An Examination of Capital Punishment (by Sean Bess)
Troy Davis, who was arrested and convicted for the 1989 murder of officer Mark MacPhail, was executed on September 21, 2011 at 11:08pm EST—this after years of appeals, seven of the nine witnesses recanting their testimonies, and a number of jurors expressing doubts that Davis was in fact guilty. Needless to say, the execution of Troy Davis has brought a long running debate front and center: should capital punishment stay or go? Everyone has their own feelings and instincts about capital punishment, but let’s try and set aside our presuppositions and see what, if anything, Scripture says on the issue.
For that we can go as far back as Genesis 9. In verses 5-6 God speaks to Noah and says, “And from each human being, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of another human being. Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made mankind.” This passage clearly indicates that capital punishment, at least in principle, is justifiable. Why? Because people are made in the image of God, they are unique, and are wildly valuable to the Creator. These verses from Genesis 9 aren’t demeaning the value of a life. On the contrary, they’re meant to uphold and defend the dignity of all human life. John Piper puts it this way: “The point isn’t to make the taking of a life, through capital punishment, an evidence of the small value of a life. It’s exactly the opposite.”
So, because we’re made in the image of God, the penalty for taking a human life is steep. But let’s pause for a moment, because there are a lot of questions surrounding the phrase “image of God.” Genesis 1:26 tells us that people have been made in the image of God, but what does that even mean? What are the implications? Klaus Issler says that three facts are clear concerning the phrase “image of God.” He says, “The focal point is on God as the prototype. Secondly, human nature was designed so that God the Son could take on humanity. Furthermore, since Jesus was the only person ever to live fully within his humanity and also follow God’s will, we must study more about Jesus to learn about our own humanity.”
With that in mind, an appropriate question might be what does Christ’s life teach us about capital punishment? And the answer, I think, is a lot. Christ was a death row inmate, so to speak, and He was executed. But as we know, Jesus was innocent of any charges that would remotely justify capital punishment. Even still, as He was being crucified, as soldiers were casting lots for his clothing, Jesus prayed for every hand involved in His death. “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”
At this point it’s important to make a distinction between forgiveness and justice, at least in the case of Christ on the cross. We might say, when someone has wronged us, “I forgive you, but I still want to see you pay for what you’ve done,” but that isn’t the type of forgiveness we see from Christ. And thank God for that. While Jesus is being arrested in Gethsemane, Peter tries fighting off some of the crowd and ends up cutting off the ear of a slave. Jesus heals the slave and says to Peter, “Put your sword back into its place… Or do you think that I cannot appeal to My Father and He will at once put at My disposal more than twelve legions of angels.” Twelve legions of angels would amount to anywhere between 36,000 and 72,000 angels. In 2 Kings 29:35 we find a story in which one angel enters an Assyrian camp and kills 185,000 soldiers in a single night. I think Jesus’ point is clear. He didn’t have to go to the cross. And even once He was crucified He could have come down. But in this case it’s clear that it wasn’t enough for Christ to say, “I forgive you, but I still want you to pay for what you’ve done.” It would seem that Christ placed His love for the world and His faithfulness to the Father above His rights as an innocent man and His liberties as an omnipotent God.
A friend recently confided in me that he feels like a bad American. I asked him why and he went on to tell me about his upbringing, and how he was often taught about the wonder and beauty and greatness of our country. “Which it is,” he told me. “It’s great.” But my friend was wrestling with what he considered to be conflicting doctrines, our Country’s and our faith’s. “American Christians want their rights, their privileges, but Jesus told us to give up our lives, to carry our crosses.”
You might be wondering, what’s the distinction? Can’t we have our rights, seek out justice for ourselves, and also give up our lives and carry our crosses? To which I would ask, did Jesus? As Philippians 2 tells us, “being in very nature God, [Jesus] did not consider equality with God something to be used to His own advantage; rather, He made Himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!” This isn’t to say that we should throw out other passages that urge us to seek justice and correct oppressions, but perhaps we should be less concerned about our rights as Americans and more occupied by our duties as Christians.
When referencing Christ and His crucifixion, someone might say that Jesus was a special case, which He was. He’s God, after all. But does that mean we shouldn’t emulate Him? On the contrary, we ought to emulate Him because He was a special case, because He is God. “Love one another,” He said. “As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are My disciples, if you love one another.” The first recorded martyr of the Christian faith, Stephen, certainly took Christ’s example literally. Stephen, like Christ, found himself on the receiving end of an execution, and as he was being stoned he prayed, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!”
Remember the story of Abraham pleading for Sodom? Abraham asks God, “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? The Lord replied, “If I find fifty righteous people in the city of Sodom, I will spare the whole place for their sake.” Abraham then asks God if He will spare the city for forty-five righteous people, then forty, then thirty, then twenty, and finally ten. God answers, “For the sake of ten, I will not destroy it.”
It’s impossible to know for certain how many innocent people have been executed over the years, but according to Deathpenalty.org, 138 death row inmates have had their convictions overturned since 1976. And according to a study conducted by Dr. Stephen Greenspan, a Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Colorado, there have been at least 106 posthumous pardons in the history of our country, twelve of the 106 having been executed. All of this tells us one thing: sometimes the innocent are wrongly convicted and executed.
Abraham prayed that the innocent would not be swept away with the wicked, even if there were only ten righteous people in the entire city; in the history of our country, capital punishment has already taken the lives of at least twelve innocent people. Jesus Christ and Stephen demonstrated a love for others that trumped any liberty or right to see the guilty party pay. We’ve seen from Genesis 9 that capital punishment is justifiable in principle, but what about in practice? What do the prayers of Abraham, Christ, and Stephen teach us? What does the Gospel, the life and death of Christ, compel us to do concerning matters of justice? As we continue wrestling with these questions, let us not forget to pray for the two families at the heart of this discussion.
Sean Bess is a freelance writer living in Birmingham. He blogs at http://wastebaskets.tumblr.com.