Why Authentic Christians Must Oppose the Death Penalty
I live in a state of the United States of America where, for many people, including many self-identified Christians, capital punishment is a kind of sacrament. Of course I do not mean “true sacrament,” like baptism or the Lord’s Supper, but a sign of public virtue, an enactment of justice, a way of demonstrating the livingness of civil religion. The most common defense one hears of it is something like “The Bible says ‘An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.”
This essay constitutes my call as a Christian ethicist and theologian for Christian churches to publicly stand against the death penalty for Christian reasons. There are many secular reasons to abolish the death penalty, capital punishment, but here I am focusing solely on one main Christian reason. Of course, as Christians speak to government leaders who form public policy they must also use secular discourse. Capital punishment is manifestly barbaric and economically unfeasible, does not deter people from committing heinous crimes, is tantamount to unnecessary violence, and is practiced mostly against people of color and the poor. And it is not possible to be absolutely certain that a condemned person committed the crime for which they were convicted.
In the state where I live one man was executed who most reasonable people now agree was innocent—of the crime for which he was convicted, condemned and executed. A state committee all but declared his execution wrong, unjust. At the last minute, however, the governor replaced the chair of the committee who, according to many insiders, squashed the final declaration. The evidence that led to his conviction was, by all informed accounts, “junk science.” State government, of course, is loath to declare anyone wrongly executed because that can lead to abolition of the death penalty, which, as a civic sacrament, must be preserved, and it can lead to reparations to families of the wrongly executed. The state has a strong motive to keep any executed person from being declared wrongly and unjustly killed by the state.
Also in this state a woman has sat on death row—a barbaric place as evidenced in a March 6 “60 Minutes” segment—for years for allegedly murdering her two young sons in their home. The conviction was based solely on circumstantial evidence that amounted to “Who else could have done it?” Many informed people believe her conviction and condemnation are unjust. Several books have been published about the case; several television “true crime” documentary programs have examined it. Real doubt exists about the convicted woman’s guilt.
Many men have been exonerated and released from prison in this state due to the Innocence Project’s (and similar organizations’s) dogged fight for true justice for the unjustly convicted and imprisoned. It is simply absurd to believe that no innocent person has been executed in this state as governors and other proponents of the death penalty continue to claim.
True Christians believe that either 1) Christ died for everyone (Arminianism), or 2) Christ died for his chosen elect and we do not know who they are (Calvinism). In both cases, Christians believe that every individual human being might be someone chosen by God for his salvation and for his service. Only God knows with certainty whom he can use for his service, by whatever means (including intercessory prayer), and who still has a chance to repent, believe (trust in Christ) and be saved. When we take another human life unnecessarily, we usurp God’s prerogative for that person’s eventual salvation or, if they are already saved, for that person’s future service for the Kingdom of God.
For this reason alone, if for no other, Christians must oppose capital punishment. How we oppose it is another question. I know that if I lived anywhere near this state’s death chamber I would join the few opponents of capital punishment that routinely gather for a prayer vigil, often with signs expressing opposition to the death penalty, on the days when prisoners are to be executed.
I believe this matter is so serious on so many levels that every Christian church ought to take a public stand against the death penalty/capital punishment via consensus resolutions and then restrict church leadership to those who either agree with that stand or are at least still considering it. Strong supporters of state executions ought not to be considered worthy candidates for church leadership.
I believe the Christian reasons for opposing the death penalty are so strong that capital punishment ought to be, as slavery was in the mid-19th century, an issue for a “church struggle” that divides if sadly necessary. At the very least, Christian pastors and other leaders ought to preach against capital punishment from their pulpits and in their newsletters.