Evangelical Update

A resource for lefties who want to understand conservative Christians.

Monday, June 06, 2005

The Death Penalty

Hi everyone... guest blogger Chris here, standing in for Alice so she can re-adjust to the pacific standard time-zone again. But now, on to a more serious topic...

The United States is one of the very few industrialized countries in the world which continues to execute criminals. Further, it is one of a handful of countries in the world which executes mentally ill persons, persons with very low IQ, and child murderers (i.e. persons who were under 18 at the time of their crime).

It is mainly the Southern states which continue to execute people. During 2002:
  • 61 of the 71 executions were in Southern states.
  • Outside the South, only three States (California, Ohio and Missouri) executed anyone.
From 1976, when executions were resumed, until 2003-JAN-1, there have been 820 executions in the US. This includes 66 during 2001 and 71 in 2002. About two out of three executions are conducted in only five states: Texas, Virginia, Missouri, Florida and Oklahoma. Texas leads the other states in number of killings. In late 2002, there were about 3,697 prisoners sentenced to death in 37 state death rows, and 31 being held by the U.S. government and military. 7 About 1.5% are women. 102 have been exonerated and freed since 1973, largely after having been proven innocent by DNA evidence.

(Taken from religioustolerance.org)

Liberals generally oppose a death penalty, citing in particular how it tends to discriminate against minorities, and is nearly impossible to guarantee with 100% certainty that the criminal put to death is not, by some fluke, actually innocent. Liberals tend to be split over the moral "wrongness" of capital punishment, although many believe that willfully killing anyone, even someone who is a killer, is wrong.

Yet, conservatives tend to counter that keeping hardened criminals in jail rather than putting them to death is a drain on the economics of our country, and is unfair to the memories of (and families of) their victims. They often are cited as believing that there is a deterrent nature to a death penalty and that it serves a just cause.

Overall, Christians are known for their loving and merciful outreach, and for their relentless passion to see that the Word of God is heard by all sinners, even those already incarcerated, as evidenced by so many evangelical prison outreach programs, such as Kairos and many others. Many quote the mandate of Jesus "I was in prison and you came to visit me," (Matt 25:36) while others are simply convinced that souls can be saved, even of the most despicable in our society.

However, conservative Christians, it seems, tend to lean pro death penalty. Politically, they tend to side with conservatives on issues of being "tough on crime" with "no tolerance" policies, and strict punishments for violent crimes. The "ultimate" punishment being death is one which is a last resort, but is somehow justifiable, given the alternatives of having a dangerous criminal back on the streets (an assumption based on the fear of light sentencing, and that such a criminal would not be rehabilitated and would kill again). Often cited are biblical passages such as Genesis 9:6 "Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man." Which seems to be a throwback to "an eye for an eye..." which appears often in the Old Testament.

This view, of course, is not universal, and it may be a great oversimplification of the conservative Christian view. Many groups, such as The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America states that "It is because of this church's ministry with and to people affected by violent crime that we oppose the death penalty." And in fact, it seems that most everything Jesus said in the New Testament would oppose such a thing as the death penalty, on moral grounds. Add to that the relative uncertainty we have in verdicts reached by our criminal justice system, and it's hard for many liberals to understand why CC's would even consider favoring the death penalty.

"I like it the way it is." Comment by Governor George W. Bush of Texas at the time that a law prohibiting execution of the mentally disadvantaged was defeated.

"The death penalty is a poor person's issue. Always remember that: after all the rhetoric that goes on in the legislative assemblies, in the end, when the deck is cast out, it is the poor who are selected to die in this country." Sister Helen Prejean, C.S.J.

"There are plenty of innocent people being killed by those on parole...The only cure for this kind of "sickness" is death. I know I may sound hard and cruel- but I for one, have had enough!" Posting to a feedback forum, Detroit News, 1999-MAR-2

"Sometimes you just have the thin the herd." Dennis Miller

"Where would Christianity be if Jesus got eight to fifteen years with time off for good behavior?" NY State Senator James Donovan, speaking in support of capital punishment.

"He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first." Yeshua of Nazareth (Jesus Christ) interrupting a public execution of a woman for adultery. John 8:7, (NKJ)

So, how about it cast -- the death penalty -- are you for it or against it, and why?