EARLY IN J.R.R. Tolkien's The Fellowship of the Ring, Gandalf the wizard is talking with the hobbit Frodo Baggins about the dreadful Gollum. The frightened Frodo expresses his regret that his uncle Bilbo had not killed "that vile creature, when he had a chance!"
Because of "all those horrible deeds" that Gollum has done, Frodo adds, "He deserves death." Gandalf replies, "Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. For even the very wise cannot see all ends. I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured before he dies, but there is a chance of it."
I do not know where Tolkien stood on the issue of capital punishment, but Gandalf offers theologically relevant points about innocence, guilt, judgment, and hope that Christians should seriously consider as heated debate continues about the morality of this lethal governmental practice.
While a majority of Americans still view capital punishment as morally justified, there is growing opposition to it. Indeed, the number of death sentences dropped to a 35-year low in 2011, and the annual number of executions since 1999, the year in which the most persons were put to death, has with a few exceptions continued to decrease. Seventeen states have abolished capital punishment, including Connecticut, which outlawed the death penalty on April 25, 2012, for any future crimes committed. In 2012, 12 states had active legislation to end it. Why?
Much of the rethinking, even among "law-and-order" conservatives, centers on 1) mistakes that may lead to wrongful convictions and the executions of innocent persons, 2) unfairness in its application, especially in connection with racial and economic biases in society and in the criminal justice system, 3) data that call into question whether capital punishment is an effective deterrent to violent crime, and 4) the high costs for states (and therefore for taxpayers) to implement it (see box on facing page).
While the empirical studies and criminological research are very important, for Christians it is the theological and biblical framework that should ultimately determine our stance on this contentious issue.