When my high school government class held a series of debates against another class, I charged in at full steam. The teachers had agreed not to interfere, but they let me know in private that if I wanted to offer some “assistance” to other debate teams from my class, I could. I did just that, helping each team research concepts for their issue (social security reform, abortion, education spending, etc), showing them how to lay out key points in an argument, and sharing ideas for the short video each team was asked to produce to support their view.
Our crowning achievement came in the midst of the death penalty debate. At first it went badly; we found that it is almost impossible to make a strong argument for the death penalty as a deterrent. We found that putting a person through the entire death row process was actually more expensive than giving a person life without parole. We found constitutional arguments impossible so long as our government allows some states to use the death penalty and some some to ban it. But then we hit upon an idea that became our crown jewel.
By splicing together violent scenes and the closing arguments from the movie A Time to Kill, we created a tale of indescribable evil with vivid imagery and gut-wrenching descriptions. After the video played, the class listened silently as our debate team made a simple but powerful distinction. Some crime is just crime. But some crime is pure evil, and locking up the perpetrator is not enough.
The recent executions of Troy Davis and Lawrence Russell Brewer are perfect examples of why the death penalty question is so difficult. One might argue that in the case of Davis, the death penalty was wielded as a sort of, “strongest penalty we have,” in a murder case that was full of questions and changes and doubts. Meanwhile, the case of Lawrence Russell Brewer’s hate crime murder was so heinous and disturbing that the penalty was given as a sort of, “least we can do,” in the face of enormous evil.
I hope these two cases cause you to think carefully about your stance on the death penalty. I’ll talk about where I stand in a moment, but I confess I do not stand there strongly. This issue is a tough one for Christians because Scripture does not seem to give a clear and certain prescription for this issue in our current context. So first I want to give you a road map for settling your own mind with a series of questions that deserve investigation.
First, a pragmatic question. Does the death penalty prevent crime? Given that we cannot change our system of appeals (a good thing, I think), does the death penalty as it works now have a significant reductive influence on crime in those areas where it is legal? Too often people answer this question with thought experiments or hypotheticals. What does the data seem to show?
Second, what are some of the various reasons a governing entity might make use of capital punishment? Which of those reasons seem valid and which do not? For instance, let us say for a moment that the data shows the death penalty does not reduce crime. If, “crime prevention,” is the key reason a government uses the death penalty, suddenly that reason is invalid, is it not? At the same time, let us say that, “sending a message that unrepentant evil will not be allowed to survive,” is an important reason. This may still be valid. Understanding why you are doing something is a big key to evaluating whether it is right or wrong, foolish or wise.
Third, what are some of the things God says about capital punishment? Try as I might, I cannot find anything to suggest he is inherently against it. Jewish law was full of capital punishment specifically commanded by God, and nowhere does he condemn it in the New Testament.
And yet, it is also clear that God wants us to carry the gospel to all people, that he does not desire than any should perish, and that we are to love and turn the other cheek to our enemies, banishing evil hatred from our hearts. These qualities seem to compete directly with the emotions that are encouraged in capital punishment cases: vengeance, closure, peace through punishment, hope for pain and even hell as the lot of the criminal.
Once you have worked through these questions, I encourage you to take what you understand to be the most God-honoring position possible. But be wise, this one is tricky and wiser people than you and I have disagreed on it for ages.
I said I would share my perspective, so here it is. As a Christian, I do not want to see anyone die without hearing the gospel. And having heard it, I want them to hear it again and again until they submit to it. My hope is that men given life without parole will hear and respond to the gospel, and will then use their position within the prison system to reach out to other prisoners. The vast majority of the time, then, I believe incarceration is the healthiest and best method of punishment we have.
But I also believe capital punishment is a tool given to earthly authorities to be wielded with wisdom. As Augustine said, “Since the agent of authority is but a sword in the hand [of God], it is in no way contrary to the commandment `Thou shalt not kill’ for the representative of the state’s authority to put criminals to death.” So I am in favor of the death penalty for cases in which the crime displays an extreme rejection of social compacts.
In other words, the person’s crime is a loud and clear, “Screw you!” to society and all it stands for. The case of Lawrence Russell Brewer is one good example, in which he beat and dragged a man to death primarily out of hatred for the man’s race. Timothy McVeigh, the Unabomber, and the Nazis involved in the Holocaust might be others. I affirm the right of the state to take a clear stand against evil that rises to special prominence because it willfully rejects the very principles that allow us to live in peace. But I think those moments should be few and far between; in fact, they should be much more rare than they are currently.
Your perspective may be different than mine, and that is fine. I cannot claim perfect Scriptural authority on this issue. But I beg you to wrestle with it. As I discovered in high school, capital punishment is an issue fraught with complexity, competing statistics, and high emotion. It is more complex than crime deterrence, and it is tied more closely to our human ethics than most other issues.
How we understand the role of punishment and justice in our society says a lot about how we view other things as well. And how we as Christians approach issues like these with both love and justice says a lot about the God we serve. May we all display wisdom in our pursuit.