May 3, 2014
If we treat murderers like Clayton Lockett as though their blood is ours to do with whatever we like, we are not God’s instruments but His usurpers.
There's an interesting feature of the story to me: the executioners had to draw the blinds once the victim began exhibiting excessive pain. The very fact that they did this suggests that something was wrong with the spectacle. Even those charged with carrying out the deed knew it was something that shouldn't be witnessed, lest others--even those in the victim's side of the witness room--be confronted with the grotesque image of suffering.
Let me be clear about something up front, though: I do not personally take a hard line on the death penalty, whether to abolish it or not. My reservations about the death penalty have less to do with whether or not it's biblical to do so and more with whether our justice process is adequate to ensure that innocent victims are never executed. But that's for another place. I just want people to know that I am not rabidly anti-execution or anything. But I am anti-suffering. I agree with Branson: the process matters as much as the end result.
There's that awful scene in The Green Mile where one of the execution officers deliberately leaves the sponge dry atop the victim's head...and as a result it acts like an insulator rather than a conductor for the electricity that was supposed to promptly destroy the man's brain. As the man literally burns up in front of the witnesses and as his screams and the smell of burnt flesh begins to fill the room, the witnesses flee in terror.
I like to think, at least in our post-resurrection church culture, that we would share the revulsion of witnessing that kind of unwarranted suffering during an execution, regardless of whether it was justifiably "earned" or not. That is, I think there's something seriously wrong with our Christian morality when we can contently say something like "well, dead is dead, and who cares whether he suffers or not?" I can't say for sure whether Jesus would countenance a "just" execution or not--I leave that to better schooled theologians than myself, because I could see arguments on both sides of the equation. But what I do know is that Jesus would never countenance the undue suffering of the condemned.
I think it's very interesting to remember that Jesus was subjected to unnecessary suffering during his execution, too. Crucifixion was designed to elicit as much pain as possible and to prolong the agony for as long as possible before death. It was a form of execution so horrible that the law forbade it from being used on even the most heinously guilty Roman citizens. But this "excessive suffering" was what Jesus died on our behalf. When we look at the unjust suffering of the cross, we who were spared ought to recoil at any similar unjust suffering on the injection table.
That's just how I feel. Others are entitled to their interpretive judgments too.
Like Branson Parler, I am a Christian who believes that there is a strong Biblical case against the death penalty. I want to highlight the last words of his statement â€œWe remember that the blood of Stephanie Nieman, Clayton Lockett and each one of us is not our own, but belongs to the One in whose image we are made.â€ The One in whose image we are made. All of us, including Clayton Lockett and the worst murderers we can find, are created in the image of God and are loved by God. That is the one thing that we as Christians must never lose sight of in discussing the death penalty. But in executions related to heinous crimes, it is easy for many people to lose sight of that fact. As an abolitionist and a murder victimâ€™s family member who has come to know many other murder victimsâ€™ family members, many family members of those executed and on death row, and several murderers in correctional institutions, I have been horrified to see many people (including Christians) change their views about people who commit particularly heinous crimes. Such offenders, because of what theyâ€™ve done, become less than human. Surely they shouldnâ€™t be thought of as being created in the image of God! Surely they arenâ€™t loved by God as much as He loves the rest of us! Once our view of offenders changes to this, it is easy to become Godâ€™s usurpers, as Parler says, believing that the offenderâ€™s blood is ours to do with as we like. So what if Lockett's last 43 minutes were torture? He deserved it!
Oklahomaâ€™s botched execution is the best illustration I've seen yet of the shame and secrecy involved in carrying out the death penalty, even by its strongest proponents. Americans are discovering that most other countries view us as barbaric for carrying out the death penalty, and we may resent being compared to Iran, Saudi Arabia, and China because of our executions. The problem of lethal injections will only get worse as drug companies increasingly refuse to supply executioners with drugs, which might give rise to what happened in Oklahoma: states refusing to disclose the sources of the drugs or which drugs are used, untested combinations to replace the old protocol, doctors refusing to administer the drugs, possibly other botched executions, witnesses not allowed to witness the entire execution, and those who carry out executions experiencing guilt and trauma afterward. Christians must ask: if executions are shrouded in such shame and secrecy, could God really want us to carry them out?
I didn't believe in the death penalty until I found it in the Bible. And when I got to know the Bible better, I found that it was in both Testaments.
I think that the reason that other countries look down on us for carrying out the death penalty is that other countries are (even) less biblically based than our own. These countries do what God told people not to do when it comes to the death penalty--pity the one undergoing execution.
So do I, actually. I often feel sorry for the people who are being killed and think of how they were once little babies, who were likely the pride and joy of someone else's life. But I wouldn't spare them because that's not what God would have us to do.
Unlike what the author of this article indicates, it is not killing the guilty that has us treating the blood of the criminals as if it were our own. It's NOT killing them that would do this.
Thanks for your comments and engagement. I recognize that Christians can and do appeal to the Bible for support of the death penalty, but those appeals raise many questions that aren't obvious at face value, such as:
1) Should capital punishment be enforced for all the same offenses as listed in the Old Testament law?
2) What standards of evidence should be used? Are two or three eyewitnesses still the standard in the age of DNA tests and video monitoring? If we change the standard of evidence without biblical warrant for doing so, can we still say it's biblical?
3) Who should carry out the execution of the death penalty? Especially in tribal Israel, there is no centralized government or executioner, but it would be the nearest of kin who would be the avenger. Should Christians allow changes to this biblical regulation? If so, why?
4) Gen. 9:6 and some other biblical passages don't distinguish between accidental and intentional killing. Do you think those who unintentionally kill someone should suffer the same consequence of those who do intentionally kill someone?
5) Is it biblical that some murderers are not put to death while others are? Statistics show that lower-income murderers are executed at a disproportionate rate than higher-income murderers. How should we deal with this discrepancy? If the death penalty is not implemented in a just and equitable way, then should we refrain from using capital punishment?
6) How do we deal with biblical texts where God doesn't follow through on the death penalty? God meets Cain, the first murderer, with grace and protection.
I don't ask these questions merely as roadblocks. I think they are legitimate questions of interpretation and practice that are often glossed over. The death penalty, like just war, sounds good in principle and on paper. But when it comes to actual practice, it is very hard to implement them in a just way.
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