I lost my enthusiasm for capital punishment just about a decade ago. For most of my life, I had assumed the death penalty must be okay because it has the Old Testament stamp of approval. Then as I was doing some research for a Bible Study on John 8, Christ’s defense of the woman caught in adultery struck a nerve.
Don’t misunderstand: Christ never condemns capital punishment. He came to fulfill the Old Covenant, not abandon it. But when a “lynch mob” approaches the Lord asking for his verdict on a woman they’ve just caught in adultery, he apparently notices the injustice the narrative makes so clear. If the woman is guilty because she was actually caught in the act of adultery, where is the man who was obviously in bed with her?
Jesus seems to affirm capital punishment when he suggests it’s okay to follow through and stone her. But he adds that telling caveat, “But let one of you who has never sinned cast the first stone.” (John 8:7) This underscores the problem of selective condemnation; a practice he denounces on other occasions as well.
- Don’t condemn others for sinful behavior you practice as well.
- Don’t destroy someone else for an offense you have often committed in your heart.
- And of course, the clear implication here is that we shouldn’t execute a woman caught in adultery if we allow her partner in sin to walk away in freedom.
To borrow a phrase from American liberalism, capital punishment should be legal but rare. (I feel the same way about war.) It should be rare because compelling DNA evidence and reliable eye witnesses are frequently not available. Because of faulty memories, political pressures, and lingering racism, it’s apparently not so hard for an innocent man to find himself locked away on in an American prison. It’s bad enough to lose twenty years of your life for a crime you didn’t commit; worse still to be rushed off into eternity with no chance to ever correct that injustice.
Of all people, Christians should be most sensitive to the possibility of an innocent victim being wrongly convicted and sentenced to lethal injection or a firing squad or a cross. It happened to Jesus. What’s more, in recent years groups like the Innocence Project have seen dozens of wrongfully accused men and women finally set free from prisons- some from death row.
I suppose extreme measures could still be legal for profound cruelty that goes beyond the pale. A civilized society might decide to execute serial killers or terrorists who brutally murder scores of innocent victims. A nation does have divine authority to wage war and execute justice in defense of its citizens. One might draw a bright clear line in the sand, but the standards for imposing capital punishment should be more bullet proof than those for sending someone to prison. The evidence should leave no doubt the defendant is absolutely the one.
So I’m troubled by the news from Arkansas that eight inmates are about to be executed in 11 days before the state’s supply of potassium chloride expires. The governor says it’s necessary; that many of these men have occupied death row cells for more than twenty years. Perhaps, but it looks like a celebration of death by government. It naturally arouses the dread that destroying eight human lives with a hasty deadline in mind must surely increase the odds that a wrongly accused man gets the ax.
Okay, maybe that’s emotional, but I get emotional about unborn babies as well. We’re talking about human life here. And it seems to me that the sanctity of human life relates to more than the issue of who is responsible for what happens to a human in a womb. Being pro-life means I also care about what happens to a human being in a death row holding cell. If there is a chance he’s an innocent man, it’s unjust and irreverent to impose a penalty that could never be corrected.
Lift up the Cross!