If It Weren’t for Jesus, I Might be Pro-Death Too: A Response to Al Mohler

Southern Baptist leader Albert Mohler wrote a piece this week defending the death penalty. In his 1200 word argument for why Christians should support the death penalty, he does not mention Jesus a single time.

Digging deeper, as you read the official pro-death penalty statement of the Southern Baptists, there is not a single reference to Jesus or the Gospels.

There are plenty of other problems with the scriptural maneuvering used to justify the contemporary practice of the death penalty with a few verses from the Bible, in the same way that a few verses were misused to justify slavery.  For starters the Biblical death penalty was required not just for murderers, but also for folks that committed adultery, disrespected their parents, collected too much interest, had premarital sex, and disobeyed the Sabbath.  But I want to stick with the nagging problem of Jesus, the greatest obstacle for pro-death penalty Christians.

In a recent Barna Poll, less than 5% of Americans think Jesus would support capital punishment, and less than a quarter of young Christians support it.  Nonetheless some Christians find ways to sidestep Jesus, the lens through which all of us who claim to be Christians should interpret the Bible and the world around us.

Gandhi was once asked if he was a Christian and he responded by saying, “I love Jesus, I just wish the Christians took him seriously.”

Consistently, Jesus said things like “I did not come for the healthy but for the sick, not for the righteous but for the sinners”… “blessed are the merciful for they will be shown mercy”… “inasmuch as you forgive you will be forgiven”…  “judge not lest you be judged” … “you’ve heard it said ‘an eye for an eye’ but I tell you there is another way.”

Setting aside other compelling arguments against the death such as the fact that the determining factor for execution is often not guilt but economics and race, and the fact that nearly all executions come from 2% of US counties, and that 144 folks have been exonerated with recent studies showing 1 in 25 folks sentenced to death are likely innocent… all that aside, I want to focus on Jesus.

There is an incident in the Gospels where Jesus is asked about the death penalty. Here’s the scene. A woman has been humiliated and dragged before the town, ready to be killed. Her execution was legal; her crime was a capital one. But just because it’s legal, doesn’t make it right.

Jesus interrupts the scene — with grace.

He tells all the men who are ready to kill the woman, “Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone.” And of course he reminds us all that if we have looked at someone with lust in our eyes we are adulterers. If we have called our neighbor a fool we are a murderer. You can hear the stones start to drop, as the men walk away.

The only one who is left with any right to throw a stone is Jesus — and he has absolutely no inclination to do so. We can see that the closer we are to God the less we want to throw stones at other people.

It is this dual conviction that no one is above reproach and that no one is beyond redemption that lies at the heart of our faith. Undoubtedly it’s why the early Christians were characterized by non-violence, even in the face of brutal evil, torture and execution.

For hundreds of years, Tertullian, Origen, Lactantius, and other early Christians explicitly forbid other Christians from participating in or supporting capital punishment.  Other writings (such as the Apostolic Tradition) go so far as to prohibit the baptism of Christians who participate in the apparatus of killing. It was inconceivable to worship Jesus, a forgiving victim of the death penalty who died with grace on his lips, and call for the execution of others.   Of all people, we who follow the executed and risen Christ should be people who are consistently pro-life, pro-grace and anti-death.

Here’s when I realized the death penalty was a spiritual issue, not just a political one…  I was talking to a man on death row, and he told me his story.  He confessed to having done something terrible, which he will regret for the rest of his life.  But then it got even more interesting.  He told me the story of his trial.  During the course of his sentencing, the victim’s family argued that his life should be spared, that he should not be sentenced to death.  “They were Christians… so they talked a lot about mercy,” he told me matter-of-factly, as if every Christian was against the death penalty.  He went on, “They believed that Jesus came not for the healthy but for the sick.  And they argued that God may not be done with me yet.  So I was spared the death penalty because of the victim’s family.”  Finally he said, “I wasn’t a Christian then.  But you better believe that I am one now.”

Grace shines bright in the face of evil.  But grace can be a scandalous thing, as we can see Jesus forgiving those who kill him – and as we see the stunning stories of murder victim’s families who stand against execution, many of whom are fueled by their faith.

We dare not forget the story – of a God who so loved the world that Jesus was sent, not to condemn the world but to save it.   We must not forget that much of the Bible was written by murderers who were given a second chance.  Moses.  David.  Paul.

The Bible would be much shorter without grace.  And our churches would be empty if we killed everyone who was deserving of death.

We cannot ignore Jesus as we discuss the death penalty.  As was the case with slavery, many Christians misused Scripture to justify injustice and ended up on the wrong side of history.  It is my hope that Southern Baptists will reconsider their statement on capital punishment in light of Jesus, and not have to apologize 100 years from now for being on the wrong side of history.

Shane Claiborne is an activist and author who is a leading figure in the New Monasticism movement and one of the founding members of The Simple Way.

About Shane Claiborne

Shane Claiborne is the co-founder of The Simple Way (www.thesimpleway.org), and is a bestselling author, prominent Christian activist, sought-after speaker and recovering sinner.

  • ChuckQueen101

    Great article. It really does all come down to Jesus doesn’t it? Charles Marsh wrote a book titled, “Wayward Christian Soldiers” where he told of reading war sermons by influential evangelical ministers during the lead-up to the Iraq war in 2002. No one quoted Jesus. SBC pastor Charles Stanely urged Christians to serve the war effort in any way possible and simply dismissed Jesus with the wave of his hand saying that what Jesus said about loving enemies was said to individuals. There was nothing about grappling with such decisions on the basis of the life and teachings of Jesus. As a former Southern Baptist I can tell you that current SBC leadership is all about control and triumphalism. Jesus is made to fit their brand of American and Christian exceptionalism. Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, once a great school that held in creative tension conservative and progressive theologies and encouraged open-minded study and reflection is now nothing more than a glorified Bible institute that propagates a far right Christian fundamentalism.

  • Richard Tallent

    Well said. This is similar to my own view, based on scriptures like 2 Peter 3:9 (“God is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.”)

    Even if all other things were equal — that the courts were always fair, verdicts always correct, executions always humane, costs comparable to life imprisonment, and that capital punishment was a proven deterrent — even so, as ***Christians***, we should see these poor souls as God does, and we should be strongly biased to sentences that give them as many breaths on this earth as possible to find redemption. And for those that do, as many as possible to be a witness in prison to the others.

    But these other things *aren’t* equal, so Christians should find much common ground with others who are against the death penalty for reasons other than the hope of salvation.

  • Rich Jones

    Shane, a question for clarities sake, you mentioned you were visiting a man on death row who told you his story, but then at the end of the story (and paragraph) you mention he was spared the death penalty because of the victims family. An awesome picture of grace and forgiveness, but if he had been spared the death penalty then why was he on death row? just curious…

    • Reivec

      I don’t believe he said that he was spared the death penalty, only that the victim’s family argued that he should be. That happened at the trial but the author was speaking to him as he was on death row, that implies the judge/jury handed down the death penalty regardless of the wishes of the victim’s family.

      • Guest

        It’s so weird when people can take the time to post, but can’t take the time to re-read for content.

  • Guest

    the prisoner said ” so I was spared the death penalty because of the victims family”-so- what WAS he doing on death row

  • Mizvickey

    This is a beautiful article, I am a Christian and I am ashamed to say that sometimes in moments of weakness, I have found myself wishing that we had the death penalty in Massachusetts. But now, thanks to this article I am thankful that we do not. God Bless and Keep you! Keep writing!

  • IPAC

    Shane – What is “The Simple Way” stance on Abortion? I could not find anything on the website.

  • $105158253

    I used to think that the death penalty was appropriate in certain circumstances but I have come to the realization that unless one is consistently for life they are no better than the Pharisees. Now I am against the death penalty. It’s a shame that some Christians have, for the most part, refused to adopt this consistency and give their pro-life views (Anti-death penalty) legitimacy and righteousness.

  • John Bickham

    Bravo Shane!!

  • txannie1955

    Hard to believe that even here comments are trying to hijack a could be great discussion. A person can be on death row after a sentencing while awaiting transfer, sometimes it isn’t until after original sentence that they are commuted to life. just one reason he could have been on death row at that time.
    And question abortion during a discussion on death penalty? trying to start a argument? If you get the chance read the old testament where priest were allowed to perform abortions if a husband thought his wife was unfaithful and Jesus nor any of his followers ever address it, despite fact it is well known to have been commonly used even during those times. So I guess that means if you are pregnant but not by your husband that fetus is not worth anything so go ahead. personally, I prefer the teachings of Jesus on free will, keeping our faith separate from govt (render unto Caesar), and judge not. I am sure there is a reason why is was not discussed by Him maybe He believed that is between the individual and God not Church and State.

    • $105158253

      Yes I understand that bringing up abortion is inconvenient and destroys peoples false sense of being pro-life by being against the death penalty but allowing the over 27,000 innocent unborn children to be killed each week in the US mostly for reasons of convenience and comfort.

  • Guest

    Or it has absolutely nothing to do with Jesus. As a non-believer in religion objection to the death penalty comes from a basis of secular humanity.

  • CLE1978

    Lovely

  • Greg

    If Jesus wasn’t for the death penalty, then why he didn’t he at least save the two thieves he was crucified next to?

  • 4thbook

    Shane, I think you are too near-sighted and far too concerned with this earthly life. Many who have been condemned to death have confessed that they are deserving of their punishment for their deeds. The following passage is a great example of Jesus’ “position” on the death penalty. Jesus had the power to forgive on earth, and right here, he had the power to send that fellow down from the cross and to a beach in Mexico, like Zihuatanejo;-) But,Jesus told the thief on the cross, “Today, you will be with me in paradise.” The thief was cool with that! Like he said, “I deserve this!” And so did the the other thief, who really was hoping that Jesus was more like the guy you want him to be. Worried and focused about the “here and now.” When faced with death, justified or not, we see a new reality, the appointment we have with the great unknown. Makes Life seem like a vapor, like fading flowers or withering grass. We want it to be longer. We don’t want death. It is too final. That is human, but Jesus talks of another world, one without thirst or hunger. And this is the “Life” we should be worried about. Visit those in prison, tell them the Good News! The choice they have made thus far may have determined their earthly life, but their future choices can determine their eternal life!

    Oh death! Where is your sting?
    Oh hell! Where is your victory?
    Oh Church! Come stand in the light!
    The glory of God has defeated the night!

    Oh death! Where is your sting?
    Oh hell! Where is your victory?
    Oh Church! Come stand in the light!
    Our God is not dead, he’s alive! he’s alive!

    Christ is risen from the dead
    Trampling over death by death
    Come awake, come awake!
    Come and rise up from the grave
    Christ is risen from the dead
    We are one with him again
    Come awake, come awake!
    Come and rise up from the grave

    Rise up from the grave…

    Luke 23:32-43, (NAS95) 32 Two others also, who were criminals, were being led away to be put to death with Him. 33 When they came to the place called The Skull, there they crucified Him and the criminals, one on the right and the other on the left. 34 But Jesus was saying, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots, dividing up His garments among themselves. 35 And the people stood by, looking on. And even the rulers were sneering at Him, saying, “He saved others; let Him save Himself if this is the Christ of God, His Chosen One.” 36 The soldiers also mocked Him, coming up to Him, offering Him sour wine, 37 and saying, “If You are the King of the Jews, save Yourself!” 38 Now there was also an inscription above Him, “THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS.” 39 One of the criminals who were hanged there was hurling abuse at Him, saying, “Are You not the Christ? Save Yourself and us!” 40 But the other answered, and rebuking him said, “Do you not even fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 “And we indeed are suffering justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42 And he was saying, “Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom!” 43 And He said to him, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise.”

  • CoffeeH

    Remember though, Jesus will sit at the right hand of Yahweh, as Jesus told us. Do you think Yahweh would oppose the death penalty? God tells us he does not take pleasure in the death of the wicked. He’d rather see them turn from sin and repent. But…nowhere are we given the impression that God does not believe in the death penalty. Jesus also wants us to turn from sin and give others a chance to turn from sin. What if someone keeps murdering in prison and never repents?

    Another issue is that a growing population seem to believe that we should only follow the red words in the Bible. (Coincidentally, I now realize the author is with Red Letter Activists?) Jesus is not the Father. Jesus is the Son and will sit next to the Father. The Bible is a big book filled with mostly black words. We do not know the mind of God on everything, but God has shown us the truth of the death penalty in this life and in the next.

  • CoffeeH

    Here’s an interesting question for anyone solely focusing on the red words in the Bible… Is Jesus the Father? Think about that. Then reconcile Christ’s words with what the Father says, with what Christ’s own taught disciples said.

  • Dan_Cartwright

    Actually, I think it was a very well written and scripturally supported position statement that recognized that the justice system isn’t perfect, stipulated what crimes that could warrant a death penalty for those found guilty, and at the same time expressed love, compassion. and reverance for human life. It doesn’t really matter if I agree or not, it ws a well written and substantiated position statement.

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