Donald Trump has added a morbid new distinction to his presidency – for the first time in US history, the federal government has in one year executed more American civilians than all the states combined.
In the course of 2020, in an unprecedented glut of judicial killing, the Trump administration rushed to put 10 prisoners to death. The execution spree ran roughshod over historical norms and stood entirely contrary to the decline in the practice of the death penalty that has been the trend in the US for several years.
American law permits the death penalty in some cases and in some states. The issue for Christians is not what the American law permits as justifiable punishment (lex talionis) but how Christians are to think about capital punishment and the death penalty.
Christians should renounce the death penalty.
Christians who are pro-life in all directions (abortion and war two others, but think too of health and provisions and shelter) include opposition to the death penalty as an element of being completely pro-life.
Opposition to the death penalty is the first part: the second is establishing restorative justice.
As old trucks can become brand new, so criminals can find a new life.
But you will ask, What about the laws of Moses? Here’s my argument.
First, the OT clearly contains legislation about capital punishment. The famous lex talionis of Exodus 21:24 (Lev 24:20; Deut 19:21) legislated “an eye for an eye.” The person who kills/murders a human is put to death as a just punishment. Most think the lex talionis was originally formed to curb relentless revenge, and so the law was formed to limit punishment to the degree it would compensate for the crime.
Second, the Cities of Refuge provided for unintentional slayers a place of refuge while waiting trial (Exod 21:12-14; Numb 35:6-34; Deut 4:41-43; 19:1-13). These Cities are near-equivalents of a prison system. There is an admission of the potential use of improper revenge written into the fabric of the Cities of Refuge They exist because the avenger was justified to put murderers to death. The Cities prevented avengers from meeting out “injustice.”
I conclude from these two sets of evidence that the death penalty is legislated in the Torah and that the death penalty is understood in the Bible as just. I see no reason to pretend that the Torah is barbaric: there is logical force in “human for human.” I also conclude that the laws of Moses knew the problem of relentless revenge and fought for just punishments.
But, there are other considerations for the Christian who wants to walk in the Way of Jesus. His Way is the Way of the Cross.
A question first, this one from Katherine Sonderegger: “Is Holiness, or Absolute Power, only divine if it is tempered – or even overcome, superseded – by saving Goodness?” (Systematic Theology 1).
Third, Jesus clearly undermines the lex talionis. Not because Jesus didn’t believe in justice, or that the death penalty was unjust. Here’s what Jesus says in Matthew 5:38-42:
You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
The Torah of Moses specified justifiable revenge; Jesus contends that his followers are to extend grace.
He knows what justice permits and legislates; he just doesn’t think that is the way to proceed for his community of faith.
For Jesus the lex talionis may be a form of just punishment, but among his followers there will not be the pursuit of revenge. There will be another Way. As I point out in The Sermon on the Mount, what was “show no mercy” in the Torah under Jesus becomes an opportunity to show mercy.
Fourth, forgiveness is a notable emphasis of Jesus, of his followers, and of the Christian faith. Our faith teaches that whatever has been done by any human being in history, today, and in the future has been absorbed by the Cross and forgiven.
Forgiven people are to become agents of forgiveness by God’s grace. In Jesus Creed, chp. 23, I explain that forgiveness, or at least the emphasis given to it, takes a path that the Judaism of Jesus’ day was not prepared to take. Jesus and the early Christians sensed this shift: they were to create an alternative community, one not marked by a justice system of offense and retributive, undifferentiated punishment, but of offense and redemption that promotes forgiveness leading to restoration through repentance. Hence, the Way of the Cross reveals a restorative justice that goes beyond retributive justice.
Grace and forgiveness unleash the power of God that re-makes humans. That is the Way of Jesus, the Way of the Cross.
Fifth, the system of embracing grace in the Bible sabotages the secular system of justice. God’s love for us restores us by forgiving us. God’s grace is a system in which revenge is denied and punishment absorbed. Cracked Eikons are restored by Christ to be glory-producing Eikons as a result of this gospel. The heart of the Christian gospel is the belief that all humans are made in God’s image.
And herein lies the reason why I think Christians ought to oppose the death penalty. Not because the death penalty is unfair, or it doesn’t work, or because it is too hard to prove someone guilty, or because it costs too much — these are all pragmatic reasons with some merit, but not enough as far as I’m concerned.
The reason Christians should oppose the death penalty is because they believe that (1) humans are Eikons of God who, because of the redemptive work of the trinitarian God in the Cross, Resurrection, and Pentecost, (2) can be restored to union with God and communion with others, and (3) those who are restored are Agents of Grace in this world.
Christians can oppose the death penalty because they have hope and believe that God’s grace can undo what has been done and remake the criminal into a person he or she was not previously.
I do think life imprisonment is just, but I see no reason to go any further than that: of course, it is perhaps not “just” to keep someone alive who has murdered another human, but the system of grace taught by Jesus deconstructs the system of justice by taking it to an entirely new level. These are Eikons we are talking about, not simply Perpetrator X vs. Victim Y before Judge Z.
Perhaps time and efforts on our part will lead Perpetrator X to the sort of honesty before God, the Ultimate Judge Z, that discovers that God’s redemptive work can make murderers anew.
The Apostle Paul is a good example.
We should write to our senators to oppose the death penalty.