Thursday, December 11, 2008

A Christian View of the Death Penalty

Recently I have been having discussions in various places about the death penalty. Since the beginning of my adulthood, I have gone from being a supporter of the death penalty (I can remember a time when I said that capital punishment was one way in which I – a lifelong Democrat – identified more strongly with conservatives than liberals), to feeling that the death penalty should be used only in the most extreme circumstances, to being an outright opponent of capital punishment in any form for any reason. The reason I have come to this place is because of my desire for consistency in what I believe and profess. How can I commit myself to life – how can I commit myself to honoring and respecting and supporting life in every way – if I also support giving the government the right to put people to death?

My feelings about the death penalty are very simple: I do not believe that a civilized nation should give its government the power over life and death.

By no means do I believe that murders should not be forced to pay for their crime. By no means do I believe that those who take life from innocent people should be trusted to be returned to mainstream society. By no means do I believe that people should not be held accountable for choices that they make in life.

However, I also recognize that no one is born a murderer. No one wakes up one morning from a well-adjusted life and decides to go out and kill someone. People become criminals because of a complex mixture of genetics, upbringing, life experiences, and circumstances, not because they simply decide one day that they have no respect for the lives of other people. I believe that our society, plagued as it is by black and white thinking, fails to recognize this poignant fact. Anyone, I believe, is capable of murder, given the right circumstances, experiences, and influences.

Again, that does not mean that I believe people should not be held accountable for their actions. I support stiff penalties for those who commit murder. I support life imprisonment in the name of justice and in the name of making society safer. But I also support and believe strongly in a spirit of forgiveness and compassion. A few years back, when the big news story was about a man who barged into an Amish classroom and murdered several young Amish girls, I was astounded by the response – given literally within hours of the event – of the Amish community. In their shock and grief, they openly stated that they forgave the man for what he did, and members of the community – including family members of the slain children – actually visited and mourned with the family of the gunman.

Many people talk a big talk about forgiveness, but most people – Christians included – do not really strive to live the life of forgiveness that Jesus taught us to live, and that is illustrated, I believe, through the perspective that many Christians have on the death penalty. More on that later.

When someone commits a murder, no one is served by putting the perpetrator to death. Executing the murderer does not bring the victim back to life. Repaying killing with killing does not provide justice and does not provide closure. I am sure that there are studies out there that one could research, but my guess is that families of murder victims – while commonly believed to be provided closure by a death sentence against the murderer – probably do not heal emotionally any quicker than families of murder victims whose slayer does not receive the death penalty.

In addition to not providing justice, closure, or bringing back to life the person who was murdered, the death penalty also does not deter future murders. Again, if murderers were people who woke up one morning from a well-adjusted life, and decided to go out and kill someone, then knowing the consequences of that action might deter them. But that is not what motivates people to kill. People kill – as I said – because of a complex mixture of genetics, upbringing, life experiences, and circumstances.

The fact that the death penalty does not act as a deterrent is illustrated over and over and over again in murder rate statistics. There are exactly 14 U.S. states that do not have capital punishment laws. In 2007, the national murder rate was 5.6 per 100,000 people. Of the 14 states that do not engage in capital punishment, 12 of them – or 86% - were under the national average. In fact, of the nine states that had a murder rate below 2.0, six of them – or two-thirds – were states with no death penalty. Of the top 25 states for murder rates, only two are states that have no death penalty laws. That means that 92% of the states with the highest murder rates are states that also have death penalty laws. Only 8% of states with no death penalty laws are among the states with the highest murder rates. Clearly, death penalty laws do not prevent murders.

But the numbers go even farther than that. Since 1976, there have been 921 executions in the South. In that same period, there have been 67 in Western states, 127 in Midwest states, and 4 – yes four – in Northeast states. Which region do you suppose has the lowest murder rate, and which region do you suppose has the highest murder rate? If it were true that the death penalty was a substantial deterrent to murders, we would expect to see the region with the greatest number of executions also carrying the lowest murder rate. Yet the results are exactly the opposite. The Northeast, which has carried out only 4 executions in the last 32 years, has by far the lowest murder rate in the country – 4.1 in 2007. The South, on the other hand, which has executed far more people in the last 32 years than any other region, also has by far the highest murder rate in the country – 7.0 in 2007 – nearly double that of the Northeast.

Some might argue that the South has more executions simply because they have more murders. That may seem logical except that the numbers do not correspond. In 2007, the South had a murder rate that was roughly 71% higher than that of the Northeast. If the more murders/more executions argument were true, then we should expect to see execution rates in the South at approximately 71% higher than those in the Northeast. Yet in the last 32 years, the South’s execution rate has been a staggering 230% higher than the Northeast.

These numbers tell me, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that putting more people to death does not in any way reduce the overall number of murders. People who commit murder are not deterred from doing so simply because of the rational knowledge that they might get arrested and be put to death if they go through with it. If a murderer were interested in such rational considerations, they probably would not be committing murder in the first place.

The death penalty only provides revenge, not justice, closure, or deterrence.

Finally, there is the issue of cost. Financial studies into the cost of capital punishment have shown over and over again that it actually costs more to keep someone on death row than to simply put them in prison for life. A recent study by the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice indicates that a death row inmate costs the government an additional $90,000 per year, over those inmates who are simply incarcerated for life. They estimate that the present cost of the death penalty system is somewhere in the neighborhood of $137 million per year. A system that instead imposed only a lifetime sentence for murderers would cost roughly $12 million per year.

The cost of an average death penalty trial is nearly $500,000 higher than a trial where the maximum penalty is life imprisonment. Furthermore, appeal hearings for death penalty cases cost somewhere in the range of $100,000 more than appeals for non-death penalty crimes.

It should go without saying that those numbers are staggering.

The reasons for this cost difference are fairly obvious if you give it some thought. Inmates on death row are segregated from the general prison population. This requires separate buildings, with all the cost and overhead involved in running those buildings, as well as separate guards and prison staff. Furthermore, since the constitution requires that criminals be given due process of law, convicted murderers are entitled to the appeals process, and that process – as we all know – can be quite lengthy. It is also quite expensive, because the judges, lawyers and court personnel have to be paid for their services.

The average time spent on death row is somewhere around 12 years, and it is not uncommon for it to go beyond 20 years. Yet to argue that the appeals process takes too long would be to argue that people who are being put to death by the government should not be entitled to appeal their sentence, or be given time for new evidence to arise that might cast doubt on their conviction. And I would question the heart and core motivations of any person who is not deeply disturbed by the fact that we know that innocent people have been executed on death row. We know this, of course, because of DNA testing that has exonerated people after their execution.

Many Christians I know support the death penalty. They justify this position in a variety of ways, most commonly by saying that the Bible permitted the death penalty for certain crimes, so therefore it is okay for our society to do so as well.

Yet I always wonder if any of these people have ever considered that Jesus, himself, was a victim of the death penalty? I wonder if they have ever considered that since the Bible also permitted slavery, does that mean that slavery is permissible? A prominent theologian in the 1850’s famously stated that “What God ordained in the Old Testament, and permitted in the New, cannot be a sin.” He was talking, of course, about slavery, and was making the same argument to support slavery that some Christians use today to support the death penalty. The exact same comment, in fact, could be inserted into a Christian discussion of the death penalty, and one would never know the difference.

Many Christians I know will argue that the death penalty is appropriate because of “an eye for an eye.” If you kill someone, you forfeit your own life. That’s fair; that’s justice. Here it may be appropriate to quote a Charlie Daniels Band song, which I believe sums up (albeit rather crudely) the view of many Christians quite well: “As far as I’m concerned there ain’t no excuse for the rapin’ and the killin’ and the child abuse, but I got a way to put an end to all that mess. You just take them rascals out in the swamps, put ‘em on their knees and tie ‘em to a stump, and let the rattlers and the bugs and the alligators do the rest.” And then later: “You know what’s wrong with the world today, people done gone and put their Bibles away…Well the Good Book says it so I know it’s the truth, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, you better watch where you go and remember where you been, that’s the way I see it, I’m a simple man.”

But does the “Good Book” actually demand an “eye for an eye” and a “tooth for a tooth” style of justice? In the Old Testament, yes. But Jesus himself, during the Sermon on the Mount, preached on that law by contradicting it! From Matthew, chapter 5 (NRSV): “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well.”

As he did so many other times, Jesus took a familiar passage from the Law of Moses, and gave a new interpretation of it, contradicting common untouchable religious beliefs in the process. Who did Jesus think he was, after all, contradicting the infallible, inspired Word of God, as recorded in Holy Scripture? That same attitude, of course, is frequently taken by modern Christians when people question and reinterpret deeply-held beliefs – ideas believed by many Christians to be untouchable and infallible.

But what did Jesus have to say about the death penalty in particular? Many Christians might respond by suggesting that Jesus never really talked about capital punishment.

Yet Jesus, in fact, spoke very clearly about his opinion on the death penalty – and a one-liner from that discussion is actually a very well-known and common phrase within Christianity. From John, chapter 8 (NRSV):

Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, they said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”

What Jesus was saying here is that a sin is a sin, and no one sin is any more deserving of the death penalty (stoning) than any other. He was specifically contradicting the Jewish law which ordered stoning for a woman caught in adultery. Again, as in the case of “an eye for an eye,” Jesus was contradicting and reinterpreting the infallible, inspired Word of God – that is, the Jewish scriptures.

I hope the point is clear. Jesus did speak about the death penalty, and his words are unambiguous – only the person who has never sinned has the right to make life or death decisions about someone else who has sinned. Since no one on earth qualifies for the former, no one else should be qualified for the latter, either.

When I take this teaching together with the fact that Jesus was, himself, a victim of the death penalty, and add that together with moral teachings on compassion and forgiveness and the knowledge that no one is born a murderer, and combine that with the knowledge that the death penalty does not offer justice, closure, or deterrence, and pour on top of that the enormous additional cost of death penalty cases, and top it off with the danger of a civilized nation giving its government the right to put people to death and the knowledge that sometimes innocent people are executed, I can simply find no reason, as a Christian or an American, to support capital punishment.


Elissa said...

What were you doing up at 2:00 am?

Aside from that, you really should be submitting essays like this for publication.


Amy said...

Each of us can punish ourselves better than anyone else. So, is the death penalty an escape from conscience, guilt?

Mike said...

I am a conservative Christian who has been doing some reconsideration about the death penalty. I have a related question. What is your take on abortion(something I have always considered similar to the death penalty, save the executed is always innocent)?

Scott said...

Mike, thanks for reading. Sorry it's taken me a few days to respond.

I didn't really talk about abortion in this essay, but I did allude to "consistency" in my beliefs in the opening of the essay. It is extremely common, of course, for conservative Christians to be patently opposed to abortion, but to support the death penalty. They care deeply for the sanctity of life - except in the case of convicted criminals. As I did in this essay, I like to remind those people that by the law of his day, Jesus was a convicted criminal too - someone who had committed a crime for which death was an established punishment.

I am anti-abortion. I can think of no circumstance in which I would encourage a woman to have an abortion for reasons of birth control. If a woman has an unwanted pregnancy, I would encourage her to deliver the child and then give it up for adoption. My reason for this belief is that I believe in supporting life, not the destruction of life. This is the same reason why I am against the death penalty.

However, many times abortions are necessary not because of an unwanted pregnancy, but because of other complications: the fetus is not developing properly, the pregnancy has become dangerous to the mother, etc. I believe women should have the choice to terminate a pregnancy in those circumstances, even late term. Since "pro-life" tends to mean "all abortions should be outlawed," I do not call myself pro-life. Instead, I say I am anti-abortion but pro-choice.

Those who are against abortion frequently point to cases where a mother has been told her life is in danger, or that the baby is going to have serious things wrong with it, but they choose to continue with the pregnancy anyway. Many times, everything turns out okay. Other times, either the baby dies, or the mother dies, or both. In any case, the mother is frequently lauded for her choice not to end the pregnancy. I agree with supporting a mother who goes ahead with a dangerous pregnancy because the alternative is too unthinkable. However, I cannot *hold it against* a mother who does not want to put her life in jeopardy. An analgoy is supporting someone who willingly signs up to enter the army despite the risks, but you wouldn't *condemn* someone who chose not to do that.

Another aspect of the abortion issue is the rights of women. Does a woman have a right to make her own decisions about her own body, or does she forfeit that right when she chooses to have sex? I believe that the sexual urge is one of the most basic urges of humanity, and no matter how aware a person is of the potential consequences of the sexual act, the sexual urge is always going to trump any fears about an unwanted pregnancy. I don't believe it is compassionate or life-supporting to condemn a woman to an 18-year sentence simply because she chose to do what is natural and normal. Now, having said that, I still would encourage such a woman to give the child up for adoption, but I cannot, in good conscience, support taking away her *individual* right to choose what is best *for her*. I may not agree with her decision if she chooses to abort, but I simply can't support taking her right to choose away from her.

A lot of what it comes down to is when you define the beginning of life. Unlike most pro-life people, I do not think life as we know it begins at conception. A clump of fertilized cells in the uterus is not "life" in any way that we understand that term. For me, it is probably reasonable to say that life begins when the fetus is fully developed and capable of surviving outside the womb on its own. That means about the 6th or 7th month at the very earliest. Before that, the fetus is still as much a part of the mother as her heart, lungs, or brain. Take any of those things out of her body, and they will die. Same with the fetus. So even though I am morally opposed to abortion-as-birth-control, I can't define an early term birth-control abortion as "murder."

Everyone realizes that many early pregnancies end in spontaneous abortion (i.e., a miscarriage). Some experts suggest that as many as 50% of pregnancies end this way, with the mother not even knowing it many times because the miscarriage is undistinguishable from her period. Pro-lifers will say that this is "God's choice," and that we shouldn't suppose that it's okay to abort a fetus simply because "nature" does it all the time. But for me - even as a Christian - I don't identify with that concept of God. I think miscarriage happen because of the precariousness of life; I don't believe God has anything to do bringing a fetus to term, or allowing it to miscarry. The idea that God is intricately involved in the day-to-day physical well-being of humans is, to me, an ancient tribal concept of God that simply cannot stand up to modern knowledge. We know that people get sick because of germs and the failure of the immune system, not because they've done something bad and God is punishing them. We know that people die because they get old or they get into an accident or they get sick. God doesn't make them die anymore than he makes them stay well. When someone recovers from a terrible injury or disease, we call it a miracle, but when they die from that terrible disease or injury, we say that it was God's time for them to go. The God I identify with and worship is much bigger than the God of illness and health that many Christians believe in. I say all this because this sort of worldview alters my feelings about abortion. I don't think it's murder, because I don't think a fetus is a human being the way that you and I are human beings, and I don't think it's taking anything from God, because I don't believe God is involved in sickness and health, life and death. I think God is about transforming life, changing the world, making the world a better place, spreading love and joy and a compassionate heart - I don't believe God is a cosmic doctor.

So, to sum up, I am against abortion as birth control, but do not believe it is the same as "murder," and therefore I do not believe that my own personal moral feelings about abortion should be legislated and therefore forced on everyone else. I also support any woman's right, at any time in her pregnancy, to end the pregnancy if her life or health comes into jeopardy. I also support her right to abort at any time in pregnancy if it is discovered that the baby has serious mental or physical disabilities that will keep it from having any quality of life. I congratulate and laud any woman who chooses not to abort in those cases, but I don't hold it against others who don't think they can handle that.