While the US has more human beings on death
row than any nation on earth, it's the death penalty itself which is on trial.
There is something deeply wrong with a system of justice that essentially consists
of returning "evil" for "evil."
In recent years, all of us
have developed a degree of skepticism about the abuse of power in high places.
As Lord Acton once put it, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts
absolutely." That old lesson has been reinforced by our own recent experience
with scandal in high places, including the church of Jesus Christ itself. Hence,
we should not be surprised at all that a system which gives the state absolute
power over life is itself corrupt. The major problem with the death penalty
has nothing to do with whether a particular individual who has committed a terrible
crime deserves to die ... or to suffer in proportion as he or she has caused others
to suffer. God is the only one capable of determining such things with utter
fairness. The problem with the death penalty is the government's inability to
use such a blunt and brutal instrument with justice or equity.
in the name of a "war against crime," the United States executes more of its own
citizens than any other democracy; in fact, the U.S. ranks fourth, behind only
China, the Congo and Iraq, among all the nations on earth, for the number of those
put to death by their own government. We are becoming a world leader in keeping
our own citizens in jail. Since 1980, the prison population in the U.S. has nearly
quadrupled, constituting according to the National Criminal Justice Commission,
"the largest and most frenetic correctional facility build-up of any country in
the history of the world." In 1999, the United States was executing its
own citizens at the rate of nearly two per week, the highest rate in forty years.
There are now over thirty-six hundred people on U.S. death rows. With new, harsher
laws on the books, the number of executions is expected to escalate. This is not
merely a question of how many executions are carried out, but who is being executed.
is clearly a factor in determining who gets executed. In 1998, the Harvard Law
Review undertook a comprehensive study of racial bias throughout the U.S. criminal
justice system. The conclusion: "There is evidence that discrimination exists
against African-Americans at almost every stage of the criminal justice process." And
it's not just the guilty who are being executed, we are also taking the lives
of those who have been falsely convicted.
"The danger that innocent people will be executed
because of errors in the criminal justice system is getting worse. A total of
69 people have been released from death row since 1973 after evidence of their
innocence emerged. Twenty-one condemned inmates have been released since 1993,
including seven from the state of Illinois alone. Many of these cases were discovered
not because of the normal appeals process, but rather as a result of new scientific
techniques, investigations by journalists, and the dedicated work of expert attorneys,
not available to the typical death row inmate." - The Death Penalty Information Center
"Perhaps the bleakest fact of all is that the death penalty is imposed not
only in a freakish and discriminatory manner, but also in some cases upon defendants
who are actually innocent." - Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan,
In this context,
I highly recommend a book by Mark Lewis Taylor, Professor of Theology and Culture
at Princeton Theological Seminary: The Executed God: The Way of the Cross in
There are a number of compelling reasons for
reading Professor Taylor's book. First, he reminds us of how deeply implicated
in the system of capital punishment Christianity has been from its very beginnings.
Not only was Jesus executed in a most cruel and deliberate manner, but so was
John the Baptist before him. Later both Paul and Peter were imprisoned and executed,
the first, like John the Baptist was beheaded, the second, like Jesus, was crucified.
These early Christians "suffered Rome's punitive regime, living at the edge of
prison, in and out of jails, risking torture and execution. Isn't it odd," asks
Taylor, "that Christians today are so accepting of the punitive regime that is
The second reason for reading Taylor's book is his
analysis of the proof-texts most commonly used to justify the capital punishment
system. He places Paul's words in chapter
13 of Romans, which many Christians take as a mandate to submit to the authority
of the state, within the larger context of a life led in defiance of the imperial
power of Rome. Again, asks Taylor, isn't it ironic that Christians today lift
a few words from St. Paul out of context to counsel blind obedience to the authority
of the state, while Paul himself was executed for resisting that authority?
argues Taylor, the capital punishment system in the United States, is grounded
not in abstract principles of justice or biblical ethics, but rather in the unique
history of this nation. "A habit of using the death penalty has long been etched
into U.S. history. We have a death penalty today because we are still living out
a historical legacy that resorted to official killing to expropriate the lands
of commoners and indigenous peoples, to enforce slavery and lynching practices,
to terrorize members of labor unions in struggle. This is the source of the actual
practice and energy of the United States' stubbornly persistent death penalty.
That history is why we must abolish it, whatever might be our ethical and usually
abstract rationalizations for its use."
It appears to me that a religion
whose founders were nearly all convicted and executed for what were essentially
crimes against the state should lead its adherents to be more alert than others
to the potential for corruption inherent in the capital punishment system. In
fact, it is the public policy of the major religious bodies in the United States
to either oppose the death penalty outright or to curtail its use dramatically.
(Click here to find out what
your church's leaders have said on this issue.)
This point would stand
even before considering Christ's mandate about the love of one's enemies. One
need not go as far as Jesus was willing to go, namely, to the point of sacrificing
one's own life rather than returning evil for evil by taking up arms against those
who were bent upon destroying him. One need not aspire to the higher calling of
love, mercy, and forgiveness that Christ professed to see what is wrong with the
capital punishment system. One only needs to accept the far more basic principles
of fairness and equity to which the whole of humanity aspires in order to see
the tragic faults of the death penalty as it is practiced in this country, and
to put a stop to the killing, at the very least until serious reforms can be put
into practice. And beyond that, for Christians who actually do profess to be imitators
of the crucified one, supporting the death penalty is hypocritical at best, and
possibly even an outright betrayal of Jesus himself.
Other related and recommended
sites you might want to visit:
you want to talk with someone in person, please feel free to call: 917-439-2305
The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and author of Faith, Science and the Future, published in 1994 by CrossCurrents Press. He is also the author of God and Science (John Knox / Westminster, 1986) which he is now rewriting to incorporate more recent developments in the conversation taking place between scientists and theologians. He has also written widely for such publications as The New York Times, The Nation, Commonweal, The Christian Century and others.