This week New Jersey became the first state in some 40 years to ban the death penalty
(New Jersey bans death penalty
, Yahoo News, 17 Dec ’07). I applaud this bold move. There have been two other stories in the news over the past few months that have bolstered my support of New Jersey’s decision.
First, there was the case of Willie “Pete” Williams. He was convicted of three crimes including rape in 1985, but recent DNA evidence exonerated him after spending nearly 22 years behind bars. Although Williams was not on death row, his case is still relevant for the capital punishment debate. How many innocent people have already been executed and how many are innocent people are currently facing death at the hands of the state? Once someone is “capitally punished,” there is no way to reverse a wrongful conviction. (Picture copied from The Christian Science Monitor.)
“Williams’ troubling story provokes discomfort in a nation that prides itself on a justice system where the accused are innocent until proven guilty. So far, DNA evidence has directly exonerated 208 wrongly convicted people in the United States, according to the Innocence Project. It’s unknown how many prisoners now locked up in American jails could be freed by new testing of DNA evidence” (Innocent man shares his 20-year struggle behind bars, CNN, 26 Oct ‘07).
The second recent news item involves Thomas Arthur, who was not allowed to use DNA evidence in his defense (Court Rejects Ala. Death Row Challenge, Fox News, 26 Nov ’07). Arthur is currently on death row. Now I don’t know the briefings and precedents in the case, but if a legal system gets in the way of a defendant being able to use all available scientific means of proving one’s innocence, then that system needs to be overhauled. Part of that renewal and renovation needs to be banning the severest punishment from which there is no chance of freedom.
While the cases of Williams and Arthur demonstrate the possibility for error and thus for killing an innocent human being, there are other factors that argue against the justice of the death penalty. For starters, I believe that capital punishment is not a deterrent against premeditated crimes or crimes of passion.
Also, race is a major factor. For example, “In Georgia, over the last decade, prosecutors have been more than twice as likely to seek the death penalty when the victim was white than when the victim was black” (Capital Punishment Debate, Wikipedia). “About 80% of the murder victims in cases resulting in an execution were white, even though nationally only 50% of murder victims generally are white” (Fact Sheet, Death Penalty Information Center). This is not justice. This is fear and racism and double-standards.
Despite examples such as Williams and Arthur, some families of victims in New Jersey are upset about the death penalty ban (Some decry N.J. death penalty abolition, AP, 18 Dec ‘07). What would I want if my family members had been abducted, raped or murdered? Would my view of justice be different given those circumstances? It is easy to sit at a computer and pontificate from a safe distance.
The story of Bud Welch, which I read in Shane Claiborne’s The Irresistible Revolution, gives me hope that I could still be against capital punishment even if it were a more personal issue. Welch lost his daughter, Julie Marie, when Timothy McVey bombed the government building in Oklahoma. At first Welch wanted to kill McVey himself, but he started to change as he thought about his daughter’s belief that redemptive violence is a lie and that capital punishment simply continues the violence. Eventually, Welch made contact with the McVey family and began speaking against the death penalty.
These arguments are enough to persuade me to be against the death penalty, but I understand that all of the research, websites and books supporting both sides of the argument demonstrate that this debate is not going to go away any time soon.
Now let’s consider the issue from a Christian perspective. Isn’t the death penalty biblical?
Yes, it was a punishment instituted by God during the development of the Hebrew nation—an ancient theocracy formed after 400 years of slavery. I appreciated Julie Smith’s recent thoughts on this early phase of the Israelite nation. So the question is not, was the death penalty ever right, but what is right for today? Does God support it now? We struggle because we think God’s first words on a topic should be the last without regard for human development.
No, God never changes (Numbers 23:19; James 1:17), but let’s consider the development of morality at both the historical level and the personal level. God doesn’t change, but his expectations of us and his way of relating to us do seem to change, just as a parent relates differently to a 6-year-old and a 16-year-old. Don’t parents use different discipline and training tactics over the years of a child’s development?
Is it possible that society has gone through a developmental process similar to Kohlberg’s stages of moral development? Is it possible that God has been leading us from a pre-conventional mindset that focuses on obedience and punishment to a post-conventional maturity that understands and responds to universal ethical principles?
In Sex God, Rob Bell points out that the Mosaic laws concerning rape were way ahead of their time. In most near-eastern cultures, women had few if any rights. By stating that a man would have to marry and financially support a woman he raped, God was jump-starting human ethics.
But he wasn’t finished. God takes this infinitely further when Jesus states that a man is committing sin when he simply lusts after a woman (Matthew 5:27-28). When we objectify a person and view them solely for what they can give us, we have violated the Imago Dei in them. God wasn’t static in his teaching on sexual relations; he developed the theme as we were seemingly ready for it. God does this with all of our spiritual formation. He only teaches us what we are able to understand at a given time (John 16:12-13).
I believe the same is true for capital punishment. Originally, it was the punishment for some civil crimes and religious sins in the theocracy, but we again see Jesus spiritually and practically tweaking the message in the New Testament. In the famous story of the woman caught in adultery, Jesus told the rabble that the first stone thrower should be someone who hadn’t sinned (John 8). The Old Testament law said she (and the man) should be stoned, but Jesus added a stipulation, a rather significant stipulation.
This naturally brings up at least three questions. Should these verses be in the Bible? Does this forbidding of the death penalty apply to all crimes or just adultery? Should this criterion of a sin-free law enforcer apply to all civil and criminal punishments? Let me address these questions in a different order, though I in no way delude myself into thinking I can adequately answer them.
Some argue that because the story of the woman caught in adultery is not in the earliest and “most reliable” manuscripts, it should not be held with as high of esteem as the rest of the New Testament. I disagree with this. It may not be in the earliest manuscripts, but it was in quite early ones. It’s not like it was added in the 18th century to fit a certain religious or political leader’s present needs. Also, I believe God is powerful enough to guide the development of his holy book. This gets into the murky topic of canonization, so I will cut this digression short for now.
Does this teaching apply to the punishment of all illegal activity? For example, should only patrol officers who’ve never exceeded the speed limit be allowed to give out speeding tickets? I believe we can agree that this is not practical or necessary. While we do respect that Gandhi quit using sugar before telling the boy that he should not eat it, we do not need this level of sanctity in order to have a functioning judiciary and law enforcement system.
So if we’re comfortable concluding that Jesus’ teaching does not apply to the punishment of all categories of criminal activity, does it apply to all crimes currently punishable with the death penalty in the U.S. or just cases of adultery, which is no longer punished with death? I have a difficult time answering this in a way that can convince anyone who disagrees with me. I believe that it does apply to all instances of the death penalty, but I have very limited biblical evidence or logical arguments to support me.
However, I do appreciate the following lyrics from the song “My Enemies are Men Like Me” (Derek Webb):
Peace by way of war is like purity by way of fornication.