and unwilling to enforce the law. Jesus, of course is too smart for them, and turns the trap around. The one who has never sinned can start the execution. No one is brave enough to make such a claim, and the woman is left. She is told to go free, and cease the life of sin in which she had found herself. Jesus does not endorse her sin, but neither does he endorse the punishment she deserved, according to the law.
How do we as Christians deal with this approach? Do we really believe that Christ can save anyone? Doesn’t the death penalty seem to imply that the person being executed is either so far gone as to be un-redeemable or so dangerous that his very existence threatens to “infect” others. The former seems indefensible, given Scriptural teaching. The latter seems dubious given that sin is already ingrained in us (“for all have sinned”).
The Christian response seems to be to show Christ’s unconditional love and pray for the Holy Spirit to break through in ways that only God can and change hearts that seem hopelessly lost to us. If we really believe that God can do this, how can we support the finality of the death penalty? This is especially so given the fact that there are increasing voices in the law enforcement community that strongly state that the death penalty is not necessary, or even helpful. I recently read this article, which quotes from a police chief’s article about why he opposes the death penalty. Here is the theme of his argument:
The death penalty, as it is applied, is too random to effectively deter potential offenders. If you execute a contract killer, for example, it would not deter a terrorist. If you execute a terrorist, it would not deter a young man who breaks into a house, gets startled, and shoots the owner.
U.S. politicians sometimes argue that the death penalty is needed to deter the killing of police officers. But if one of us were murdered, we would not want the perpetrator to receive the death penalty. The most important thing would be taking care of our families and helping them heal. We have seen how painful it is for families to go through years of death penalty trials and appeals and that would be the last thing we would want for our own families. The idea that the death penalty provides “closure” for victims’ families is a myth.
Another myth is that only the guilty are executed. We can tell stories about times experienced officers were certain they had the right guy, only to find out later they were wrong. Even when police do their jobs professionally and in good faith, mistakes will be made and innocent people will be convicted. It is hard to imagine a greater tragedy. At least with life without parole, there is a chance to reopen cases if new evidence becomes available. Death is irreversible.
Especially as budgets tighten in the United States and around the world, the death penalty may be a system governments can no longer afford. The death penalty costs far more than the alternatives. In California, for example, the death penalty costs $125 million more — every year — than life without parole, which also takes the offender off the streets permanently. All of the money that states spend on the death penalty could be used to hire more police officers, train them better, solve cold cases, and prevent crimes from occurring in the first place. We should spend our limited resources on programs that work.
Europe has the same violent offenses that the United States has, but has found ways to protect its citizens without capital punishment. For example, Portugal abolished the death penalty in 1864 and has never seriously considered reinstating it. Even when the country experienced political violence and organized terrorism during a revolution in 1974, the death penalty was not brought back. Had the terrorists been sentenced to death, they might have become martyrs and the violence might have continued.
Do some murderers deserve the death penalty? Maybe so, but that is an emotional reaction. It is not the basis for creating public policy or finding the best ways to keep citizens safe. More states should follow New Jersey’s lead, and the example of 15 U.S. states, repeal the death penalty, and adopt life without parole in its place. As a growing number of Americans recognize, life without parole is a harsh punishment, protects the public, and eliminates the risk of an irreversible mistake, while freeing up funds for more effective crime-fighting programs. This is a better way to serve victims’ families and prevent violence.
In light of this argument, I find the theory of some sort of redemptive or deterrent nature of the death penalty to be harder to defend. Combing that with its running counter to the life and example of Christ, and I have to admit that support for the death penalty seems unChristian, and not in the spirit of being truly pro-life. If I am to support life, I must do so for all life, the unborn, the elderly, the poor and weak, and the guilty. All are worthy of life, and it is not my right, or that of any other human, to decide when they shall be called to their Maker to give account for their actions. Surely, the government has the right, even the responsibility, to capture, prosecute, and punish those who break their laws. This is not what I am arguing. I am simply saying that while I can endorse these governmental actions, but that does not mean that I have to endorse the death penalty.
Thoughts? Rebuttals? Have I missed a more persuasive argument for the Christian to support the death penalty? If so, please tell me below! I’ll be happy to follow up with a correction or improvement if warranted. 🙂