The death penalty—are you for or against it?
Many Christians oppose the death penalty on moral grounds. Some of our brothers and sisters support capital punishment because they believe that if a person takes a life, that person should then forfeit his or her life. Others believe that the death penalty is biblically justifiable.
I wonder, though, if they have looked at the issue from every angle. After all, it is not a topic that directly impacts very many of us. It’s not a matter like health care or taxes, subjects that greatly affect our everyday lives. So why then should people of faith grapple with the issue of the death penalty? Why should we care?
Ezekiel 33:11 says, “As surely as I live declares the Sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live.” The heart of God is not to punish, but to bring restoration and redemption. Our Father has transformed the lives of so many—more than we could ever possibly know.
I think back to the life of Karla Faye Tucker and her execution in Texas in 1998. I was 13 years old, and I will never forget watching her interviews on TV. I understood that she had committed a terrible crime, but I couldn’t wrap my head and heart around the fact that we were going to take away her life. She was leading Bible studies inside the prison! God was using her for his glory! What good could she do if she was no longer alive here on earth?
Of course, there are so many other stories of God’s incredible ability to redeem. His love is limitless, and he is able. If he can use Paul, a persecutor of Christians, then he can use anyone. Redemption is at the very heart of our faith—it is what we live and breathe. But is there a line that can be crossed? Can you commit an act so heinous that God turns his back on you? Not according to the gospel—the good news is that there is nothing that we can do to separate ourselves from the love of God.
Many Christians might have positions on the death penalty based on philosophy or theory. I would urge them to try to understand the way that our current capital punishment system is functioning in reality and ask some important questions. Is it done fairly? Is it just?
The answer is a resounding no. It is nothing less than appalling to realize the role that race plays in our criminal justice system. The Supreme Court banned the death penalty in 1972 due to racial bias and arbitrary application. Individual states attempted to fix these issues, and the death penalty returned in 1976. It was no surprise that these “fixes” were completely insufficient, and that major racial discrimination still exists. For example, multiple studies show that if you kill a white person, you are much more likely to receive a death sentence than if you kill a person of color.
And, it is not just racial inequality that we are dealing with. The death penalty comes with major economic disparities as well. If you can afford to pay for your own attorney, you most likely will not end up on death row. We are not sentencing the worst of the worst to death; we are handing out death sentences to the poorest of the poor. As followers of Christ, these injustices should infuriate us and compel us to act.
We are also aware that human beings can never be perfect, and that perfect justice can only come from God. Is it any wonder, then, that innocent people are convicted and sentenced to death in our country? Since 1973, at least 164 people have been wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death. Exodus 23:7 says, “Have nothing to do with a false charge and do not put an innocent or honest person to death, for I will not acquit the guilty.” We cannot use irreversible methods like the death penalty when we know without a doubt that we often get it wrong. After all, every person is created in the image of God, and life is sacred beyond measure.
We must also consider how the death penalty affects murder victims’ family members. In talking with those who are in favor of the death penalty, I often hear that we must keep capital punishment on the books because we must care for those who have had the horrific experience of losing a loved one to homicide. Many people assume that these family members want the death penalty and that it supports them and brings them closure.
I have been advocating against the death penalty for nearly eight years, and I have met many murder victims’ family members along the way. Many of them describe how the death penalty is harmful to them—how it retraumatizes them and forces them to relive the worst day of their lives over and over again.
The death penalty is neither swift nor sure, and it takes our focus away from the things that victims really need to rebuild their lives—things like counseling services, financial assistance to cover funeral costs, and much more. If we truly care about the needs of victims, we’ll abandon the death penalty and stop putting them through the grueling process of the death penalty.
It is because of these and many other reasons that Evangelicals across the country are coming together to talk about the death penalty. The National Association of Evangelicals dropped their pro-death penalty position and adopted a new neutral one in 2015. And, they recently put out a statement regarding the announcement by California Governor Gavin Newsom to halt executions. Galen Carey, vice president for government relations for the NAE said, “Evangelicals hold a variety of views on the death penalty, but we are united in our support for racial justice in all areas of criminal justice.”
In 2016, Calvin College (my beloved alma mater) hosted a death penalty forum featuring a death row exoneree and the sister of a murdered police officer. Wheaton College hosted a similar event two years prior. And in 2017, the EJUSA Evangelical Network made its debut with founding supporters like Shane Claiborne, Lisa Sharon Harper, and many others. Its purpose is to promote a justice system centered on redemption and healing and working to end the death penalty is one of our main goals.
There is an unmistakable shift happening across our nation, and Evangelicals are playing a critical role. Let’s search our hearts and seek truth on this issue. Let’s let Jesus be our guide—the one who was himself wrongfully executed.