In light of the Supreme Court's recent ruling upholding the constitutionality of lethal injection as a method of capital punishment, I thought I'd reprint here an essay I wrote ages ago for our church newsletter:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also..You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Matthew 5:38-39;43-44
Murderers deserve to die. So do adulterers, liars, gossips, thieves, selfish people, parents who yell at their children, inconsiderate drivers, and everyone else who breaks God’s law.
So that’s not the issue. The question is who gets to decide when somebody dies. The answer is God alone.
Throughout the pages of the New Testament, foreshadowed in the Old, the Bible turns our hearts toward redemption and reconciliation—and allows opportunity for rehabilitation. The first person to receive mercy instead of death for a capital crime was Cain: the Lord put a protective mark on him so that he would not be put to death (Genesis 4:15).
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus turned civil and personal ethics on its head. When the Author of life talks about the sanctity of life, we all stand convicted.
The Sermon—and, by extension, all of Jesus’s teaching—“raises the ante by radicalizing the demands of the Law” (R. Hayes, The Moral Vision of the New Testament, 1996). We are called to a counter-intuitive and paradoxical lifestyle of meekness, mercy, peacemaking, and non-retaliation.
Not only his words, but also Jesus’ example of non-violence and mercy preclude capital punishment. Jesus didn’t call for the execution of his own executioners, but instead called out for his heavenly Father to forgive them.(Luke 23:34) He did not condone armed resistance at his own arrest, but told his disciple, “Put your sword back into its place; for all those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword” (Matt. 26:52).
Consider Jesus’ response to the woman caught in adultery, which was a stonable offense back in the day (John 8). First, He reminds the self-righteous tattletales of their own hypocrisy: Let him who is without sin cast the first stone. And instead of calling for the Old Covenant penalty, Jesus demonstrated a dramatically different New Covenant response. He told her “Go, and sin no more.”
Paul reiterates the radical instruction to forsake self-protection in Romans: “Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”(Romans 12:19-21)
Abandoning violence and retaliation on both personal and civic levels does not mean abandoning all forms of societal justice, punishment, and restitution—just the violent ones.
Why is it better to kill murderers than to imprison them for life? Incarceration provides an appropriate and just punishment for capital offenders. (As Christians concerned with justice, we still have to deal with the fact that human justice systems are skewed by politics, race, and economics. It’s not possible in a fallible human government to execute justice perfectly. But in the absence of capital punishment, if we make a mistake, it’s reversible. It’s better to let 10 murderers go free than to execute one innocent man.)
Ultimately, we are to be lovers of people, letting God use us as messengers of redemption and reconciliation. Killing someone, even a confessed serial murderer, is not compatible with loving him. When we allow the state to execute him, we cut off the possibility that he will find peace with God.
And only God has the right to say “time’s up.”