Christians and capital punishment

Every ethicist chooses one particular social issue on which to focus -- at least for a time. Unfortunately, too few have focused on capital punishment for a sufficiently sustained time to bring about a sea change in public opinion.

By Roger Olson

To this day, the majority of Americans favor capital punishment for certain crimes, in spite of -- or perhaps because of -- the almost overwhelming negative judgment about it on the parts of intellectuals and writers.

I believe Christian churches of all kinds ought to do more to oppose capital punishment. It ought to be a matter of status confessionis, as apartheid was declared by the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, helping to lead to its downfall in South Africa.

The death penalty embraces the myth of redemptive violence by humans and flies in the face of the ethic of Jesus, which forbids violent retribution. It is absolutely, incontrovertibly contrary to love. And -- as practiced in the United States today – it is manifestly unjust.

I have lived in Texas for a total of 17 years and can testify that, for many Texas Christians, capital punishment is almost a sacrament. I have heard “born again” Texans cheerfully declare that they would gladly push the plunger down to start the poisonous chemicals flowing into a condemned person’s veins.

When I ask them “Would Jesus do it?” they either look at me as if the question had never occurred to them or stick to their guns (a very Texas thing to do) and say that he would.

Texas isn’t the only place where Christians defend capital punishment. I’ve lived in other states where it is common and proudly defended by the majority, including Christians. I single out Texas here only because the state recently executed its 500th person since capital punishment was restored by the Supreme Court in 1976. That’s more than all other states combined.

The 500th executed person was a black woman. Not many women go to the death chamber in Texas or elsewhere, but many African-Americans do. Studies have shown that African-Americans are more likely to receive the death penalty than Caucasians, especially when the decision or recommendation is made by a jury rather than a judge.

Another thing that sparked my thoughts is that I happened to see a documentary about a notable case of innocent people almost convicted of capital murder.

“Yes, almost, but it has never actually happened,” some reader is probably thinking. “There are checks and balances to keep innocent people from being executed.”

I simply don’t believe they are sufficient to guarantee it. I believe it is highly likely that some innocent people have been executed. The Innocence Project has been locating many innocent convicts and freeing them from prison. A notable case happened in Texas.

Michael Morton, who served 25 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, was exonerated and released on Oct. 4, 2011. Strong suspicion exists that the prosecutor, now a judge, hid evidence from his defense attorney that may have caused his acquittal 25 years before.

Once a person is executed there is very little motive for going through the arduous process of proving his or her innocence.

The documentary mentioned above involved a Utah businessman named Kay Mortensen, brutally murdered in his own home. His son and daughter-in-law who happened to come by were tied up and threatened with death by two gun-wielding home invaders.

Police, prosecutors and a grand jury did not believe their stories and accused them of the murder despite their adamant denials and no physical evidence against them. Prosecutors argued vehemently that their story was unbelievable and were ready to put them on trial. Even their defense attorney thought they would probably be convicted. The day their trial was to begin, a woman called police to report the real killers -- her ex-husband and his friend.

One murderer confessed and the other was convicted. Both were sentenced to life in prison. Had Mortensen’s son and daughter-in-law been wrongly convicted and sentenced to death, however, they could have been executed and nobody would have ever known of their innocence.

Our justice system is not fool-proof, which is just one reason why capital punishment is wrong. There are many others.

From a Christian point of view, it takes away a person’s time to repent and believe or to witness to other inmates, also leading them to repentance and faith.

From a secular point of view, it offers no real deterrent to crime and costs the government more than incarceration for life.

From just a humane point of view, it is extremely damaging to the families of those executed and is barbaric for a supposedly civilized society such as we claim to be. No country we like to compare ourselves with in terms of social development practices capital punishment.

It is time for American Christians to wake up and add capital punishment to the list of social evils we oppose. Even Christians in states that have abolished capital punishment need to join this effort, as our federal government still practices it.

“What would Jesus do?” is a simplistic principle for ethical guidance. Sound arguments can be made that there are things we must do that Jesus would not do. But it’s a place to start.

If the answer is “no,” then a Christian must offer a strong argument for why it is morally and ethically right. I can think of no such argument for capital punishment. It cannot be considered a necessary evil that we must do, even though Jesus wouldn’t.

There are always ways to restrain a murderer, for example, to make sure he or she cannot murder again. Those are preferable to capital punishment.

Jesus would not push down the plunger or pull the lever. We don’t need to.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.