I will be the first one to admit, that for most of my life I have been Pro-Capital Punishment. I did, and still believe that if a life is taken there should be requisite justice. Life is undoubtedly sacred and if a person takes the life of another person in cold blooded murder, I do still believe their livelihood is forfeit. But in later years I have begun to side against the death penalty, specifically in our criminal justice system. Strangely, for some whom I share this with, my change of heart has nothing to do with the crimes, but everything to do with the application of the death penalty in the United States.
No Justice, No God
Now let me say this, I believe in justice. Justice is at the very heart of who God is, so it must be a critical issue at the heart of every Christian. To say it more candidly, if you do not believe in justice, you cannot believe in God. But what is Justice? This is a question that shows the disconnect of American Christians and the biblical definition of justice. This lack of understanding thwarts attempts at criminal justice reform because we as a country do not have a solid definition of what this is, biblically or even legally.
It might be better to describe what justice is not. Biblical references to the word “justice” mean “to make right.” Justice is, most importantly, a relational concept. For the Christian, this means living in right relationship with God first, then one another, and then the natural creation. As God is just and loving, so we are called to do justice and live in love. God is not only the example of love and justice; He IS love and He IS Justice. So, let me assure you I passionately believe in Justice.
Know Justice, Know God
But because I believe in justice as a follower of Jesus of Nazareth, I also believe in justice steeped in discipline and love, not revenge and anger. The Hebrew word for “justice,” mishpat, occurs in its various forms more than 200 times in the Hebrew Old Testament. Its most basic meaning is to treat people equitably. This means acquitting or punishing every person on the merits of the case, regardless of race or social status. The way this reads in scripture to me is that anyone who does the same wrong should be given the same penalty. This seems like a simple concept, and more than biblical, a commonsense approach. Yet this is not the case in our criminal justice systems punishments.
But to “do justice” is far more than punishment, it also means assuring people’s rights are honored throughout the entire process, no matter what crime they have committed.
It is imperative that all people are given their due and a fair and equitable day in court. In the case of biblical justice, “their due”, is their punishment, their protection, and their care while going through the process. I take this to mean sentencing, their due process, and their imprisonment. This is my basis for just treatment and the biblical basis for fair treatment. And as others have pointed out before me, four major groups continually come up as specifically needing justice ensured to them. “The Quartet of the vulnerable” which includes the poor, the widows, the orphans and the immigrants are also due justice. They come up often in scripture because then, like now justice in the human realm has historically skewed toward the rich and powerful. The United States is no different than the Kingdom of Israel, ancient Greece or Rome in this respect.
Punishment is a Necessary thing but not the Only Thing
This is not to say crimes should not be punished. People who commit crimes should be punished, this is right relationship with both society and God. I am not against punishment; I am against unjust punishment, especially when it is skewed against the vulnerable in our society.
My argument against the death penalty is simple, those that have money, do not receive it. Even for the same crimes. crimes committed by the poor, almost always result in higher consequences. Because most of the wealth in this country is held by a white majority, this means disproportionate treatment of black and brown peoples as well as poor whites. Since this country seems incapable of rectifying this disparity, the death penalty should not be afforded to its government.
Unequal Treatment Means No Justice
If a country cannot apply the death penalty equitably it should abolish it. In California all the inmates on death row qualified for public defense during their trial. I would challenge you to name one wealthy person in the United States on death row. Simply put the death penalty is only used on poor people, if you have the money you can get 25 to life or life without parole.
The first indication of unnecessary punishment could be viewed in the numbers. The United States has more imprisoned people than anywhere in the world. Some argue that it is because of the size of our population. For every 100,000 citizens, 698 are in prison. However, China, who has a population higher than our own has 119 for every 100,000.
Our system is grossly flawed against the poor and the non-white. This is not my opinion; these are facts backed up by statistics. But the beauty of our system is that we can enact change.
I am not saying I have all the answers but abolishing the death penalty and reforming sentencing would be good starts to making a better justice system that intends to do justice to our country, regardless of your parents, your color or your bank account. There is nothing more American than that. The hard truth is it may take an entire redo of the justice system, it is my hope we are brave enough to do that.