It’s not surprising that the most-read post on my blog was my anti-gun declaration. It was written in response to the shooting in Phoenix. Despite my better wisdom, I’ve realized that I’ve got to respond to my trip to Amnesty International’s General Meeting in a no-less controversial way.
The death penalty is unchristian.
I held this view long before I went to San Francisco, but I’ve avoided bringing it up. My religion is the foundation of my politics, but I try not to let politics (i.e. money, institutions) bleed into my religion. Talk of capital punishment is heated and usually boils off any human element. So in this analysis, I will ignore the economics or sociology of the death penalty. This is about theology, about what justice means to and for Christians. I’m feeling Methodist-y today, so let’s break it down Wesleyan Quad style. The Bible is our source of Truth; Tradition, Reason, and Experience will be our framework for interpreting it.
The Old Testament clearly does not oppose capital punishment. If I curse my father, I should be executed. If I claim to be a virgin upon marriage and I’m not, I should be stoned. “An eye for an eye,” so a killing for a killing. Jesus, though, tells us to turn the other cheek. We even read a story where Jesus tells the Pharisees that no human is empowered to execute another: “let he without sin cast the first stone.” Jesus stopped an execution! (Ironically, Jesus would endure so-called ‘capital punishment.’ I think sometimes we forget that Jesus was a victim of the death penalty.)
In less direct ways, I see Jesus speak to the death penalty in other stories. Salvation through Christ is always possible, as was so with the thief crucified with Jesus. It is a sin and a crime against our brothers to put a stopwatch on redemption. When the state kills someone, it is saying that person is beyond redemption – there’s no point in keeping them alive.
Ah not looking so good for my argument. It’s no secret that most of the church has supported the death penalty. Back when the church was the government, the Holy Roman Empire, it executed who knows how many heretics. However, Methodists officially oppose the death penalty because all lives are “significant and valuable.” It doesn’t matter what you’ve done, sinner. God loves you and has a call on your life. How do we reconcile the past with this present?
Murderers deserve to die. That’s the most basic rationale for the death penalty. We can debate about racial inequality, taxpayer dollars, and appellate courts, but in the end, what we’re talking about is justice. Murderers should not get to keep on living with they’ve destroyed another life. The family of the victim deserves that much.
But this is not God’s concept of justice. Fairness is not the same as justice – not to Christians. Justice is a vision for the world, for the Kingdom. Justice is the whole of God’s promises for His people. Justice is not about striking down the wicked, but transforming wicked and righteous alike into God’s image.
Does any child of God deserve to die? Well, maybe we all do. We’re all sinners and, in a way, all murderers. According to St. Francis of Assisi, “you crucify him [Christ] still when you delight in your vices.” But it is not our decision who deserves what fate. Justice is understood perfectly by God alone. It’s His vision and His doing.
Here I turn to an expert, the late Cardinal Joseph Benardin: “Is the human family made more complete – is human personhood made more loving – in a society which demands life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth?” I disagree with the Cardinal on many things, but in this case, the wisdom brought by his life experiences cannot be ignored. Our God is a God of life and resurrection, not destruction. So when we kill life, we are dampening the Christ within us.
I’ve never known someone who was murdered. I’ve never met a murderer. I have, however, spent some time with my God. He is loving and, thank goodness for me, forgiving. He prays on a cross that his executioners be forgiven. Why do we look at those executioners as murderers, but not the ones today? More importantly, if God can forgive the men who killed Jesus, who can we deny forgiveness? That is God’s justice and so it should be ours, too.