Rethinking the death penalty

The death penalty is at the forefront of our news cycles once again. First the Tennessee legislature, due to a shortage of the standard execution drug, approved the return of the electric chair. Then, while experimenting with a new drug combination, the state of Oklahoma botched an execution, causing the victim to convulse for almost an hour, until finally dying of cardiac arrest 43 minutes after the first drug was administered.

Both of these stories exemplify “cruel and unusual punishments,” and they must be stopped by our government immediately, but what bothers me more than the inaction of our government is the silent indifference of a large majority of our Christian population. These stories should call us all to outrage at the cruelty of our justice system that sees fit to kill people in order to demonstrate that killing people is wrong.

So maybe it’s time for us to give the death penalty a second look. I see four areas that Christians need to think anew about capital punishment.

1.) Life is sacred. Period.

If we claim to be pro-life we must declare that we are pro-every-life. We defend the unborn child, the undernourished family, the war-scarred refugee. We also advocate for and protect the life of the death row inmate, because life is from God.

God is life, therefore anything that works to take life away is not of God. We Christians ought to declare this truth to both the murderers who have taken innocent life and to the state who, in a misguided pursuit of justice, is performing injustice instead.

2.) What happens in darkness is evil.

The Bible tells us that God is light, and in God there is no darkness. It tells us that we are to be stewards of that light, shining it into the darkest places so that all may see. We’re told that those who do their actions by night are simply hiding the insidiousness of their ways, and that we should do only those things that we are willing to do by light of day so that all may see our actions and praise God.

I ask, then, what this has to say about the death penalty, which often happens out of sight, by darkness of night, in some remote prison. We hide the death penalty from ourselves because it is unsavory. It’s not something we want to think about. It’s not something that we want to admit happens. In most cases, it’s not something that we ourselves would ever do.

How then, if we proclaim the God of light, can we argue the goodness of the death penalty when we try so hard to hide it in the darkness of night? One objection may be, “Well I don’t do it, the state does. It’s the state that is hiding its actions.” Leading to number three…

3.) What the state does, it does on our behalf.

We have this idea of the government as something foreign to ourselves, as something “out there”. “The state of wherever executed him.” What we fail to realize is that the state exists for us. The things that our state does it does on our behalf. The phrasing of court cases demonstrates this very well: “The people versus…” The courts convict and sentence people for us. Therefore the death penalty affects us all, because with each State-sanctioned killing, our silence makes us complicit to it. When the state kills, we kill.

4.) Jesus forgives, even when we are uncomfortable with the scope of that forgiveness.

The Bible tells us that Jesus is patient, wanting everyone to repent and to come into God’s grace. We, however, are not so kind. We hunger for justice, but we fail to understand that forgiveness is justice. Justice isn’t necessarily paying the price for what you’ve done. That can be part of it, but what justice truly needs to be is the restoration of right relationships.

Jesus forgives to restore community among us and to restore right relationship with God. We too should forgive, and that is why the death penalty is so troubling. We are saying, in effect, that he is beyond hope, beyond redemption, and we are ultimately and definitively denying that person reconciliation.

So please, give the death penalty a second look. Maybe by our outcry, we can remove this dark practice from our midst.

Blake Hart

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About the Author
Blake and his wife Bekah live in Rock Hill, SC. After receiving his M.DIv. from the McAfee School of Theology, he and Bekah spent two years as CBF Field Personnel in Chile. Blake currently serves as the Missions Coordinator for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of South Carolina. He has two sons: Silas who was born still and Benjamin who was born October 2013.

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