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.