Joyce is a regular in the Modern Maturity Center’s fitness center, usually about the same time I’m there. We don’t talk a whole lot. She’s cordial enough if I greet her directly, but she seems to prefer to “pal around” with the folks who have been there a bit longer than I have. And that’s fine.
Interestingly, she and I had a few moments some months ago to exchange some ideas about one or two topics, one of which was the death penalty. She’s for it. As you probably know, I’m not. I have been part of anti-death penalty groups for many years, trying to help legislatures understand that there are equally effective ways to administer justice and hold lawbreakers accountable for their crimes without imposing the ultimate, irreversible sentence of death. Joyce’s argument was that, as a Christian, she believed what the Bible said: “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” (Exodus 21.24). I don’t recall replying to that for fear of spending the rest of our time discussing the strengths and weaknesses of that perspective.
However, since that time I’ve been mentally composing a letter to Joyce to explain my position. It would go something like this:
A while back we exchanged ideas on the death penalty and discovered that we stand on opposite sides of the issue. Since we’re both Christians, I thought I would take a moment to share my position for the sole purpose of explaining how I, as a Christian, can support an anti-death penalty posture. I do hope you’ll take a moment to review what I’m sharing (if not, that’s OK, too). The point is not to “win you over,” but simply to provide information that might help clarify where I’m coming from.
I have worked with various groups since the late 90’s to effect change in the laws of both New Jersey and Delaware to abolish the death penalty. The overarching, “painting with broad strokes,” reason is that there are other ways to administer justice that are just as effective as capital punishment, but do not involve taking another person’s life. Under that broad arch are several other reasons that justify supporting alternative punishments such as life without the possibility of parole (or LWOP). I need to be clear: people who oppose the death penalty are not anti-punishment. Some people have the impression that the anti-death penalty crowd just wants to forgive criminals and let them go, but nothing could be further from the truth. Crime must be punished. Criminals should pay the penalty. But the penalty should not go so far as taking another life.
The group with whom I currently hold membership is Death Penalty Action (Abe Bonowitz, founder and president). Their Web page lists just a few of the reasons they promote an anti-death penalty stance:
The death penalty is not an effective tool to stop crime. We know that:
* Government makes mistakes;
* The criminal legal system is fraught with disparity and unfairness;
* Prison workers should not be forced to take on the burden of killing defenseless prisoners once, let alone at the rapid pace of the recent federal execution schedule; it is a cruel hoax to suggest that executions provide healing to murder victim family members. We can and must do better for the families left behind in the wake of violence.
The summary touches on several salient points:
>> Government makes mistakes. A dramatic presentation that was touring the country a decade or so ago (I believe it was called “Exonerated”) presented the stories of several death row inmates who, after their incarceration, were found to be innocent. DNA has proven to be a major breakthrough in exonerating innocent prisoners and has shown how close the government has come to tragically imposing death on innocent people. As has been said so often, one mistake is one too many. And many mistakes have been made over the years. What can be done once someone’s been wrongly killed?
>> The disparity and unfairness of the criminal legal system. Studies for years have consistently shown that minorities, the mentally disabled, and the poor comprise the majority of executions. One major reason has to do with the inability of people in these groups to afford good legal representation (the wealthier majority population has better access to effective legal help).
>> The belief that executions provide healing to murder victims’ families. Murder victims’ families find themselves numb when they realize that killing their family members’ killers did not bring the healing they sought, but only compounded their grief when they realized that now they were participants in taking a human life too. As it’s worded in the D. P. A. paragraph above, believing that there will be healing in killing another person “is a cruel hoax.” Anti-death penalty supporters would rather focus on, and support, the victims’ families. One way they do that is to point out how well the families could be helped if the money that would have been used to kill the perpetrator could be used to help the families heal, a much more constructive and humane use of those funds. [As a sub-topic, it should be noted that the death penalty has not been shown to be an effective crime-deterrent. Criminals will commit crimes regardless of how they’re threatened. In fact, some actually seek the death penalty to escape having to spend the rest of their lives in prison.]
There are so many more reasons why the death penalty is considered barbaric and unnecessary in the 21st century, but the expanding on the points above should give an idea.
One argument I hear from death penalty advocates has to do with fairness. “He took a life, so he should have to pay with his life.” That comment is more often than not followed up with, “After all, it’s in the Bible.”
Well, yes, it’s in the Bible. But so is putting your son to death outside the city walls for disobedience (“If someone has a consistently stubborn and rebellious child … the father and mother will take the son before the elders of that city at its gates.” [The parents will describe the disobedience.] “Then all the people of that town will stone him until he dies.” — Deuteronomy 21.18-21). We would no more think of enforcing that biblical law than imposing any kind of abuse on a child, but it’s there.
So, what to do? I can only speak for myself, but when I run across something like this, I remind myself of the context of those laws, i.e., that they are found in the Hebrew Bible (a.k.a. the Old Testament). I then remind myself that by the time of these writings, human beings were just emerging from a time of unlimited retaliation. In other words, until the time of Moses, it was perfectly OK for someone to kill another person for the most minor infraction. If someone accidentally injured another person, regardless of how minor the injury (stepped on a toe or something as insignificant as that), the injured person could pummel the one who injured him. By the time Moses came along, God imposed “equal retaliation.” It was no longer acceptable for someone to do more harm to another than the harm delivered by the original harmer. If somebody knocked another person’s tooth out, the person who lost the tooth was limited in how far he could go to “get back” at the other. He could inflict only as much harm as was inflicted in the first place, hence, an eye for an eye, etc.
Limited retaliation was a major step forward in setting the stage for civilization. But when we get to the New Testament, we find Jesus taking the concept to its culmination: from the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5:
38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ 39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. 40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. 41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Jesus’ teachings set the stage for no retaliation at all!
Jesus exemplified his teaching in a most dramatic episode when he aborted the execution of the woman taken in adultery (John 8.1-11). The people were within their legal rights to stone the woman, according to the Law of Moses, but Jesus turned their attempt to fulfill that law back on them when he said, essentially, “That’s fine, but let the one who is without sin cast the first stone.” When the crowd realized that each of them, in their own way, had committed sin, they realized that they were not qualified – had no moral right – to execute this woman for hers. “Where are your accusers?” Jesus asked the woman. They had all dropped their stones and slipped quietly away. Jesus then offered forgiveness and direction: “Then, go, and sin no more.” Jesus was unquestionably anti-death penalty and pro-forgiveness.
So, for me, anyway, the question becomes: as a Christian, will I place the teachings of the Old Testament above those of my Lord (who explained that he did not come to abolish that law, but to fulfill it), or will I adhere to what Jesus tells me, which is the fulfillment of the Law of Moses? Will I be satisfied with “limited retaliation” (which is “fair”), or will I go the next step and practice “no retaliation” (which is grace)? I want to be clear – I’m speaking for myself here, but, given the choice, I – ironically enough – have no choice: I must be a consistent follower of my Lord and Savior, who clearly tells me not to retaliate. Therefore, I cannot in good conscience support capital punishment, the ultimate retaliation.
Confession: I have to work at what I believe because, as a human being, I think I know what I would feel like doing if somebody ever took the life of a family member (or even a friend). I can easily see myself feeling as though that person’s life should be taken as payment. But I have to keep reminding myself that I’m committed to a higher ideal than simple fairness (i.e., the ideal of grace and forgiveness), and that God will work out all the consequences in God’s good time. I’m not called to be judge and jury. I’m just called to be faithful.
So, for what it’s worth, that’s my position. I do hope you receive all this in the spirit in which it’s intended, which is simply to explain my beliefs so you have a better idea of why I believe what I do. I apologize for being so verbose, but this is one issue I do feel passionately about (could you guess? LOL!)
All the best – see you at MMC, and God bless –