The death penalty is a barbaric relic of our ancient past.
The fact that it is still practiced today is a measure of just how far we still are from being a truly mature society.
There are two ways in which the death penalty can be debated - a secular argument and a religious argument. Neither holds up very well for death penalty proponents.
First, and perhaps most significantly, are the countless studies
that show that the death penalty is not a deterrent against crime. The United States is one of the last Western industrialized nations in the world to have a death penalty and we still have the highest homicide rate in the world.
Since most murders are so called “crimes of passion” committed in the heat of the moment, the consequences of such action play little if any role in the outcome.
Then there is the arbitrary and unfair manner in which the death penalty is applied through our justice system which gives those with means an advantage over those without.
It has also been shown that the death penalty is more costly to carry out than life imprisonment.
“In Texas the cost of capital punishment is estimated to be $2.3 million per death sentence, three times the cost of imprisoning someone at the highest possible security level, in a single prisoner cell for 40 years (Dallas Morning News, March 8, 1992; Dieter, R.C. 1994. Future of the Death Penalty in the U.S.: A Texas-Sized Crisis. Death Penalty Information Center. Washington, D.C.).”
Some of this cost is due to the lengthy appeals process which prompts death penalty proponents to advocate eliminating appeals and speeding up the time between conviction and execution. But this would only exacerbate the potential for making mistakes that would result in killing innocent people.
Executing the innocent is the biggest drawback of the death penalty because its finality leaves no room for error - and we do make errors.
So why do we risk killing innocent people to maintain a type of punishment that is more costly than life imprisonment and has no deterrent effect on crime?
There is only one answer to that question and it is the only thing that death penalty proponents have to hang their hats on. The answer is ‘vengeance.’ We want revenge and that means taking a life for a life. As the Old Testament states - “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth...”
So that brings us to the religious side of the debate.
There is no question that the death penalty was practiced in Biblical times. The Old Testament lists more than a dozen crimes for which a person could be put to death including everything from murder and kidnapping to speaking blasphemy and breaking the Sabbath. The executions were then carried out using some of the most cruel and painful methods ever devised including stoning, impaling and burning at the stake.
Then of course there was crucifixion - a horrific form of capital punishment - which was used to kill Jesus Christ and most of his disciples.
Indeed, it was Jesus - a victim of state-sponsored execution - who adamantly rejected the Old Testament adage about an eye for an eye and instead preached about mercy and forgiveness: Turn the other cheek, forgive those who persecute you, do unto others as you would have them do unto you...
Does this sound like the teaching of someone who would be in favor of the death penalty?
In the one clear instance where Jesus came upon an execution about to take place he stopped it from happening. He did not inquire about the guilt or innocence of the person - in this case Mary Magdalene. He didn’t care that her crime - prostitution - was legitimately punishable by death according to the laws of the time. He said “whoever among you is without sin, let that person cast the first stone.”
How is it that Christians today can still support the death penalty?
Ultimately, I believe we are conditioned to support capital punishment by our constant exposure to violence on television and in the movies. Most people have never been witness to a murder, and yet we all feel like we have because we have seen them so many times in the movies and on television. In those cases, you are right there when the act occurs. You see it happen and there is no doubt who the perpetrator is. Then for the rest of the movie we are left with this need for closure until the hero finally satisfies that urge by offing the bad guy in some satisfyingly gruesome way. “Go ahead. Make my day.”
But real life is not like that. There are rarely any reliable witnesses to a murder and we are left grasping at circumstantial evidence to try and determine who the guilty party is. Even scientific tests are not always 100 percent accurate so it often boils down to who can make the better argument before a jury - a prosecutor whose political career is often boosted by the number of capital convictions they achieve, or the often overworked and underpaid court-appointed defense attorney.
But even if you are certain about a person’s guilt in a case, I believe it is still wrong to carry out the death penalty. What right do we have to determine that God has no further use for someone? There are many sad examples of death row inmates such as Karla Faye Tucker and James Aldridge who turned their lives around while on death row and would have devoted the rest of their lives to ministering to other inmates while serving out their life sentences. Instead, we killed them.
What purpose is there to being here on Earth if not to do God’s work by spreading love and compassion to all of his people? Why do we doubt God’s ability to transform the lives of even the most hardened criminals and bring about some good in them before they die? Take the case of the Apostle Paul who authored so much of our New Testament. Before his conversion on the Road to Damascus, he was a chief persecutor of Christians during that time. While there is no direct reference to his actually committing a murder, we do know that at the very least he stood by and held the coats of those who took part in the stoning of Saint Stephen. And yet God chose this man to be one of the chief architects of the Christian faith.
We shouldn’t be in the business of limiting God’s choices.