The Heresy of Capital Punishment

The Heresy of Capital Punishment July 3, 2013

The Heresy of Capital Punishment

Every ethicist chooses one particular social issue on which to focus—at least for a time. Unfortunately, in my opinion, too few have focused on capital punishment for a sufficiently sustained time, giving it sufficient attention during that time, to bring about a sea change in public opinion. Still, to this day, the majority of Americans favor capital punishment for certain crimes—in spite of or perhaps because of the almost overwhelming negative judgment about it on the parts of intellectuals and writers.

One writer, who also happens to be highly intellectual, who strongly opposes capital punishment is John Grisham. Several of his novels are about it—including most notably (and emotionally compellingly) The Confession (2010). His leading short story in Ford County (2009), a much-neglected collection of short stories is about capital punishment and its affect on families. I think stories can do as much or more than arguments to dispel the justifying myths about capital punishment and throw light on its injustices.

Two or three times here before I’ve called capital punishment “heresy.” What do I mean? It is my considered opinion that belief that capital punishment, at least as it is known and practiced in the U.S. today, is a heresy when espoused by Christians. It manifests an embrace of the myth of redemptive violence by humans and flies in the face of the ethic of Jesus which forbids violent retribution. It is absolutely, incontrovertibly contrary to love. And it is, as practiced in the U.S. today, manifestly unjust.

I believe Christian churches of all kinds ought to do more to oppose capital punishment. They ought, at the very least, to declare it incompatible with Christian faith and put members who openly believe in it under some kind of discipline (not necessarily excommunication but at least forbidding them to teach it in the ecclesial context). And those who practice it, actively seeking it and participating in it, should be excommunicated from Christian churches. It ought to be a matter of status confessionis—as apartheid was declared by the World Alliance of Reformed Churches which helped lead to its downfall in South Africa.

The state of Texas recently executed its 500th person since capital punishment was restored by the Supreme Court in 1976. That’s more than all other states combined. I have lived in Texas for a total of 17 years and can testify that, for many Texas Christians, capital punishment is almost a sacrament. I have heard Texas “born again Christians” cheerfully declare that they would gladly push the plunger down to start the poisonous chemicals flowing into a condemned person’s veins. When I routinely ask them “Would Jesus do it?” they either look at me as if the question had never occurred to them or stick to their guns (a very Texas thing to do!) and say that he would.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not singling out Texas as if it’s the only place where Christians defend capital punishment. I’ve lived in other states where it is common and proudly defended by the majority including Christians. I’m only mentioning Texas here and now because of the notable 500th execution just a couple weeks ago—something that made national news.

The 500th executed person was a black woman. Not many women go to the death chamber in Texas or elsewhere, but many African-Americans do. Studies have shown that African-Americans are more likely to receive the death penalty than Caucasians—especially when the decision (or recommendation) is made by a jury rather than a judge.

One thing that sparked my thoughts about this, and my decision to blog about it again, besides the recent 500th execution, is that I happened to see a documentary about a notable case of innocent people almost being convicted of capital murder.

Now I know that someone out there is already thinking: “Yes, almost, but it has never actually happened. There are checks and balances to keep innocent people from being executed.” I simply don’t believe they are sufficient to guarantee it. I believe it is highly likely that some innocent people have been executed. I would be willing to bet (were I a “betting man”) that among the 500 people Texas has executed in the past almost forty years there were several innocents. The Innocence Project has been coming up with many innocent convicts and freeing them from prison. One notable case that received national attention happened recently in Texas. A man (Michael Morton) who served 25 years in prison for a crime he did not commit was finally exonerated and released. Strong suspicion now exists that the prosecutor, now a judge, hid evidence from his defense attorney that may have caused his acquittal 25 years ago. (It is things like this that cause some people to say that “Texas justice” is an oxymoron.)

A problem is that once a person is executed there is very little motive for attempting to go through the arduous process of proving him or her to be innocent. I believe if as much effort were put into that as into exonerating innocent convicted people still in prison, some executed persons would be found to have been innocent.

So what was the documentary I mentioned three paragraphs above? The case involved a murdered Utah businessman named Kay Mortensen. You can “Google” the story and read all about it. He was brutally murdered in his own home. His son and daughter-in-law happened to come to his home as he was being murdered and were tied up and threatened with death by two gun wielding home invaders. The police and prosecutors (and grand jury) did not believe their stories and accused them of murdering Mr. Mortensen in spite of their adamant denials and no physical evidence against them. The police and prosecutors argued vehemently that their story was unbelievable and put them on trial—or almost. The day their trial for murder was to begin (and even their defense attorney thought they would probably be convicted) a woman called police to tell them who really committed the murder—her ex-husband and his friend.

As it turns out, Mr. Mortensen’s son and daughter-in-law told the truth. The real murderers supported their story—the one police and the prosecutor called unbelievable. One murderer confessed and the other was convicted. Both were sentenced to life in prison. But it is possible Mr. Mortensen’s son and daughter-in-law would have been sentenced to death had they been convicted—which was almost certain until the stranger called to reveal what really happened. Had she not had a pang of conscience and had she kept her silence, the son and daughter-in-law very well may have been executed and nobody would have ever known of their innocence. It is my belief that that has happened in other cases.

Our justice system is not fool proof which is one reason why capital punishment is wrong; judges and juries can never know with absolutely certainty that an accused person is guilty—even if they confess. (Many confessions are made under extreme duress.)

But there are many other reasons capital punishment is unjust. I have explained them here before. In brief they are: (from a Christian point of view) that it takes away a person’s time to repent and believe or to witness to other inmates, leading them to repentance and faith, and (from a secular point of view) it offers no real deterrent to crime and costs the government more than incarceration for life. Also, from just a humane point of view, it is extremely damaging to the families of those executed and is barbaric for a supposedly civilized society such as we claim to be (no country we like to compare ourselves with in terms of social development practices capital punishment).

It’s time for American Christians to wake up and add capital punishment to the list of social evils we oppose. (Even Christians in states that have abolished capital punishment need to join this effort as our federal government still practices it.)

I can just hear someone mocking my question above “Would Jesus do it?” Would Jesus push down the plunger to begin the flow of deadly chemicals to kill a condemned man or woman? Sure, sound arguments can be made that there are things we must do that Jesus would not do. “What would Jesus do?” is a simplistic principle for ethical guidance. But it’s a place to start. If the answer is “no,” then a Christian must offer a strong argument for why it is morally and ethically right for them to do it. I can think of no such argument for capital punishment. It cannot be considered a necessary evil that, even though Jesus wouldn’t do it, we must. There are always ways to restrain a murderer, for example, to make sure he or she cannot murder again. Those are preferable to capital punishment. Jesus would not push down the plunger or pull the lever (or whatever a modern executioner does); we don’t need to. End of story.

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