When Timothy McVeigh was on trial for the Oklahoma City bombing, a Denver radio station set up a checkpoint where people could honk their horns if they thought McVeigh was guilty and ought to be executed. In just a few days, over 24,000 Coloradans honked their judgment that McVeigh should be "fried." The enormity of McVeigh's deed knocked many death-penalty fence sitters off the rail: If ever there was a case in which capital punishment is justified, they thought, this is it.
But then, on the heels of the McVeigh trial, the case of Karla Faye Tucker upset the usual alignments on capital punishment (see p. 19). A Texas woman who killed two people with a pickax, Tucker was later born again and then executed for her crimes. Rich Cizik, policy analyst for the National Association of Evangelicals, said, "It's no secret that evangelicals have been stalwarts behind the death penalty." But Tucker's execution, he said, produced a "moral revulsion" among evangelicals "because she is a woman of such obvious spiritual change." This change led Pat Robertson and other conservative leaders to plead her case. "Any justice system that is worthy of the name must have room for mercy," said Robertson. Executing Tucker "is more an act of vengeance than it is appropriate justice."
Some of the usual death-penalty opponents were skeptical, saying such leaders would not be able to hold to that position for long. "Conservative voters will start to ask," said Samuel Jordan of Amnesty International, "'Well, if I think it's OK to commute the death sentence this time, is it just for women that we're doing this, or for male prisoners as well?'"
But Pat Nolan, senior vice president of Prison Fellowship Ministries (PFM), predicted "a lot of conversations around the dinner table and hopefully in the pews. … I hope this will continue to be discussed and prayed about."
As we continue this prayerful conversation, here are some things to consider:
The death penalty as it is practiced in this country is unfair and discriminatory. For those of us who support the death penalty as a moral abstraction, here are some troubling facts: On average, only one in a thousand murderers is executed. Race, class, and geography are the best predictors of who will get the death sentence for first-degree murder. If the victims are white and the perpetrators are poor minorities who commit their crimes in one of a handful of mostly southern states, their chances are greatest of receiving the death penalty. Nearly 90 percent of persons executed are convicted of killing whites, yet people of color are the victims of homicide in a majority of cases. Slightly over half of the executions since 1976 have been in Texas, Virginia, and Florida.
The legal resources available to poor people are woefully inadequate. The American Bar Association (ABA) cites examples of lawyers being assigned to murder cases who had just passed their bar exam or had no previous criminal trial experience, and instances where the defense attorney is paid only $800 per case with as little as $500 for expenses. "In case after case," an ABA report concludes, "decisions about who will die and who will live turn not on the nature of the offense the defendant is charged with committing, but rather on the nature of the legal representation the defendant receives." This unconscionable situation was exacerbated by get-tough-on-crime laws passed by Congress in 1996, which curtailed postconviction appeals and withdrew federal funding from organizations that support postconviction proceedings. Such uneven and inequitable application of death-penalty provisions prompted the ABA in February 1997 to call for a suspension of the death penalty. And former Justice Lewis Powell, the author of the 1976 Supreme Court ruling reinstating the death penalty, has said he regrets his involvement in that decision more than anything else during his tenure on the Court.
Even worse than inadequate defense is the execution of the falsely convicted. According to a study entitled In Spite of Innocence (1992), at least 23 innocent people have been executed in this century. And since 1972, 69 people wrongly convicted have been released from death row—21 of them since 1993. What has become of the principle that it is better that a few guilty people go free than that one person be falsely convicted?
The death penalty does not deter. Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, the number of executions and the death-row population have grown significantly. Yet the murder rate has remained essentially the same. In fact, a majority of the states that practice capital punishment have higher murder rates than those that don't. And the U.S. murder rate is anywhere from five to twenty times that of other industrialized nations without the death penalty.
The death penalty does not deter, because murder often happens in the heat of the moment. And those who premeditate murder are willing to take the risk they won't get caught.
The U.S. murder rate is five to
twenty times that of industrialized
nations without the death penalty.
Society needs to work at the conditions that breed violent crime. Police chiefs, in a 1995 Hart Research poll, ranked the death penalty dead last as an option for deterring violent crimes. Their preferred strategies included reducing drug abuse, providing jobs, simplifying court rules, lengthening prison sentences, and reducing availability of guns (in that order). They know from experience what scholars have learned from statistics: (1) that when crime statistics are controlled for employment, there is little difference between blacks and whites (economic justice is as important as retributive justice); (2) child abuse increases the chance of juvenile delinquency 40 times (we need to get to the would-be criminals before they toughen up).
The death penalty fails to console. Does the death penalty ease the suffering of a murder victim's survivors who suffer from their sense of loss, from self-blame, and (oddly enough) from the criminal justice system? Whereas biblical law treated crime as an offense against a victim, it is now treated more as an offense against the state. And instead of setting things right between offender and victim, our criminal justice system pits the state against the accused. Victims are often helpless observers of a process that does not address their needs at a time when they are most needy.
Indeed, the state can provide some, but not all, of what survivors of violent crime need: a sense of protection against the crime being repeated; places, times, and rituals for lamenting their loss; knowledge that a guilty party has been identified; and a sentence that shows the crime is taken seriously.
Vengeful feelings are natural, but vengeful acts are ultimately counterproductive as they retraumatize the survivor. Nevertheless, survivors should never be pressed to forgive too quickly. They need time and communal support to weave into the story of their lives this horrendous turn of events. Fortunately, organizations like Neighbors Who Care, a PFM subsidiary, have emerged and are turning this need into a ministry of the church. Christian compassion can comfort the afflicted. More executions cannot.
Rebuking the spirit of vendetta
As evangelicals engage in dialogue about the death penalty, we should keep in mind two parallel streams of biblical thought about crime and punishment: One of them focuses on justice, the other on ending violence, while both of them are designed to break the cycle of vengeance.
The justice-oriented stream of thought emphasizes limiting vengeance. There, for example, we hear Moses utter the famous "eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth"—a law designed to limit reprisals by keeping them proportional.
Human nature inevitably escalates the measure of our retaliation above our loss in order to show who is boss. As Lamech boasted: "I have slain a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me" (Gen. 4:23). But the law of God always seeks to limit punishment to the proper proportion and the proper agent. Thus Paul recognized a legitimate role for the admittedly oppressive Roman government (Rom. 13:1-5): the magistrate bears the sword as a terror to evildoers.
The law of Moses put the brakes on vengeance, but the other stream of biblical thought calls for its end. God's first, and perhaps most characteristic, response to murder was not law but grace: he placed a protective mark on Cain, protecting him from those who would avenge Abel's blood, and warning others of a dangerous man.
In Leviticus, the Lord commanded: "You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your own people." Here the Old Testament anticipated Jesus' teaching: "You have heard it said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also." Paul likewise proclaimed that vengeance is reserved for God and that Christians should feed their enemies, overcoming evil with good (Rom. 12:19-21).
Jesus' counsel of nonresistance has as its goal not only crushing the spirit of vendetta, but also reconciliation (a goal embodied in victim-offender reconciliation programs that have proved effective where tried).
Jesus' teaching of nonresistance is difficult to live out on a societal level. Not all evangelicals (indeed, not all evangelicals who edit CHRISTIANITY TODAY) agree on how to apply Jesus' teaching of nonresistance to public policy. But it seems clear that the gospel demands that in ministry, Christians work more for reconciliation than for retribution, and that in public life we work against the spirit of revenge so cruelly displayed by the crowds outside many sites of execution.
When the death penalty becomes a political football, partisan rhetoric tends to stress justice—a code word for payback—and appeal to our carnal appetite for revenge. Whatever public policy we deem wisest, we must resist that kind of rhetoric. For while murderers clearly deserve to lose their lives, Christians know that we all deserve death, and the ethic of Jesus drives us to spend most of our limited energies in the relationally complex and costly task of reconciliation.
Jesus' own life and death show the cost of a ministry of reconciliation. His sacrifice was not only an act of justice, a substitute for the all penalties richly deserved by the sinful world God so loved, but was also an act of reconciliation, absorbing in himself the shock of all the world's vengeance.
However we learn to apply these biblical themes of reconciliation and the abhorrence of vengeance in the public sphere, it seems clear that the death penalty has outlived its usefulness. It has not made the United States a safer country or a more equitable one. The potential of life imprisonment without parole and other protective measures, however, offer better options for the state, which must continue to deal with 20,000 murders each year.
Copyright © 1998 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.