Rethinking the Capital Punishment was one of the first shifts in my faith.
Capital Punishment is Biblical
(re: an excellent title to make this sound theological & boring)
Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, life for a life. Old Testament law and even a few New Testament passages are peppered with references to capital punishment as a double-edged sword of deterrent from and punishment for violence.
I grew up in a community with little exposure to anything outside Christian culture. I don’t remember any conversations about the death penalty but it always seemed like a necessary evil. It was one of those Biblical rules God gave to punish sin. It was simple, really. Although not nice to think about, overall I was pretty clear capital punishment was God-ordained. Over the past few years I’ve been sorting through my faith and beliefs and assumptions, and capital punishment is one I’ve completely changed positions on since examining my assumptions.
Capital Punishment Kills
Research shows the main result of implementing the death penalty is simply death. Neither empirical evidence (rates of violent crime in states with the death penalty) nor scientific research supports claims that capital punishment deters or prevents crime more than long-term prison sentences. Check out this article from the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology for details:
Capital Punishment is Expensive
Life in prison is less expensive for taxpayers than the cost when someone is placed on death row. From preliminary hearings to appeals, to the actual execution, the average cost of the entire process is over 1 million dollars. If everyone on death row in the US today were downgraded to life in prison the collective savings would be approximately 3 Billion dollars.
Capital Punishment is an Unfixable Mistake
Too many death penalty cases have been found erroneous, especially after the execution of the wrongly convicted prisoner. This article published by the Proceedings of National Academy of Science showed a much higher percentage of wrongful convictions than previously thought with implications for an even higher percentage: https://www.pnas.org/content/111/20/7230 )
The solution is simple: if the maximum punishment was life in prison as opposed to the death penalty then every innocent life given a wrongful conviction would be spared. 100% guarantee of no wrongful death.
But Capital Punishment is Biblical!
(Doesn’t that mean I have to support it?)
I used to think that the Bible was absolute truth to be taken completely literally. If something was “Biblical” then it meant I had to believe it. Nobody ever said this to me directly, but somehow I landed on that assumption. The problem is the Bible is actually a book of stories, songs, and other people’s mail which has been translated multiple times from multiple languages with which we do our best to understand the wisdom of God for our lives. That means we are reading into it, no matter how much we try. We literally can’t take it literally, even if that’s what we claim to be doing.
Not taking the Bible literally doesn’t mean it isn’t sacred, or that there isn’t any truth or value to it. It just means we acknowledge that we aren’t living when it was written in “the old days” (as my kids say) and that we have to search for wisdom in how to live in “the today days.”
I’ve found freedom realizing Jesus didn’t always take the scriptures he studied (most likely the Septuagint and Torah) literally either. Jesus, in rabbinic tradition, modeled creative re-interpretation of scripture as opposed to sweeping literal Biblical interpretation.
(I’ll write more on this shift in a later post. For now, check out this post by Dr. Pete Enns gives some suggestions that I’ve found helpful when reading the Bible: https://peteenns.com/interpret-the-bible-the-way-i-do/ )
Jesus Teachings on Responding to Violence
In His well-beloved Sermon on the Mount, Jesus specifically reinterpreted several scriptural retaliation guidelines:
You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.Matthew 5:38-41
Capital Punishment is Biblical but not Christlike.
You know that old phrase “Two wrongs don’t make a right?” That’s basically what Jesus is saying. The way to negate violence is to respond with nonviolence. Jesus didn’t say “well, the law gives you permission to respond in kind, with like anger, hatred, or violence.” Instead, Jesus gave us these almost unbelievable examples showing how to respond with proportionately opposite levels of nonviolent response. Respond to force with gentleness. Don’t respond to violence with more violence.
Jesus’s teachings show a way opposed to violence EVEN IF the established scriptural interpretation of the law justifies it.
Jesus died by Capital Punishment
The good news Jesus preached was really bad news to the very people who thought they had a handle on what it meant to follow God. Jesus taught that what they cared about wasn’t actually important and that the beliefs they had wouldn’t save them. The whole reason the Jewish leaders brought Jesus to Pontius Pilot was because they couldn’t find a good enough reason in their own scriptural laws for capital punishment.
When Pontius Pilot reviewed the case he admitted he found no really good reason for capital punishment. Still, he found a loophole in the law. He could do what the religious leaders were wanting for his own political gains (keeping the peace).
Religious or secular, anyone can find justification for violence.
Side note: Switch roles while you think about that.
If you’re like me, it’s easier to identify with Jesus while I’m reading that, to imagine myself in his place. It’s easy to imagine what he was going through and feel how unjust his treatment was. In all honesty, even up to a few years ago I really thought I had a handle on what it meant to follow God. I considered myself more like Jesus than the other guys. Have you ever thought that too?
Now imagine yourself as the other guys. If so, try to imagine yourself as them in the story. Have you ever been so upset at someone because they say what you believe doesn’t matter? That what you think proves you are close to God doesn’t actually prove anything?
Have you ever felt your scriptural interpretations justified any ugly thoughts of hate or disgust you’ve harbored internally for others? Thoughts that say the world would be better off if people like them weren’t causing issues? And then looking at different scriptures to justify these thoughts?
Dead religion is more than just “rules not relationship.” Dead religion is looking for spiritual loopholes to justify my resistance to radical nonviolence.
Father, forgive me. I didn’t know what I was doing.
Jesus Relentlessly Modeled Nonviolence
In the short amount of time between conviction and execution Jesus could have got out of it. He could have done the “escape out the back” miracle he so frequently used to get out of the usual angry mobs. In the Garden of Gethsemane he even spoke about his ability to summon a bajillion (I think that’s how many 12 legions is) angels on God’s command. But he didn’t.
Jesus walked a path of nonviolence even when it led to his own death. Why? Because of his unique insight of who God is. He trusted so firmly in a non-violent God that he was able to forgive left and right (literally) during his own execution. Jesus bet his life on the belief that violence of any kind is never a God-like response.
When we respond to violence with nonviolence we are participating in this story of redemption for all creation. This is the essence of our hope and the good news we share.
Capital Punishment is Ungodly.
The implications of a nonviolent Jesus change how I see God, myself, and every dynamic of creation. I’m examining assumptions, asking questions, and seeking perspective (See this post on Questioning my faith). Following Jesus for me is now inseparable from embracing radical nonviolence. Any time I notice myself responding to violence with a desire for violence it reveals exactly where I have space to grow in Godly wisdom and perspective. I am 36 and it feels like I’m just beginning. The more I learn the more I realize how far I have to go.
One clear shift is this: I can no longer support the death penalty. Capital punishment is a violent response to violence and does not bring healing or redemption.
Julius Jones is on death row in Oklahoma right now.
I have reviewed Mr Jone’s case and believe he has been wrongfully convicted. If his petition for clemency is denied he will be executed. Even if you come to a different conclusion than I do about capital punishment I urge you to review his case here and sign his petition for clemency. https://www.justiceforjuliusjones.com/