Jesus, at Least, Opposed the Death Penalty

Jesus, at Least, Opposed the Death Penalty March 27, 2013

In an act that echoed the backroom negotiations of Temple court lawyers 2,000 years ago, Senator Thom Goolsby (R-New Hannover) pushed a bill through Senate committee on Tuesday of Holy Week that would resume executions in North Carolina.

Ironically, his supporters argued that the cross justifies their desire for retributive justice.

Noting that no one has been executed in our state since 2006, Goolsby argued that the 156 people who have been sentenced to death are a living offense to their victim’s families and to our criminal justice system. In their objections, death penalty opponents point to recent Public Policy Polling data that suggests 68% of North Carolinians favor repealing the death penalty if those who have been convicted of capital crimes receive a life sentence instead. Other polls, however, point to a much closer divide on the issue. Economists, criminologists, public policy analysts, and victims rights advocates all have their points to make in this debate.

Last Thursday, Dr. Mark Creech of the Christian Action League decided to weigh in on the moral argument for the death penalty. Speaking on behalf of Christians throughout our state, Dr. Creech argued unequivocally for executions to resume, insisting that Jesus “affirmed retributive justice by His own death on the cross.”

While I respect the right of any citizen to state their case in this debate, I cannot, as a follower of Jesus, let Dr. Creech pretend to speak for Jesus when Jesus has spoken so plainly for himself on this issue.

When the question was put to Jesus directly, it was about a woman caught in adultery. (This was, in Jesus’ day, a capital offense.) “Let whoever is without sin cast the first stone,” Jesus said to the woman’s accusers. No one had the moral authority to condemn a fellow human to death, Jesus said.

Jesus, Christians have confessed since the earliest centuries, was “like us in every way excepting sin.” By his own standard, then, Jesus would have been the only human ever qualified to execute another. But he did not. “Go,” Jesus said to the one who had been condemned, “and sin no more.”

Jesus’ clarity on this issue does not mean there is no moral argument for the death penalty. Jesus himself cited the Old Testament law which had been given to teach the sanctity of human life: “You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.” What is more, Jesus intensified this teaching, saying that anyone who calls his neighbor a fool is subject to the same judgment. But Jesus knew that humans are inevitably flawed in our execution of judgment. “Judge not lest you be judged,” he taught his followers. Instead, he said, “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.”

This way of love that Jesus taught and practiced has been the ethic of the church for two millennia. To be sure, it has been compromised by those who have argued that some violence is necessary for the defense of the weak or to prevent greater violence. But the ethic of Jesus has always been a restraining force in Christian reflection on the use of violence. No serious teacher of the church has ever argued that Jesus lived, died, and rose again in order to affirm the lethal use of force.

To say that Jesus “affirmed retributive justice by His own death on the cross” is not to argue one of several positions within the Christian tradition. It is, rather, to state an anti-Christian position. Mr. Goolsby and Dr. Creech are, of course, entitled to make whatever arguments they would like in favor of the death penalty. But I respectfully ask that they leave Jesus out of it. As Frederick Douglass said of the slaveholder’s religion in the South long ago, “Between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference.” Dr. Creech may speak for the Christian Action League of North Carolina. But about this much we should be clear: he does not speak for Jesus.

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