Who Would Jesus Execute? Christians And The Death Penalty
Category: Religion & EthicsVia: outis • 4 weeks ago • 1 comments
By: Matt Schur
Is the widespread Evangelical Christian support of the death penalty in the U.S. in line with Christian ethics? Who would Jesus execute?
Is it possible to follow Christ while killing a helpless person? If we're not supposed to throw that first stone, how can we make that injection?
I insist: the person we are contemplating killing is helpless . A prisoner.
Does it matter what that person has done? Did Christ give us exceptions to His commandment to "Love one another"?
Can we talk about the death penalty for a minute?
An Execution in Alabama
This past week, Alabama executed Kenneth Smith by nitrogen hypoxia, using an untested protocol.
It's interesting that a state deep in the Bible Belt was so worried that they might not be able to obtain necessary lethal injection drugs, they approved a new and untested execution method to get around it.
Also interesting is that the American Veterinary Medical Association has declared nitrogen hypoxia an unfit euthanasia method for most mammals and the United Nations is concerned that it could violate its ban on torture.
Evangelical Support for Capital Punishment
I suppose I shouldn't be all that surprised. Disappointed? Yes. Angry? Yes. But not surprised. After all, Alabama is right in the middle of the Bible Belt, and the higher percentage of Evangelical Christians a state has, the more likely that state is to have the death penalty.
Doesn't this seem backwards?
I mean, as Christians don't we believe that God incarnate spent his time on earth preaching the importance of forgiveness and of loving your enemies? And don't we read about his unjust execution at the hands of the state every year on Good Friday?
If anything, we should be leading the charge against the death penalty…shouldn't we?
Two Biblical Reasons for Support
When I've heard Christian supporters of capital punishment give Biblical reasons for their beliefs, by far the two most common ones have been these:
- The concept of "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth" as found in Exodus 21:23-25.
- The government as the "agent of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer," as found in Romans 13:1-4.
There are other arguments, of course. But what I've generally heard and read from the average "person on the street" has been some form of those two.
Shall we take a closer look?
First, the Exodus passage—"an eye for an eye." When we use the phrase today, it's generally to describe a desire for revenge. Do unto me, and I will do unto you…and then some. In popular usage, it has the feel of an escalation , a starting point. In the context of the Exodus passage, however, "an eye for an eye" is meant to limit the punishment. It's meant to keep the response proportional, to rein it in. God is telling Israel that the punishment must fit the crime and should not be any worse than necessary.
So then Jesus comes along and, as he has a tendency to do, turns everything on its head. In Matthew 5:38-41 he says, "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 shirt, give your coat as well, and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile."
Turn the Other Cheek
Just like the phrase "an eye for an eye," our modern usage of "turn the other cheek" almost completely misses the point. Our culture uses it to mean that we're just passively letting a harm or injustice go unchallenged. But that's not the case at all. While Jesus tells his listeners not to resist an evildoer, he's speaking of physical resistance. Don't combat violence with violence.
But neither is he saying that we should just lie down and let wrongdoers walk all over us.
Jesus's thinking goes beyond the binary, beyond the false dichotomy that we create in thinking that we either have to fight back or be a pushover. He offers a third way: active nonviolence.
In that culture, if you were going to hit someone, you'd use your right hand. The left hand was reserved for cleaning yourself after defecating. For someone to hit you on the right cheek with their right hand, it would be a backhand slap across the face. So what happens then, if after being slapped, that person turned their other cheek toward their assailant? The right hand is no longer an option. They were faced with the choice of either losing face by backing down or using their unclean left hand, which was humiliating.
MLK and a Power Shift
Suddenly, in a mental jiu-jitsu move, the power dynamic changes. The one who had been hit has used the act of violence their assailant committed against them, and the one who meant to humiliate the other is now in a difficult position and runs the risk of being humiliated themselves.
Martin Luther King Jr. used this "third way" of Jesus skillfully throughout the Civil Rights movement. He preached and led and lived nonviolence, but "turning the other cheek" meant taking actions like sitting in at lunch counters even when ordered to leave or continuing to march across a bridge when ordered to stop. By turning the other cheek, they left the authorities with two options: they could either back down or use force.
That's where the power shifted. Dr. King knew that either choice was a losing one for the other side. The authorities didn't want the protesters to get their way, but the optics of using fire hoses, dogs, and billy clubs on people who weren't being violent in the first place could eventually turn public opinion against them.
Jesus's answer to violence is not more violence, but rather to find a way to put an end to it.
Keeping that in mind, we move to the argument based on Romans 13. The key verse here is verse 4: "But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the agent of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer."
I'm guessing that in this instance, capital punishment proponents are reading "bear the sword" as shorthand for the death penalty, especially since it refers to the government as "the agent of God to execute wrath."
Is Paul really giving any government in any time and place the license to use any type of punishment it feels like using? Are we meant to take this statement about the situation in Rome and extrapolate it to refer to all places and contexts?
Authority Has Limits
I suspect that Paul would be the first to tell us no. I suggested in a different column that when referring to authorities, he may have been speaking about Jewish authorities within the community who were charged with ensuring order in the synagogue. But whether that's the case or if Paul really was referring to the Roman government, we as readers must read all Scripture through the lens of Jesus. How would Jesus have us interpret Paul's words?
We've already seen how Jesus took what already had been a divine limit on government and redefined it. Our responsibility is to search for that "third way," the way of standing up and turning the other cheek not to be a pushover, but to stop a cycle of violence.
One significant way of doing that in today's United States would be to put an end to capital punishment.
And I often hear the argument that when someone takes a life, they've forfeited the right to their own. No matter what our desire for revenge might tell us, however, Jesus tells us something different.
I often hear the argument that certain people have lost any sort of redeeming value. Jesus tells us that nobody is beyond redemption. And if the possibility of redemption is going to be unconditionally certain for us, it has to be certain for everyone. It's the only way that we ourselves can rest secure in the promise of forgiveness.
When in Doubt, Choose Nonviolence
When a nonviolent solution can accomplish the same ends as a violent one, we as Christians have a moral duty to choose nonviolence. It's especially true when we have the ability to safely and humanely incarcerate those who have committed even the most heinous of crimes. A sentence of life in prison can act as that "third way" Jesus commands us to seek. It addresses the wrongdoing, protects the public, and avoids further violence by the state.
Christians in favor of the death penalty need to ask themselves, "Who would Jesus sentence to death? Who would Jesus decide is beyond redemption? Who would Jesus execute?"
Because it seems to me that rather than sentencing a person to death, Jesus might take on that person's punishment instead.
And for his Last Supper the night before the government executes him, he might have a meal of bread and wine.
Broken for us.
And shed for us.
About Matt Schur After graduating with a B.A. in English from Truman State and an M.A. in Systematic Theology from Luther Seminary, Matt Schur spent years wandering in a vocational wilderness before finally discovering his calling— assisting and advocating for the marginalized and vulnerable. He currently lives out that call as a case manager and housing specialist for people experiencing homelessness. He also serves an ELCA campus ministry part-time as its music director and pianist, and has published two books of progressive Christian poetry: "Cross Sections" (2021) and "Imperfectly Perfect" (2023). His writing has been featured in "Valiant Scribe Literary Journal," "Unlikely Stories," and "Cathexis Northwest Press."