June 3, 2015

Why I Oppose the Death Penalty

I grew up in Texas. In Texas, we kill people.

Tonight at 6:00, the State of Texas is slated to kill someone I know: Les Bower.
[Here is the latest article written about Les's story by The Intercept.]

As a child of God, follower of Jesus Christ, I have great conflict with capital punishment and, with much mixed and conflicted emotion, oppose the death penalty. This is not a conclusion I came to merely because someone I know is facing it, but also through much prayer and deliberation working through the scriptures. Allow me to explain to you why I have come to this conclusion in my convictions.

First off, for a long time, I have heard Christians (and non-Christians) quote Exodus 21:23-24: "But if there is harm, then you will pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe." We simply boil it down to "An Eye For An Eye". This is a scripture fixed in the midst of laws that God gave having to do with restitution. On one hand, I cannot argue that Exodus doesn't say, "Whoever strikes a man so that he dies will be put to death." But on the other hand, I can argue that 99% of the other directives - laws - given in these chapters of Exodus are no longer followed. Not only by Caesar's court, but moreover, by Christ's church. It is of no surprise that many who champion these verses as a whole theology also struggle with taking the Lord seriously in Deuteronomy 32:34-35 or Matthew 5:38-42. We have great difficulty in leaving vengeance and judgment to God. We're all very schizophrenic and undiscerning in how we follow Moses.

Moving on, let's leave Moses and turn to Jesus.

In Matthew 25, Jesus gives one of the most powerful and paralyzing descriptions of what we refer to as the Final Judgment. He says that His sheep - the ones He will "place on His right" - will be those who fit the following description:
"I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me a drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me."

Jesus? In prison? What did He do?

He identified with - He stood in the place of - sinners.
He walks with "the least of these" and there is no greater "least of these" than those in prison. Their identity is traded for a number. Their freedom is replaced by a cell. And yes, many deserve it. But many do not. (More on that in a moment.) Jesus says, "When you come and minister to them, befriend them, show them grace and mercy and forgiveness even in the shackles of guilt - when you come and love them - you have done it to me." When someone's life is taken, we no longer have this opportunity. Let's expound on that.

In the The Revolution, Father Demetri Kantzavelos makes this statement:
"The Church can minister to living persons, corrupted as they may be. But the Church cannot call the dead to repentance and cannot visit and minister to them as Jesus taught." What I'm about to say is not an accusation. If it is, the first person indicted is myself. That said, please consider this possibility: Is it easier for us accept the death of a prisoner than the call of Christ to go and visit the prisoner? Has anyone who supports the death penalty ever visited - taken the Gospel to - the one awaiting execution?

Are we more OK with the Death Penalty (issued by the State) than we are obedient to the Great Commission (issued by the Lord) to go to those who have the death sentence on their life of not knowing Christ?

Jesus said, "You have heard it said, ___________. But now I say, __________."

Is it possible we're not actually following Jesus in our view of this issue?

Again, moving on, let's leave the biblical and spiritual arguments and turn to the practical and social. Let's be really human(e) for a moment.

While I would not debate or argue for a moment that over the course of history that countless people have been executed for crimes they did commit - many gruesome and horrific - there have also been countless people executed for crimes they did NOT commit. In 1999, the governor of the State of Illinois announced a moratorium on the death penalty. Why? Because seventeen (17) "convicted criminals in our state awaiting execution had been vindicated and proven innocent of the crimes for which they were condemned." Was this achieved or proven by the courts or private investigators or police? No. It was through the efforts of a group of students in law school and some hard working reporters. The painful truth that has to be dealt with is this: the death penalty kills, executes, and ends the life of innocent people.

"Capital punishment doesn't pay a debt; it kills the debtor." -Richard Stith, Valparaiso University

One reason many support capital punishment and many seek it out is in pursuit of "closure". We talk about families - the loved ones of those who suffered - needing "closure". This is a worldly, carnal, unbiblical idea. 

I cannot say that I have ever stood in that place.
I don't know what it's like to have another person take my family member's life.
Cancer took my Dad's life. And his mom's life. And the lives of many people I know and love. I HATE cancer! I long for the day when Christ returns, all creation is made whole, and cancer is eradicated from existence. I guess maybe then I'll have "closure". 

Friends - Closure is another way of saying, "I need someone or something to blame."
Closure is our attempt at trying to reconcile loss and pain and sin.
Closure - if there is such a thing - is not found in restitution and revenge, but in forgiveness and repentance.
The only thing that ever reconciles loss and pain and sin is the Gospel.

I encourage you to truly pray over this conviction.
I exhort you to allow the Spirit and the Word of God to guide your thinking in this.
I pray that capital punishment would be put to death.

2 Peter 3:9

After some discussion with a friend, I am adding this clarification to hopefully be even more specific about what I believe and the conviction I hold. I do not believe that the death penalty is always wrong or unjustified or unbiblical. Let me be specific with an example. 

If you have an individual that confesses to brutally murdering 8 people and all the evidence supports his/her confession and the court (justifiably) finds him/her guilty and believes the only adequate punishment is death (which I believe echoes Exodus 21), I would have a very difficult time in mounting an argument against this, socially or biblically. 

So to be clear, I am not at all times &/or in all circumstances opposed to capital punishment. 

But here's the problem with this: we don't get to pick and choose. We have no choice but to see this through the lens of being an American. Our justice system and courts can be so deficient - refusing to reopen cases to save face and save money, refusing to even consider new evidence, motivated by overcrowded prisons - that the innocent still get put to death. The State doesn't ask us, "Would you support the Death Penalty if we promise to only execute the guilty?" They can't offer that promise. They still get it wrong. And because of this - as Americans - we don't really get to sit on the fence with this. As Americans, we can only lobby for it or against it. Because of this, I oppose the death penalty.

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