As I stated yesterday, I believe that America’s justice system is broken and in need of desperate repair. One of those areas is the practice of putting our citizens to death, something I believe that all Jesus People should resoundingly oppose.
When I was a conservative evangelical, I was a huge supporter of capital punishment for all of the standard reasons. I even had a quick response when folks correctly brought up the hypocrisy of being against abortion while simultaneously being pro-death penalty, a position I previously argued you can’t hold and still call yourself “pro-life.”
However, when I decided to follow Jesus instead of simply being a Christian who paid him hollow worship while conveniently ignoring the red words, I was forced to abandon my support of the death penalty (and abandon my support of violence in general) as part of Following Jesus 101.
While America’s broken justice system is a complex issue, perhaps the first area we can fix is by abolishing the death penalty in all 50 states. Here’s why I think Jesus People should be leading the charge on this issue:
1. Most attempts to make a biblical case for the support of capital punishment are arguments primarily based on Old Testament law, and that’s a poor way to do Christian theology.
Get frustrated when someone challenges you on an argument you’re making from the Old Testament when they ask you if you eat shell fish, or are wearing a cotton and polyester blend? You should — they’re correctly pointing out that most theological arguments based on Old Testament verses require cherry picking and inconsistency. As Christians in 2014, we are part of the New Testament church, not ancient Israel. Lifting a few of the Laws of Moses while ignoring the vast majority of the rest is inconsistent at best and hypocritical at worst. Most who use this tactic also ignore the whole of OT teaching on the issue by conveniently forgetting that capital punishment could not be applied without two eye witnesses (Deut 17:6), and forgetting that even bankers were considered detestable and ordered to be put to death (Ez 18:13). However, if one insists on building a case for supporting executions from the Old Testament, we find an inconvenient truth (sorry, Al) in the teachings of Jesus:
2. Jesus overturned the Old Testament law that allowed retributive violence.
I remember learning about the death penalty as a child and the first thing I was taught was that the Bible says “an eye for an eye.” This principle of an eye for an eye (something that many scholars believe at the time was designed to reduce violence by limiting it to a proportional response) is called the “Lex Talionis.” What I find most peculiar with this argument, was that I was never taught that Jesus very explicitly went on the record in telling his followers to no longer obey the Lex Talionis:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.” Matthew 5:38-42
So yes, it is true the Old Testament allowed capital punishment and retributive violence. Jesus however, weighed in as disagreeing with this principle — or at a minimum, instructing that it should no longer be observed. Therefore, it is not possible to argue a Christian case in support of the death penalty while citing passages from the Hebrew scriptures, because this will put one at odds with Jesus himself.
3. During his ministry, Jesus publicly thwarted an execution.
Let’s be honest: if you were to say “he who is without sin may cast the first stone” even the most ardent atheist would know what you were referencing: the fact that Jesus stopped an execution. Conservatives will break with literalism when it comes to this passage and will argue that it doesn’t mean what it seems to mean. But why not just take the teachings of Jesus at face value? The fact that Jesus stopped an execution is completely in line will all of his other prohibitions against the use of violence. When Jesus said “he who is without sin may cast the first stone” he was teaching that while death may seem just, and even at times be just, there isn’t anyone alive who is worthy to tie the noose around their neck. Therefore, even if siding with the rationale that death is a just punishment in some cases, we arrive at the difficult truth that — according to Jesus — neither you or I are perfect enough to serve in the role of executioner.
4. Jesus teaches that it is better to show mercy and compassion than to obey the law.
Jesus was always getting himself in trouble with religious conservatives. One of the areas where he got himself in trouble more than once (and the act that I think ultimately led to his death) was appearing to violate the law against working on the Sabbath. During one of these occasions, Jesus and his disciples were plucking grain (work) because they were hungry. When confronted for violating the law, Jesus replied to the conservatives:
“If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.” Matthew 12:7
Another time Jesus uses this same quote to tell off the conservatives when they criticize him for having unsavory friends, telling them: “go and learn what this means — I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”
In a variety of circumstances, we see that God values mercy and compassion above all else — which means we should be people who value mercy above all else. After all, mercy seems to be God’s love language.
5. The application of the death penalty in America is unjustly used and applied.
There are a variety of reasons why the death penalty in America is unjustly applied, and chief among them is race. In fact, Texas is preparing for the likely execution of a man named Duane Buck, who was literally sentenced to death for being black. At his sentencing hearing, prosecutors argued that he would be a further threat to society because he was black. Also, we know that poverty is a chief factor in ultimately receiving the death sentence since quality of defense plays a significant role in the outcome of a trial. This means that the death penalty is something that specifically targets poor people and minorities — the people groups Scripture calls us to defend and speak up for. Finally, with new technologies such as DNA testing we’ve found that our system of justice wasn’t as reliable as we thought: since 1973 there have been 122 death row inmates who have been freed after wrongful conviction.
I am reminded of Jesus’ words above– had we understood what it means to love mercy and not sacrifice, we wouldn’t have condemned the innocent.
As people of Jesus, we simply can’t embrace a practice and system that is literally killing innocent people and disproportionately affecting the weak and voiceless.
Yes, the issue of capital punishment is a complex one, and there are many other arguments to be had. While this can be a complex debate if speaking only from our identities as American citizens, this issue should not be complex for Jesus followers. Jesus overturned the old laws that permitted the use of retributive (and all other forms) of violence. It simply is not possible to simultaneously follow the one who forbade violence while participating, condoning, or supporting it in any form.
Now is the time for us to band together on this issue. Public support is waning. Drug companies are refusing to participate. States are abolishing the practice. And most importantly, evangelical Christians are beginning to wake up on the issue of violence and are being primed to become followers of the nonviolent Christ. But yet, as we speak, some states are moving in the opposite direction — trying to revive firing squads, gas chambers, and the electric chair . Now is the time to teach people that following Jesus means a life of nonviolence.
And, if nothing else, remember that Jesus was the victim of an unjust trial and was unjustly executed as a result. For his followers to support this same system would be worthy of a mention by Alanis Morissette (’cause wouldn’t that be ironic?)
Please join me in speaking out against the use of capital punishment and join me in inviting people to follow the nonviolent Jesus!