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The Death Penalty on Trial
A Christian Case Against Capital Punishment

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. 

Today, 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. 

Racism 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, Jr., 1994

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 Lockdown America.

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 lockdown America?" 

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?

Further, 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.

Charles Henderson

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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and is the author of God and Science (John Knox Press, 1986).  
A revised and expanded version of the book is appearing here.
God and Science (Hypertext Edition, 2015).
He is also editor of a new book, featuring articles by world class scientists and theologians, and illustrating the leading views on the relationship between science and religion:
Faith, Science and the Future (CrossCurrents Press, 2017).

Charles also tracks the boundry between the virtual and the real at his blog: Next World Design, focusing on the mediation of art, science and spirituality in the metaverse.  

For more information about Charles Henderson.
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