heart in hands

After another state’s sterling effort at executing one of their wards, the death penalty is back in the news. If you have no idea what I’m talking about here (and, you’re too lazy to click the link), Oklahoma recently executed Clayton Lockett. Unfortunately, it didn’t exactly go to plan and, by all accounts, Lockett suffered horribly for 43 minutes before finally dying of a heart attack. In light of this news, and that states are having difficulty getting the proper drugs for their lethal injection cocktails, talk of older methods of execution being revived and North Carolina’s GOP-dominated legislature repealing the Racial Justice Act, it seems like a good time to talk about my views on capital punishment

For most of my adult life, I was a staunch advocate of the death penalty. I firmly believed it was an effective deterrent to violent crime. Hey, I thought, even if it didn’t prevent anyone else from doing something heinous, the executee was most certainly deterred from any more criminal acts. Besides, I’m from the south and the idea that some folks just need killin’ is a widely accepted truth down here. Strangely, southerners are also deeply Christian and the contradiction of supporting state-sanctioned execution and claiming to follow someone who was executed by the state is lost on many of us.

For me, that changed about 6 or 7 years ago when my father recommended I read a book by Donald Spoto titled “The Hidden Jesus: A New Life“. In it, Spoto makes several controversial assertions, such as questioning the validity of the virgin birth, that Jesus was actually born in Nazereth, that there’s no evidence of the star the Magi supposedly followed, etc. Very interesting stuff, but none of it rocked me like the two following passages:

“To argue that some criminals are beyond the pale of grace and forgiveness — and therefore must be executed rather than allowed a lifetime to repent— is simply to replace God’s ultimately free, forgiving and transformative action in the hearts of human beings with one’s own presumptive and preemptive judgment.”

and

“A Christian by definition cannot support capital punishment, for he believes in and adores one who consistently condemned violence and vengeance – and who the ultimately innocent man wrongly executed.”

It was the first time I’d ever seen the dichotomy between supporting the death penalty and being a Christian laid out so starkly and I wrestled with it with for quite a while before realizing that, yes, some folks do need killin’, but that’s not my job. My job is to forgive, consistently, completely and continually.

Over time, I came to realize that Spoto was right; Christians cannot support the death penalty and remain true to their faith. Jesus left very few distinct commands for us to follow, but chief among them were these: Love each other, love your neighbor and love your enemies. If you take nothing else from this post, please understand one thing: when we execute people, we deny them the grace that we have been shown. Even worse, we deny them the opportunity even to find that grace and repent of their sins. And, there is nothing of love in that.