I just read a tremendously well-written article in the New Yorker about the subject–mostly about one specific case–and have to admit that a lot of my preconceptions about the death penalty were shaken. Somehow in my protected little world, I have always blithely taken for granted that people on Death Row are either confessed killers or that there is absolutely no doubt about their guilt–that it has been established by an overwhelming body of evidence and eyewitnesses. This article made me realize that there are many more people sentenced to death than I realized, and on less evidence. It was a bit unsettling. I know there have probably been thousands of people wrongfully executed for crimes they did not commit throughout history, but we like to think that is a thing of the past in modern day America. Naturally, since our judicial system is far from omniscient and certainly not unbiased, that can’t be the case.
(Stepping aside from my main point here, this article is also a fascinating discourse on the development of arson investigation. If you’re into forensic science, you will want to read it. The article is quite long, but it’s a very interesting story right to the end.)
As I said, it’s wonderfully written, and takes you through all the classic emotional stages of sympathy, doubt, anger, and frustration. There’s a very good chance that an article could be written from the other viewpoint which would elicit the exact opposite reaction, of course, and since I am no expert, I would never try to make a judgment. But it did remind me of a question that has tickled the back of my brain for years.
Should a Christian support the death penalty?
Under Old Testament law, obviously it was proper, but since Christians under the New Covenant are given grace, does that change things? We still believe in the commandment “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” but we also know that if we are angry with someone, we are just as guilty as if we had committed murder. (Matt 5:21-22) Who of us has not at some time been really angry with someone? And if so, in God’s eyes, didn’t Jesus say that we are guilty of their murder? When we fully comprehend and accept that idea, does it make a difference on how we treat murderers?
And does the premeditated execution of another human being, whether guilty or innocent, also fall under the jurisdiction of “Thou Shalt Not Kill” or not? At what point is killing not killing, but only carrying out justice? Are we given the authority as Christians to pass judgment on other people and carry out a death sentence? If so, would it be right to personally carry out a death sentence on someone if you had seen him carry out the crime with your own eyes, but the court had failed to convict him?
I realize that last question is shocking and many people will think it ridiculous, but why, really, is it any different? If you KNOW without the shadow of a doubt that this person is a killer, and you believe that a killer should die (Ex. 21:12) then it’s a matter of obeying God’s laws rather than men’s laws. But if you believe that a personal execution would be wrong, how then could you accept a court-mandated execution? Sure, it’s carried out by a team of people so that no one person is guilty of the death, but it is still undeniably human beings causing the death of another human being.
When Christ compared being angry with murder in the Sermon on the Mount, he was making the point that we are ALL guilty. Obviously, He wasn’t advocating that we all put each other to death. It just means we are all on Death Row and only He can grant us a pardon. So where does that leave those who are guilty of literal physical murder?
I have shuffled this through a lot of mental rooms over the years, and have never been quite sure how to approach it.
What do you think?
*many thanks to my good friend who recommended this excellent article