This week (Nov. 6) Wheaton College, often called “the Harvard of Christian colleges” is hosting a forum on the death penalty. But it’s not just any forum. It has potential to reshape the way evangelicals in America think about the topic.
In addition to Wheaton’s own ethicist Vincent Bacote and Mercer University scholar David Gushee, the panelists include Kirk Bloodsworth, who spent eight years on death row for a crime he didn’t commit. Also on the panel is Frank Thompson, former superintendent of the Oregon State Penitentiary who witnessed executions. And finally, there is Gabriel Salguero, who heads up the National Latino Evangelical Coalition and is also a member of the National Association of Evangelicals, a Christian powerhouse representing 45,000 congregations from over 40 denominations. Granted, a female voice might make it even richer, but what all these men share in common is they have serious concerns about the practice of the death penalty in America.
This is big.
I’ll admit, part of me wished this monumental death penalty event was happening at my alma mater, Eastern University. After all, Eastern is well-known for its social justice edge, its progressive faculty — folks like Tony Campolo and Ron Sider. One Eastern alum, death penalty lawyer Bryan Stevenson, was recently called “America’s young Nelson Mandela” by Desmond Tutu and interviewed in Time magazine and The New York Times.
After I pouted a little while, I realized the significance of this forum — and the fact that it is being warmly hosted by Wheaton.
I spent a year at Wheaton and loved it. I go back regularly to speak there. But Wheaton is very different from Eastern. When I was there, Wheaton still required students to attend chapel services, and had a mandatory “community covenant” that prohibited things like drinking, smoking, and dancing, and had an entire Department on Evangelism.
Actually, this week’s event is being co-hosted by the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism, and in fact, the Rev. Billy Graham is one of Wheaton’s many influential alums. It is indeed a flagship that has helped shape American evangelicalism.
Over the years, Wheaton has wisely navigated the culture wars and dodged the pitfalls that many fundamentalist schools fell into during the 1980s. Wheaton’s no-dancing rule ended, and its sports teams changed names from the “Wheaton Crusaders” to the “Wheaton Thunder.”Those outward signs point toward a deeper inner commitment to stay faithful to Jesus. Wheaton has not avoided hard conversations; it has tackled them head-on — with grace and courage.
When it comes to the death penalty, the question for Christians and Christ-centered institutions such as Wheaton is: How does Jesus inform how we think about this issue?
A recent Barna poll shows that millennial Christians (born after 1980) are overwhelmingly against executions. In fact, only 5 percent of Americans in general think Jesus would support the death penalty. Responding to the recent buzz, Southern Baptist leader Albert Mohler wrote a CNN editorial arguing that Christians should favor the death penalty. But here’s the problem: in his 1,200-word treatise, he didn’t mention Jesus a single time. After all, it is hard to reconcile executing someone with the executed and risen Lord who said, “Blessed are the merciful for they will be shown mercy.”
It’s worth noting, though, that Mohler himself recognizes that the death penalty system is indeed broken. “Furthermore, Christians should be outraged at the economic and racial injustice in how the death penalty is applied. While the law itself is not prejudiced, the application of the death penalty often is,” he wrote.
I am confident Jesus will be center-stage during this conversation. And the forum is encouraging because it points beyond itself — to an evangelicalism whose politics are being shaped by Christ. A new generation is rising up and aligning with neither the Left nor the Right, but staying centered on Jesus. Their allegiance is not to a donkey or an elephant – but to a Lamb.
Over the next few years, I believe we will see even more Christians lead the charge to abolish the death penalty – and proclaim a more consistent ethic of life, from the womb to the tomb. Last week Pope Francis called for an end to all executions, both “legal and illegal.” Now Wheaton is hosting this forum. Maybe we’ll see the NAE step up to the plate next.
I’m in the middle of writing a book on the death penalty right now and tempted to fly to Chicago this week, but I don’t think I have to. I think this is just the beginning of a rich and robust conversation. And I have a hunch it is the beginning of the end of executions in America. I’m proud that Christians are leading the way.
Shane Claiborne is an activist and best-selling author, founder of The Simple Way in Philadelphia and popular speaker. Find him at www.redletterchristians.org.