I never questioned the death penalty until like the Pharisees, I questioned Jesus. My thinking of who deserved death was more in line with the Pharisees in the scene from John 8:1-11:
“Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such a woman. So what do you say?”
Jesus’ response? He stares at the ground and puts his finger to the dirt with his hand. The crowd’s not happy with this response:
When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground. At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” “No one, sir,” she said. “Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”
God was revealing a new and fulfilled covenant in Jesus. This is the covenant we live under as Christ followers. And while America and every other system of this world are not governing under the Lordship of Jesus, we who are Christ followers should represent faithfully the love of God in Jesus when confronting the rulers and systems of authority in this world.
I understand there’s conscientious Christians on both sides of the death penalty conversation. My hope in this article is to share some of the reasoning from scripture as to why and how we can see Jesus new in the conversation of criminal justice reform and favor the abolition of the death penalty.
I have not come to the conclusions of the need for criminal justice reform and abolishing the death penalty on my own. In fact, for the majority of my life as a Christian I’ve defended the use of execution and capital punishment. It’s been several key Christian writers who have shaped my current passion and conviction that the death penalty is wrong. Two writers-Bryan Stevenson who wrote “Just Mercy” and Shane Claiborne who wrote “Executing Grace”, are people who share extensive research and scriptural backing for Christians to call an end to the Death Penalty.
The early church was very much opposed to state sanctioned executions for the first three hundred years of it’s existence. Key early Christian writers such as Origen, Tertullian, Cyprian, Athenagoras, Hippolytus, and many others did not endorse state sanctioned execution. Shane Claiborne, who wrote “Executing Grace” mentioned above, says that, “Other writings (such as the Apostolic Tradition) go so far as to prohibit the baptism of Christians who participate in the apparatus of killing. It was inconceivable to worship Jesus, a forgiving victim of the death penalty who died with grace on his lips, and call for the execution of others” (Claiborne, 2014). But let’s look at the texts where most Christians would start to defend the Death Penalty-the Old Testament.
“Surely I will require your lifeblood; from every beast I will require it. And from every man, from every man’s brother I will require the life of man. Whoever sheds man blood, by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God He made man.” Here is where most people would begin by saying God established capital punishment. But isn’t it odd, that throughout the Bible, cold-blooded murderers like Cain, Moses, and David are not executed, but spared. “The Old Testament’s eye-for-eye standard of justice was not license for death, but a limit on retribution” (Lev. 24:14–23). (Michel, 2016). And as followers of Jesus living under a new covenant, we as Christians know that there is no more need for bloodshed. Jesus fulfills the need for earthly bloodshed in order for retribution to be needed.
Deuteronomy 17:6 provides guidelines for the capital punishment that Moses had made permissible. But under his guidelines, this capital punishment couldn’t be made without two eye witnesses. And with those who were ordered to be put to death, Merritt draws attention to the passage that says “even bankers were considered detestable and ordered to be put to death (Ez 18:13)” (Merritt 2016).
Shane Claiborne also pinpoints the problem with using the OT to defend execution because murder was not the only crime that warranted death in the Old Testament. “There were some 30 death-worthy crimes listed including working on the Sabbath, witchcraft, adultery, and disrespecting your parents. But here’s the catch. The law also made it nearly impossible to execute someone. The criteria was so strict that executions rarely happened. The rabbis of old said that if a high court executes more than one person in 70 years it is a bloody court” (Merritt, 2016).
Above are photos of a Laura and L.D. Nelson. Laura was a mother with an infant and L.D. is her 14 year old son. Both were lynched in Okemah, Oklahoma under a bridge. These are postcards sold after the lynching. Woody Guthrie’s father was a member of the KKK and was believed to have been on the lynching party. “They quoted a woman who had seen either the lynching or its aftermath, and who said that Laura had placed the baby on the ground: ‘After they had hung them up, those men just walked off and left that baby lying there. One of my neighbors was there, and she picked the baby up and brought it to town, and we took care of it. It’s all grown up now and lives here'” (Bittle & Geis, 1964). Photos from Wikipedia.
But if one must resort to the OT to defend their views of capital punishment, they will find in the prophets, Ezekiel 33 which states, “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 rather than pushing execution, why not push for criminal justice reform, reform that doesn’t treat prisoners as animals, but as broken people in need of rehabilitation?
As one enters the New Testament, readers encounter Jesus. No one is perfect enough to stand in the role of executioner (Corey, 2014). When Jesus came, not only did he give a better law than, “An eye for an eye”, but He came and gave us a new way of seeing. Jesus spoke words that countered the executing religious leaders of his day. He speaks, “Blessed are the merciful for they will be shown mercy” and “inasmuch as you forgive you will be forgiven.” It becomes impossible to justify the death penalty with Jesus. When Peter had a chance to take someone’s life with his dagger, Jesus reprimanded him, “He firmly commands Peter to “Put it away”.”
But wait, there’s Paul’s Romans 13: 1-7 text:
“Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience. This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.
For a hearty and worthwhile contemplation of this text I’m going to refer to Nick Lloyd’s exposition found here: https://nickloyd.com/2009/07/23/what-about-romans-13/. Here are some highlights (Lloyd, 2009):
One point stands out, “One must allow the text to be ‘innocent until proven guilty.’ This means we must assume that the author (in this case, Paul) is intelligent enough not to contradict himself or herself. If there is coherence in Paul’s thought, then we can use his clear passages to illuminate passages that are harder to understand. Granting this, we can assume that Paul’s point in Romans 13 harmonizes with the rest of his politics. Without this initial sympathy, we might fail to understand a text. The critical eye, squinting with distrust, cannot see clearly. And it’s a disservice to an author to reconcile apparent contradictions in different texts by ‘balancing’ them, concluding, for example, that ‘Christians need both a violent side and a peaceful side.’ Others simply write off Romans 13 as either a later compromise in Paul’s originally radical politics, or another author’s later addition to a largely nonconformist epistle. But what if, instead of having two contradicting points, Paul had a single point? Let’s assume that nowhere in Romans 13:1–7 is Paul saying anything that contradicts what he says at the end of the previous chapter:
“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. … Live in harmony with one another. … Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord. On the contrary: ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12: 14-21) (Lloyd, 2009).
Lloyd goes on to share more about what this “ordering” and “establishing” means.
“That God establishes all authority does not mean that God approves of all authorities or the actions of those powers. The point is rather that God is to be considered greater than, not equal to, all the powers of this world. Even the best democracy in the world isn’t worthy of allegiance, for God is sovereign even over it. “God ordered authorities, like a librarian orders books…” (2009).
“‘Established’ here means that God orders the powers, as a librarian orders books but doesn’t necessarily approve of their content. After all, Paul speaks of a government that “rewards the just,” but he also has extensive experience with persecution under its rule, and John of Patmos later refers to the powers (in Revelation 13) as the great whore. That God “ordered” pagan Assyria to chastise Israel (Isaiah 10) is similar to Paul’s point. Isaiah made no hint that God approved Assyria or the violence it used, but Israel was to trust that, in their suffering, they were not outside of God’s sovereignty. Jesus echoed this belief when he declared to Pilate, “You would have no power if it were not given to you from above,” while obviously acknowledging Pilate’s abuse of this power” (Lloyd, 2009).
Today, when asked if Jesus would support capital punishment only 5 percent of Americans think he would” (Merritt, 2016). Why is it that the death penalty is most championed and defended by followers of Jesus? Indeed, the death penalty in America hasn’t persisted in spite of Christians, but because of them.
The idea of murdering someone because they murdered is as wrong as the justification of raping someone because they raped. As followers of Jesus, I would hope that rather than being the ones who are most adamant about keeping the death penalty (which for a long time we have been, and currently in the USA of all religious groups, white evangelicals are the most satisfied with the death penalty), we would be people most committed to grace in the form of criminal justice reform.
Yet, wherever Christians are most concentrated in America this happens to be the places that executions have been most concentrated. 85% of executions take place in the Bible belt (Merritt, 2016).
Claiborne draws attention to the fact that, “A determining factor for execution is often not guilt but economics and race, and the fact that nearly all executions come from 2% of US counties (2014). ” Bryan Stevenson, a lawyer for people on death row and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, drives that figure home even further. “For every nine people on death row executed, there is one found to be innocent and released. That is a statistic that would never be allowed in any other industry: Imagine if one out of every nine planes crashed?” (Lillie, 2012).
In summary, Christians in America must re-imagine the conversation on criminal justice reform. The way we execute today is directly related to how we executed in the past with lynchings, burnings, and firing squads. In fact, firing squads and gas chambers have been coming back, in spite of much progress that has been made to get executions down to the lowest they’ve been in 40 years.
Jesus’ execution, his hanging on a tree, is a vivid picture of brutal systemic violence. It is prominent Christian thinkers since Constantine’s time (with the inclusion of men like Augustine) who began to order and justify the death penalty in an effort to control power in the name of orthodoxy. People perceived to be heretics were executed or banished from the Holy Roman Empire. It’s the abuse of scripture in this way that has led to it’s current practice in America. There are stories of Puritans stoning children who disobeyed their parents. Burnings of women purported to be witches. And the United States is the only country that will sentence 13-year-old children to life imprisonment, to die in prison (Lillie, 2012). We mask these centers as developmental centers or Juvenile Centers. But these are cages. Between 1642 and 2016, 364 juveniles have been executed in the United States (Cothern, 2000). According to Cothern, “Until 1988, the Supreme Court had put no limits on how old a person had to be in order to be executed. This meant each state could set their own rules. In some states, the minimum age for execution was as low as 14” (2000). For example, in 1944, South Carolina executed a 14-year-old boy named George Stinney in the electric chair. Stinney was the youngest person in the United States to be convicted and executed during the 20th century (Cothern, 2000). Stinney, 70 years later, was exonerated for a crime he did not commit.
In summary, there’s three concluding arguments I’ll summarize to share why I believe Jesus followers can not celebrate the death penalty, or use the scriptures and Jesus to bless their understanding of killing lives. One, Jesus, leading by example, stops an execution and connects the mobs sin with their disqualification to execute. Elsewhere in the New Testament Jesus calls us to shine as a city on a hill. Paul tells us not to be conformed to the pattern of this world. In these days, execution by the state is the pattern of the world. I believe Jesus is calling us as His followers to inspire the world to give up the old in support of something better, something that brings people to the kingdom, not to an electric chair, firing squad, or gas chamber. Second, the men on death row are most often poor and people of color. We have an abhorrent past with how we’ve carried out the death penalty in America-lynching nearly 4,000 Black men during the years from 1890 to 1963 The current practice of slavery that was not abolished in the 13th Amendment, continues to be practiced in prisons today and this gives me ample suspicion that something much more sinister is going on in America’s criminal justice system. A final reason to let go of the death penalty is the stories of hundreds of victims who have lost loved ones due to people who perpetrated horrible crimes. Many of them have been on the front lines battling the death penalty, advocating for the rights and the lives of the very people that had caused their family so much pain. Their stories aren’t told enough, and in many cases, their outspokenness is silenced by the governments who insist on the death penalty’s enforcement. The death penalty persists because the state wants to eliminate people they have dehumanized and reimagined as monsters and animals.
But this can’t be the way of Jesus. Hebrews 13:3 commands us to “Remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them; and them which suffer adversity, as being yourselves also in the body.” Jesus identifies with the prisoner when he commands in Matt 25:36 for us to visit those in prison as if we were visiting him. So, we are never to lose sight of what we are talking about when we discuss the death penalty. We are talking about people, not ideas. People not crimes. People who bear God’s image and who Jesus was not ashamed to be identified with. May we also see all prisoners-from county jails to Guantanamo Bay-with dignity and compassion as Jesus gave us eyes to see them.
Here are the articles cited.
Bever, Lindsey. It took 10 minutes to convict 14-year-old George Stinney Jr. It took 70 years after his execution to exonerate him. Retrieved from: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2014/12/18/the-rush-job-conviction-of-14-year-old-george-stinney-exonerated-70-years-after-execution/?utm_term=.370854b89b45.
Bittle, William, & Geis, Gilbert, (1964). The Longest Way Home, Detroit: Wayne State University Press.
Claiborne, Shane, (2014). If It Weren’t for Jesus, I Might be Pro-Death Too. Retrieved from: https://www.redletterchristians.org/werent-jesus-might-pro-death/
Corey, Benajmen, (2014). 5 Reasons Why Jesus People Ought Oppose The Death Penalty. Retrieved from: https://sojo.net/articles/5-reasons-why-jesus-people-ought-oppose-death-penalty.
Cothern, Lynn (2000). “Juveniles and the Death Penalty”. Coordinating Council on Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. United States Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Retrieved March 27, 2016.
Lillie, Ben, (2012). All of Our Survival is Tied to the Survival of Everyone. Retrieved from http://blog.ted.com/all-of-our-survival-is-tied-to-the-survival-of-everyone-bryan-stevenson-at-ted2012/
Merritt, Jonathan, (2016). The death penalty killed Jesus. Is it killing us, too? Retrieved from: http://religionnews.com/2016/09/02/the-death-penalty-killed-jesus-is-it-killing-us-too/
Michell, Jenn Pollock Mickell, (2016). “Shane Claiborne’s Passionate Plea Against the Death Penalty” Retrieved from: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2016/june/shane-claibornes-passionate-plea-against-death-penalty.html
Other sites that show other evangelical responses against the death penalty:
National Association of Evangelicals:
National Latino Evangelical Coalition
*Cover Photo from wikimedia-Electric_Chair_at_Sing_Sing.jpg