Tough Questions About the Death Penalty I’m Forced to Confront

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Capital punishment has long been a contentious subject, but one I was confident about for a long time. Recently, there have been a few stories that have forced me to slow down and ask some questions about it. Rodney Reed was scheduled to be executed on November 20, but with help from celebrities like Dr. Phil to Kim Kardashian West, he was granted a reprieve 5 days before that. 

Then, a federal judge halted four more executions that were scheduled to take place over the next two months. The judge believed the method of execution would violate the constitution and issued a preliminary injunction. It’s worth noting that the families of some of the victims also asked the judge to halt the executions.

Now, 32 inmates on death row have invited Governor Lee of Tennessee to come pray with them ahead of another execution. Capital punishment is something that is happening often in our country, is a divisive subject, but often goes under our radar. All of this recent news, though, has caused me to pause and examine my own views. 

I used to strongly support capital punishment like fifty-four percent of Americans still do (77% of white protestant Christians). I used to believe it constituted proportional retribution, acted as a deterrence to other possible offenders, and provided closure for the victims.

My support for it started to crumble when I began to question the fairness of our justice system, and to consider how Jesus would want me to love and fight for everyone, even those who have taken another’s life.

Our justice system is biased against blacks at almost every step, from arrest through trial.

Infographic from Duke
Even if we discount the systemic bias in our justice system, we should all be able to agree that it is not perfect. Since 1973, more than 160 people on death row have been exonerated from their supposed crimes. With just over 1,400 executions in that time, we know that we get convictions wrong at least 10% of the time. If our convictions are wrong so often, should a permanent, irreversible act be embraced?

Since we know our system makes mistakes, we can also know that we have killed innocent people. How many innocent people can be counted as collateral damage in the pursuit of justice before it becomes an injustice?

Once I understood how unfair and unjust our system was, I was really bothered. At first, I sought to find ways to make the death penalty more equitable in its use. I thought that we could develop new procedures in death penalty cases that would make it even more improbable that an innocent person would be killed for a crime they did not commit. However, the more I kept investigating it, the more I began to understand that most of what I knew about the death penalty was false.

Capital punishment is ineffective at deterrence, and retribution is not justice.

  • The death penalty is not a deterrent. In fact, states without the death penalty have lower murder rates than those that use it.
  • States that recently outlawed the use of capital punishment did not see a rise in murder rates.
  • We do not steal from thieves, beat assaulters, or rape those that rape. Retribution is not a part of justice, yet we argue that we should murder murderers.

If capital punishment does not deter others from killing and is the only exception to our principle that retribution and justice are not compatible, then why do we support it?

We could appeal to it being less costly for the state to kill an inmate than to house him for life. But then we’d have to ignore all of the state studies that find executions cost 48% more than life sentences.

We could argue that it helps bring closure to the victims families, but that is rarely true.

Even if we ignore all of the social reasons for moving past the death penalty, the death of Jesus and his teachings about loving our enemy should compel us to examine its use very closely.

We sometimes forget the horrific physical circumstances of Jesus’s death because we are so overcome by the beauty of his spiritual reasons for allowing.

Jesus was executed by his countrymen for crimes he did not commit.

Every time I think about the death of Jesus and its political undergirding, it causes me to slow down and examine the ways in which I still participate in that same system.

In Matthew 5, Jesus told his followers the teaching they had heard about “an eye for an eye” was incorrect. Jesus had the opportunity to support the idea of retributive justice, and his audience in first century Judea was anxious to hear it.

Instead, he told his followers they must serve those who wrong them and allow themselves to be used and abused. We can be sure this is what Jesus meant because he lived out his radical ideal to his own death.

In Matthew 25, Jesus commanded us to visit the people in prison. He told us the things we did for those in prison are the same way we would treat him. If we show compassion and empathy to the prisoner, hungry, and poor, then we would be showing compassion and empathy for Jesus.

Even if we ignore the words and works of Jesus, appeals to the Old Testament law do not help really help justify capital punishment. Yes, it does command murderers be put to death, but we still need two or three witnesses to find someone guilty. And since we’re using Old Testament law to create laws for our country, must we also kill rebellious children, adulterers, idol worshippers, rapists (and their victims), and kidnappers?

Moses, Jacob, and David were all worthy of death, yet God spared and redeemed them all.

I have learned that Grace and Justice often feel at odds with one another. This is one of those instances when showing grace to one person feels like ignoring the pain of another. I cannot pretend to understand how God rectifies those difficulties, but I see him choosing grace over judgement time and time again.

And asking me to do the same.

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