Every Monday in Citizenship Confusion, Alan Noble discusses how we confuse our heavenly citizenship with citizenship to the state, culture, and the world.
Gail Rice, a adult literacy specialist and Christian who has worked in the prison system for 30 years, wrote an article for Think Christian entitled How God’s justice prevailed in Illinois in which she reports on the recent repeal of the death penalty in Illinois. What I found to be interesting about this recent bill was that Rice makes it seem like the governor of Illinois sought to keep the death penalty if he could do so justly, but when he realized that he couldn’t fix the system, that innocent people could still be executed, he decided that he had to repeal capital punishment.
I have most often heard the argument that Christians should support the death penalty because Paul spoke of the government bearing the sword. Or I have heard the argument that Christians, in order to be consistent, must oppose the death penalty since they oppose abortion. I have always felt that both of these positions were inadequate, gross simplifications of complex ethical and social issues. Moreover, both of these arguments tend to be addressed in the abstract rather than the particular and personal: “the Bible provides us justification for the death penalty,” or “Christians can never support the taking of any human life.”
The ugly details of personal loss, grisly murders, insanity, rape, and brutality are much harder to deal with, but if we are to love our neighbor, then we must love the neighbor who is a serial killer and who has suffered loss at the hands of a serial killer, and the neighbor who has been falsely convicted of being a serial killer. I am not at all claiming that this task is easy, but it is necessary.
We might desire as American citizens to think of those who have committed crimes merely as criminals, threats to our communities which must be eradicated. If our relationship to our neighbors is defined primarily through our national citizenship, then our concern might be primarily the safety of our nation, of our community. But since our citizenship is in heaven, and no thief or murder can threaten that community, we have the freedom and responsibility to always think of our neighbors in terms of God’s love for us and for them. This, of course, does not mean that we should be unconcerned with the safety of our loved ones and our community, but it does mean that even when we know that a criminal must be punished, we never fail to see them through our relationship to Christ, and so love them.
It also means that when we consider the morality and justice of the death penalty, we never think only of how to protect our communities or to right wrongs, because our allegiance and treasure and safety is not in our country. We must also consider how to love those who commit atrocities or are falsely accused of committing such atrocities.