The Body Count Hits 1000: Capital Punishment and the Failure of Christianity

Saturday, 10 December 2005

On 2 December 2005 the state of North Carolina executed Kenneth Lee Boyd, the thousandth prisoner executed in the United States for a capital crime since the U.S. Supreme Court, having putting a temporary stop to executions in its 1972 Furman v. Georgia decision, allowed executions to begin again in a series of 1976 decisions, which included Gregg v. Georgia. The first person to be executed under the Supreme Court's new, "fairer" guidelines was Gary Gilmore, who was executed by firing squad by the state of Utah in 1977. Since that time, five states have accounted for about two-thirds of the executions: Texas, Virginia, Missouri, Florida, and Oklahoma, with Texas alone executing as many prisoners as the next four combined. The thousandth execution is a grim milestone that tarnishes the image of the United States. Moreover, it is a strong indictment of the failure of Christianity, by far the dominant religious tradition in the country, to exert a positive influence on the culture.

Arguments against the death penalty are numerous. (1) It is applied in a discriminatory fashion, so that non-whites, the poor, the poorly educated, men, and those who live in the former slave states are executed in numbers disproportionate to their numbers in the population. (2) It violates the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. (3) It does nothing to deter crime. (4) In some cases it may actually increase a criminal's willingness to kill. (5) It is morally wrong. (6) Because it is irreversible, innocent people will inevitably be killed.

The Supreme Court in recent years has narrowed the legal scope of the death penalty, while the federal government has broadened the scope. The Supreme Court ruled in Atkins v. Virginia (2002) that the execution of mentally retarded prisoners is unconstitutional. In Roper v. Simmons (March 2005) the Court ruled that executing people who were minors (i.e., younger than 18) at the time of their crimes was unconstitutional. Although the Court ruled in Ford v. Wainwright (1986) that executing the insane is unconstitutional, attempts to carve out an exemption for those who were mentally ill at the time of their crime have so far failed. While the Supreme Court has narrowed the scope of prisoners eligible for execution somewhat, the federal government in recent years has broadened it. In 1988 the U.S. government passed a law making murder in the course of a drug kingpin conspiracy a capital crime. In 1994 about 60 different crimes were made punishable by death, mostly involving homicides of various sorts, but also including espionage, treason, and "attempting, authorizing or advising the killing of any officer, juror, or witness in cases involving a Continuing Criminal Enterprise, regardless of whether such killing actually occurs."

Although a majority of U.S. citizens favor the death penalty, support is down from a high of 80% in 1994 to 64% in October 2005. When people responding to a poll are given a choice between the death penalty and life without the possibility of parole, support for the death penalty drops further. A 2004 Gallup poll indicated that, given those two choices, 50% of respondents preferred the death penalty, while 46% preferred life without parole (4% voiced no opinion).

A large part of the decline in support for the death penalty over the past few years is probably related to argument number six above: the death penalty is irreversible, and innocent people will inevitably be killed. Since the advent of DNA testing, many people who had been convicted of various sorts of crimes in the days before DNA tests were available have been exonerated. More than 120 people on death rows in 25 states have been exonerated and released. Although many claims concerning the execution of innocent people have been made since 1976, the case of Ruben Cantu of Texas is perhaps the most compelling. Cantu was 17 when he was charged with killing a man during an attempted robbery. Convicted and sentenced to death, Cantu was executed in 1984. Now Cantu's co-defendant, David Garza, who was 15 at the time of the crime, has issued a sworn affidavit stating that Cantu was not with him at the crime scene when the crime was committed. On a related issue, the Supreme Court, in Herrera v. Collins (1982), ruled that "actual innocence" was not a sufficient cause to grant a federal habeus corpus petition (i.e., hold a hearing to examine the new evidence). Regardless of the Supreme Court's lack of interest in whether a person scheduled for execution is innocent, the general public thinks otherwise, hence both the declining poll numbers for support of the death penalty and increasing numbers of people supporting a moratorium on executions.

While the majority of public focus is on the possibility--or rather, the near-certainty--that innocent people are now on death row, while other innocents have already been executed by the state, I would like to focus the remainder of this essay on capital punishment as a moral issue, evaluated from a Christian perspective. I believe that all the arguments against the death penalty are compelling, but for me the most important is the moral argument, which can be boiled down to a single statement: executing prisoners is morally wrong.

When I was growing up, throughout high school and college, I was an advocate of the death penalty, in large measure because I found it supported by various Old Testament passages. During my first year of seminary, however, my Old Testament professor, Dr. David Garland, asked the class this question: if Jesus were the designated executioner of a person sitting in an electric chair (the common mode of execution at the time I was in seminary), would he throw the switch and execute the prisoner? I hadn't ever thought about that question before, and after some thought, I had to conclude honestly that I did not believe Jesus would execute anyone, regardless of guilt or innocence. The corollary to this conclusion was that Christians, as followers of Christ, should not support the death penalty. A new reading of the scripture, particularly the Sermon on the Mount, convinced me that while the Old Testament may indeed have advocated capital punishment in several places, the New Testament did not. In fact, when I reviewed the list of capital crimes in the Old Testament law (including adultery, cursing one's parents, blasphemy, false prophecy, homosexual acts, working on the Sabbath, sorcery, false claims of virginity, bestiality, failure to restrain a dangerous animal, incest, prostitution by the daughter of a priest, kidnapping, and perjury, as well as murder), I began to question the legitimacy of the Old Testament teachings on the subject. If biblical writers thought that being disrespectful to parents and adultery were God's preferred punishment for those acts, then perhaps they didn't really understand God very well at all. The clincher for me, though, was the New Testament's explicit teaching that we are to love our enemies and not return evil for evil. Executing someone obviously violates both tenets.

The Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church, and several Protestant denominations officially oppose capital punishment. Both the Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod (1967) and the Southern Baptist Convention (2000) officially support capital punishment. In the latter two cases, it is evident that a majority of people who are members of these denominations support the death penalty, but Missouri Synod Lutherans and Southern Baptists can't account for the large numbers of people in the U.S. who support the death penalty. Polls show that many Catholics, Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and others also support the death penalty, despite their denominations' official rejection of it.

What motivates this support? Many Christians who support capital punishment cite the Old Testament in support of their views, though few would want to change U.S. law to include the entire list of Old Testament capital crimes. If one cites the authority of the Old Testament for the death penalty for certain types of crimes that the Old Testament lists but not others, this approach would appear to be arbitrary and call into question the commitment to the authority of the Old Testament itself for that individual. Some Christians just say in general that they think that people who are executed deserve it. From the perspective of Paul's theology, however, one can easily argue that every single rational adult deserves death: "For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 6:23); "For the wages of sin is death" (Romans 3:23). Paul goes on to say that God offers forgiveness for our sins. If that is true, should not humans also offer forgiveness, at least to the extent of foregoing the ultimate punishment for sin in this life?

The teaching of Jesus is, for me, the most important argument against capital punishment. Jesus says that, contrary to the lex talionis (an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth), Christians must learn to turn the other cheek (Matt 5:38-42). That doesn't mean that violent criminals should avoid any penalty whatsoever, but it does undercut an important Old Testament legal principle used by death penalty advocates today. Jesus also urges Christians to love their enemies (Matt 5:43-48). Executing someone does not show love; it shows just the opposite. In the story of the Woman Caught in Adultery, Jesus indicates his clear preference that the woman, though guilty of a capital crime, should be forgiven rather than stoned to death (John 7:53-8:11). In Luke's gospel, Jesus from the cross asks God to forgive those who are crucifying him (Luke 23:34).

Paul, too, offers teachings whose principles militate against the death penalty. He tells Christians not to return evil for evil (Rom 12:17). He also says that Christians should not take revenge, because vengeance belongs to God (Rom 12:19).

While the New Testament does not explicitly address the question of capital punishment per se, because it does not have a legal section, as the Old Testament does, the principle of Christian forgiveness is clearly taught throughout. Again, this principle does not mean that no punishment is appropriate under any circumstances, but it does suggest that the ultimate punishment should be left in the hands of God.

The fact that so many Christians violate the obvious teaching of Jesus on capital punishment, in many cases bucking their official denominational teaching at the same time, evidences a definite failure in the teaching ministry of the church to its own constituents. Gallup polls taken from 2001 to 2004 do show a slight correlation between increased church attendance and decreased support for the death penalty, which is stronger for Catholics than Protestants (probably due in large measure to Southern Baptist respondents skewing the data the other way), but the correlation is indeed slight. What is more interesting--and alarming--is that nonreligious people oppose the death penalty in significantly larger numbers that self-identified Christians. This statistic suggests that the church is actually a negative factor in promoting the teaching of Christ on the subject!

It is time for the church to arise and shake itself from its slumber on this issue. Opposition to the death penalty is a moral issue that should be central to the church's message. In addition to good arguments concerning discrimination in the implementation of the death penalty and the presence of innocent people on death row, the church needs to tell people that it has a moral objection to the practice. Most other countries around the world--most recently Mexico--have either explicitly outlawed capital punishment or stopped using it altogether, and few if any of these countries can claim the level of regular church attendance as the U.S. boasts. It is a shame on the church that non-Christian death penalty opponents are more effective in their message than Christians are. The church must speak out now, before another thousand people are executed in a country that many Christians think of as a Christian nation.

© Copyright 2005, Progressive Theology

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