For years I strongly believed that capital punishment was a viable crime deterrent and a just form of punishment. This was coupled with a sens of satisfaction that the death penalty provided me with; the serving of just desserts. I was not a Christian nor a believer in any sort of God, but I appreciated those conservative religious people who understood the obvious necessity for a legal death sentence.
Upon entering one of they many streams of the Christian faith ( a very conservative one) I was pleased to find that many of my long held political convictions fit in quite nicely with my new found religion. It was not long before, after overcoming my initial fear of heterodoxy, my understanding of Christ’s teachings began to take me in new ‘liberal’ directions both theologically and politically. I guess it really is a slippery slope.
Now I am firmly opposed to the administering of the death sentence. Not that I don’t think the state has the right to take life under extreme circumstances; I am certainly glad that the Baltimore police as well as the Marine Corps are fully armed and trust (and hope) that they expert in the use of those arms. Nor do I think that no one ‘deserves’ to be executed. Plenty of people deserve no less than death for their crimes- those who commit single as well as multiple murders, those who kidnap and rape and torture, not to mention the world’s horrendous genocidal despots. I think, tough, that taking this final irrevocable step -of killing the guilty – in some way diminishes our own humanity. More objectively, I am opposed to capital punishment on the grounds that the state certainly has executed innocent people, and continues to do so.
I have tried to make that last point many times when talking with Christian fundamentalists. For the most part, they are very much in favor of capital punishment. Many of them firmly believe that there is a biblical imperative for the death sentence, that God not only does not forbid it, he mandates it. I’ve found that there is little value in arguing against these Biblical points, as there is usually an unbridgeable gulf of scriptural understanding between us. They read the Bible much differently than I do and so long as east is east and west is west….
But what confounds me so much is that, even if you get some of the most rigid fundamentalists to admit that our judicial system is humanly flawed and at times corrupt, even after being confronted with the growing testimony of numerous death sentences being commuted due to new DNA evidence, they will remain firm in their support of capital punishment. Righteousness trumps mercy yet again.
There seems to be a sense that those innocent people killed by the state are in some way negligible and acceptable losses for a system that firmly metes out justice. Surely, they will say, the death penalty is an effective deterrent (highly disputable) and those murderers left alive might kill again (even though no one is suggesting that they be released). I often hear that the cost of keeping these convicts alive is not in our economic best interests yet that very argument receives their righteous criticism when the abortion advocates use it. I even had one good lady tell me that my concern was misdirected, because even if the innocent person was executed, if they had made their peace with God, then they (like the Good Thief ) would receive their reward in Paradise. Couldn’t this same argument be used for abortion, or even for infanticide? This is the type of perverted theology that drives tragic stories like that of Andrea Yates, who drowned her own, still innocent, children rather than chance their falling into Hell.
We could debate these issues all day long and never come to an agreement. But if we can concede that it is at all possible (and the evidence PROVES that it is not only possible but likely) for the state to take the life of an innocent person, how can anyone, much less a Christian, tolerate capital punishment? Do we agree with Mr. Spock when he upbraids the illogical and emotional Captain Kirk, saying that “the good of the many outweigh the good of the one” ? Perhaps Caiaphas said it even better; “You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.” (John 11:49-50).
I think it is worth considering that this willingness on the part of many Christians to risk sacrificing innocent lives for the benefit of the majority, coupled with an eagerness to bestow a punishment of death on the guilty, are the toxic byproducts of a traditional and orthodox view of Jesus’ undeserved execution as the legal and substitutionary sacrifice for our own individual, as well as collective, guilt. Once again, the secular world seems to have a better understanding of Jesus’ teachings on forgiveness.