I have written about abortion, and I have written about war; today I’m writing about capital punishment.
While many who describe themselves as “pro-life” support the death penalty (making a distinction between the loss of “innocent” life in abortion and the “guilty” who are convicted of murder), I believe a consistent pro-life ethic must stand against capital punishment as well.
Christians who support capital punishment can find ample support for their cause in Scripture; indeed, the Old Testament prescribes the death penalty for a number of offenses, including murder (Gen 9:6), witchcraft (Ex 22:18, Lev 20:6), bestiality (Ex 22:19, Lev 20:15-16), idolatry (Ex 22:20), working on the Sabbath day (Ex 31:12-17), child sacrifice (Lev 20:1-5), cursing one’s father or mother (Lev 20:9), adultery (Lev 20:10), incest (Lev 20:11-12, 14), blasphemy (Lev 24:10-23), and male homosexual acts involving penetration (Lev 20:13).
Furthermore, Paul’s teaching that the governing authorities “do not bear the sword in vain” (Rom 13:4) seems to support the death penalty (though we must keep in mind that capital punishment in first-century Rome was typically carried out by crucifixion; the “sword” here more likely referring to a weapon used by police).
When we look at the life and teachings of Jesus, however, a different picture emerges. Jesus’ well-known saying that we should “turn the other cheek” rather than practice “eye for an eye” style justice (Matt 5:38-39) in effect overturns all of the Old Testament death penalties in one fell swoop; and His teaching that we must forgive others if we expect to be forgiven (Matt 6:14-15) presents quite a challenge to capital punishment as well!
In the words of Walter Wink, “Changed people, reconciled with God and in process of transformation, are at the very core of the gospel message. The harmony of the whole is not worth the involuntary sacrifice of a single life” (Engaging the Powers, 74).
Jesus didn’t just teach a nonviolent approach to justice; He lived it out. When confronted with a woman caught in the act of adultery (an offense punishable by death under the law of Moses), Jesus refused to have her killed; instead, He said “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7).
Since there’s not a single human being who hasn’t sinned at one point or another, this would seem to rule out capital punishment!
Even as He was being led to His own death, Jesus wouldn’t let His followers use violence to defend Him (Matt 26:47-54); and as He was being crucified, He uttered the well-known phrase, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).
We should not forget the fact that Jesus Himself was killed (in part, at least) as a threat to the State (Acts 4:26, Col 2:15)!
Jesus Himself said that he was to be “counted among the lawless” (Luke 22:37); and taught that anyone who wanted to follow Him must “deny themselves and take up their cross” (Matt 16:24, etc).
While it’s easy for us to think of anything difficult or annoying as a “cross to bear,” this wasn’t the case for Jesus’ earliest followers. For them, “taking up the cross” had only one meaning – engaging in subversive political activity that was likely to get them killed by the State!
None of this was lost on the leaders of the early church, who were nearly unanimous in their opposition to capital punishment. St. Cyprian typified the early church fathers when he said, “A homicide committed for private interests is a crime; committed in the name of the State it is (considered) a virtue!”
But just as in the case with war, this all changed when the church joined forces with the Empire. From then on, the church (with some notable exceptions) found a justification for capital punishment in the teachings of Moses and Paul, and Jesus’ teachings on forgiveness and nonviolence were relegated to a private “sphere.”
Christians were told that they had to be meek and mild in their personal dealings, but could resort to killing if it was in the interests of the State.
While this distinction is neat and tidy, and has been convincing to many, there’s nothing in the Gospels that even remotely implies Jesus’ teachings are only meant to be applied on the personal level!
Can you imagine a Christian saying adultery (or dishonesty, or any number of other evils) is okay if it’s necessary for political purposes? Yet this is what the church, by and large, has done with Jesus’ clear teachings on nonviolence!
As much as some Christians want to support capital punishment, I see no justification for it in the life and teachings of Jesus.
I’m afraid that the real reasons people support the death penalty are much more sinister than any real concern for justice. Consider this fact (confirmed in multiple sources): 42% of the men currently on death row are black/African American, even though black people only account for 14% of the total American population.
Why is this? Are we really to believe that black men are, by nature, disproportionately violent? Or is this a case of what Jesse Jackson has called “legal lynching” – a convenient way to dispose of people who aren’t really wanted in a predominantly white society?
It’s also well-known that the majority of those assassinated by the CIA as threats to American “security” are men of a Middle-eastern/Arabic ethnicity.
Think about it: when was the last time you heard of a well-educated, rich white person being profiled as a terrorist? The examples are so few as to be almost non-existent!
And then there is the issue of police brutality, which once again seems to happen much more when the civilians are black or brown.
I have a hard time believing that this is simply a coincidence, or that people of color are really that much more likely to be involved in violent crime (which in any case does not justify the excessive use of force that we have all seen lately. There’s no reason in hell to shoot a man 16 times in a row!)
I wish I could say that these things were anomalies; but I’m afraid they are par for the course. As one prominent civil rights activist once said, “Racism is as American as apple pie.”
Lest anyone forget, this nation was built on stolen land and forced labor. The high-profile racism we have been seeing lately is simply shining a light on what has always been there!
Historically, capital punishment (along with torture, police brutality and the like) has been a favorite tool of empires for keeping “barbarians” (read, people of other races and cultures) in check. It does nothing to reform the offender (if he or she is indeed guilty of any crime), and isn’t a particularly effective deterrent against further crime. But it does accomplish one thing quite well: it sends an unmistakable message – mess with the people in charge, and you’re going to get it!
What the supporters of imperial power seldom seem to realize is that when they carry out injustice, they get more than they bargained for; they “sow the wind and reap the whirlwind.” We are already starting to see this in America (in the form of race riots).
While I don’t condone violent demonstrations, neither do I place judgment on those who do such things. If we’re going to place blame anywhere, it must start with those who have perpetuated an unjust and violent system. If we keep pushing people into a corner, we shouldn’t be that surprised when they finally decide to fight back!
It’s not too late, though. We can save our nation, and our world, from the coming collapse. But there’s only one way it can be done – by recognizing, once again, that we are all one.
As long as we see other human beings as “those people over there,” there can be no peace in the land. We must come to see that whatever we do to others, we do to ourselves.
In the words of Thomas Merton, “The whole Gandhian concept of nonviolent action and satyagraha is incomprehensible if it is thought to be a means of achieving unity rather than as the fruit of inner unity already achieved” (Thomas Merton: Essential Writings, 41).
We must first grasp this vision of oneness. From there, we can begin to live out the peaceful (but also revolutionary) way of Jesus.
(Coming Next: Consistently Pro-life, Part Four: Jesus and Gender)