How should Christians feel about the death penalty? The Bible calls for an ‘eye for an eye,’ but is that still supposed to apply today?
This week, California Gov. Gavin Newsom put a halt to the execution of more than 737 inmates on death row. The governor told reporters the death penalty is “inconsistent with our bedrock values.”
“I do not believe that a civilized society can claim to be a leader in the world as long as its government continues to sanction the premeditated and discriminatory execution of its people,” Newsom said.
As long as he’s governor, Newsom plans to maintain a moratorium on capital punishment in place.
Is the death penalty anti-Christian?
I’ve heard some progressive Christians argue against capital punishment. One of them, Shane Claiborne, attributed his change of heart to a “deeper theology” and a closer look at the Bible as well as becoming friends with “murder victims’ family members that are against the death penalty.”
As far as I know, I don’t have any friends who are family members of murder victims who happen to be against the death penalty. Years ago, I was friends with a woman whose husband was murdered in the 1970s by two men who robbed him at his business. The two men convicted of the crime, she said, told the family that they would escape from death row and kill all of them. The family waited something like 22 years for the death sentence to be carried out.
Claiborne says his friends who are against capital punishment claim it doesn’t provide closure. It seemed to provide some level of closure for the family I knew.
I remember a story from several years ago in my area. An older woman had been murdered. She was described as a kind, loving woman who was a faithful member of her church. I’ll never forget an interview I saw with her pastor who was asked whether the man who killed her should face capital punishment.
His answer was something along the lines of, “We believe in forgiveness, but we also believe in justice.”
Forgiveness, of course, can be a very powerful thing. When a 21-year-old white supremacist killed nine people at a Charleston church, several of the family members who attended his bond hearing right after the murders spoke at the hearing and said they forgave him.
I was amazed by their faith. I don’t know that I’d be able to say that within 48 hours after such a horrible loss. I’d hope I could get to that point eventually…but I doubt I could do it that quickly.
I’ve heard from many Christians over the years who claimed to be pro-life, insisting that every life is precious. But most of them were also pro-death penalty, only too happy to repeat the Old Testament philosophy of “an eye for an eye.”
It’s a mystery to me why they can’t see how ironic that is.
It’s worth noting that Newsom’s stance against the death penalty seems to be more about social justice than religious views. In a statement, he called the death penalty “a failure” that discriminates against those who are “mentally ill, black and brown, or can’t afford expensive legal representation.” That’s at least as important a concern that should be dealt with.
Pope Francis has said the death penalty should not be allowed in any circumstance.
The National Association of Evangelicals states they affirm the apostle Paul’s writings that governments “are called to administer justice to protect citizens and preserve the common good.” But it also points to 258 wrongfully convicted people in the first decade of the 21st century who have been exonerated due to the introduction of DNA evidence.
Twenty of those people, they say, were serving time on death row. Without the DNA evidence to clear them, they would have been put to death for a crime they did not commit.
Human systems, including, unfortunately, our justice system, are flawed because they’re run by humans. That means that problems like racism and economic standing can far too easily get in the way of justice itself.
NAE goes on to cite portions of Ezekiel 33:
“I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. … If someone who is wicked repents, that person’s former wickedness will not bring condemnation.”
So where’s the line? If it’s a capital crime and the convicted repents, should they automatically not get the death penalty?
If it’s a lesser crime with a life sentence imminent upon conviction and the convicted repents, do we then just set them free?
Is what sounds like a genuine apology — for only God knows what’s inside the guilty party’s heart — grounds for no punishment at all?
And in the case of the death penalty, is a sentence requiring someone to spend the rest of their lives — sometimes 30, 40, or 50 years or more — in a prison system we’ve all heard stories about truly somehow merciful?
Too many people seem to delude themselves into thinking those with a life sentence somehow have it easy: three meals a day and they don’t have to work to make ends meet like the “rest” of us do. None of those people, I’m wagering, would be willing to “improve” their own situation by voluntarily moving into a penal institution.
I really don’t have an answer here.
In the past, I’ve argued support for the death penalty. I’ve always believed that some crimes are so heinous that those who commit them deserve immediate judgment from God, and the death penalty on Earth sends them to that judgement that much faster.
Perhaps, God is truly more merciful than we give Him credit for, and those who are put to death in this life are immediately welcome to heaven, their atonement already considered “paid in full.”
But that’s God’s business, not ours.
I do think that a death sentence should only be imposed where guilt is undeniable by solid evidence. Then again, the number of cases of those wrongly accused who were cleared by DNA evidence may mean we should do one more round of evidence-checking before committing such a punishment.
Carrying out capital punishment on even one innocent person is unacceptable. And inexcusable.
But a life sentence for an innocent person should be considered equally unacceptable, and those instances have occurred.
So where do we draw the line? When, if ever, is capital punishment acceptable?
And when is any punishment, regardless of length or finality, too much to fit the crime itself?