Not Something to Cheer

A few weeks ago at the GOP presidential debate, some in the crowd cheered as Rick Perry defended his record on the death penalty. It was a horrifying thing to watch. Why is anyone cheering for the death penalty? Regardless of one’s political stance on capital punishment, it seems to me that at best it is a necessary evil–but certainly not something to be celebrated.

Perhaps sparked by the Rick Perry / audience cheering debate, the Washington Post has featured an array of columns on the issue of capital punishment in its “On Faith” column in recent weeks. Among other things, the columns have illustrated just how diverse the opinions are on this issue, even among Christians.

Richard Land’s post, “The death penalty can be pro-life,” argued that it is not inconsistent to be pro-life on abortion but also in favor of the death penalty. Citing Romans 13:4 and just war theory to defend his position, Land was also careful to note that “If one is going to support the death penalty, one also has to support its just and equitable application.”

Meanwhile, on the other end of the spectrum, and in a seemingly direct response to Land’s position, N.T. Wright began his rather curt post (“American Christians and the death penalty“) with an assertive statement: “You can’t reconcile being pro-life on abortion and pro-death on the death penalty.”

Somewhere in the middle–refreshingly–is John Mark Reynolds, director of the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University, who wrote a column with the title, “Death penalty an imperfect solution.” Reynolds touches on the abortion/death penalty comparison by noting that “There is an obvious moral distinction between the taking of the life of a criminal and killing the innocent… One could support the death penalty for criminals as a necessity while supporting the right to life for the unborn and be morally consistent.”

Later in the piece Reynolds gets it right when he says:

Poor cultures cannot protect themselves from murderers without taking the life of a killer. The death penalty, administered by the state after due process of law, was a Christian solution to this problem. It never was a perfect solution and many Christian nations, such as the Orthodox East, imposed more limits on it over time.

As a society rich enough to imprison wrong-doers the death penalty should be rare in the United States. The Lord Jesus Himself called us to love our enemies, so even in the cases where the state must execute justice no Christian would rejoice in the death of the wicked…

The death penalty is, I think, justified in some circumstances, such as when prisoners kill in prison, but it [is] always regrettable. When the audience bursts into applause at the mention of executions at a Republican debate, they had more common with the mob in the Roman arena, than with the martyrs in it.

Reynolds also points out some of the problems that must be addressed in the discussion of capital punishment, such as the disproportionate number of minorities executed, and the overcrowding of our prisons.

I probably fall somewhere near Reynolds’ position, though I’m not necessarily going to cheer on or even actively support the death penalty. Is it sometimes necessary or appropriate? Probably. I think it was right and just for Osama bin Laden to have been killed, even though I was horrified by the cheers and street parties that event elicited, just as I’m horrified by the Tea Partiers who cheered for Texas’ death penalty record. The death of any person is not something to rejoice in.

I believe the death penalty should be rarely used, and then only as a last resort. In cases where there is any ambiguity, any questions whatsoever about guilt, the death penalty should be completely off the table.

Case in point: Troy Davis, a death row inmate in Georgia. Davis was convicted of killing a police officer in 1989 and is scheduled to die tonight at 7pm. Thing is, his case has been cast into a lot of doubt, since seven of nine original trial witnesses have since recanted their testimony. Many have started wondering if David might actually be innocent, and it seems to me that even the suggestion of that should cause the execution to be postponed or called off until certainty can be gained. Sadly, Georgia’s pardon and parole board Tuesday denied clemency to Davis, ending perhaps his last ditch hope for avoiding execution.

People should not be executed amidst ambiguity and lingering questions about their guilt. If that’s how the death penalty is in the United States, then I cannot support it. I think it’s ok to have the death penalty as an option in our justice system, but it must be in the rarest, most unambiguous cases. And it should always be something we approach soberly, quietly,  something we treat solemnly and not as a political football. It’s not something we should ever cheer on.

6 responses to “Not Something to Cheer

  1. The death penalty should only be used as a last resort? What would be the circumstances where that would be necessary? I would argue that the killing of OBL was a war time murder and falls under the Just War category, not capital punishment.

    What I find so unsettling about the Davis case besides the obvious issues with the witnesses, is that the wife, mother, and children of the deceased police officer have all said they will feel peace after Troy Davis is put to death. I can’t understand that mindset.

  2. I agree wholeheartedly with you. Not to mention the fact that the death penalty HAS NOT reduced violance and criminality where it is practiced.

  3. What do you do with Gen 9:5-6? Where, pre-law, God demands that if a man or animal kills another human, their blood should be shed?

    Perhaps if the death penalty was actually used, not just in extreme measures, but for anyone who killed a person, it would reduce violence. Think about it, you kill someone and you know, with in 2 years, you’ll die. No appeal, no governor pardon, no public outcry, just death. Not in 15-40 years, but as soon as the trial is over and you’re found guilty, you go to “the chair.”

    Not that any life ending should be celebrated, but if we followed God’s command, we would also be saving our states a lot of tax payer money that could be used for better things, say education, rather than feeding people who are behind bars.

    Just a thought.

  4. Your facts about the Davis case are wrong. Seven of nine is not correct; seven of twenty-three is the number. And recanted testimony is the least credible.

  5. Please review the Troy Davis case. You got it wrong.

    “Troy Davis & The Innocent Frauds of the anti death penalty lobby”,

  6. From a Christian standpoint, Reynolds could not have gotten it more wrong.

    Sactions are not imposed based upon the welth or poverty of jurisdiction, but based upon justice in the context of the crime.

    A, particulalry, well known passage, with a foundation in the sanctity of life.

    As per Quaker biblical scholar Dr. Gervas A. Carey:

    ” . . . the decree of Genesis 9:5-6 is equally enduring and cannot be separated from the other pledges and instructions of its immediate context, Genesis 8:20-9:17; . . . that is true unless specific Biblical authority can be cited for the deletion, of which there appears to be none. It seems strange that any opponents of capital punishment who professes to recognize the authority of the Bible either overlook or disregard the divine decree in this covenant with Noah; . . . capital punishment should be recognized . . . as the divinely instituted penalty for murder; The basis of this decree . . . is as enduring as God; . . . murder not only deprives a man of a portion of his earthly life . . . it is a further sin against him as a creature made in the image of God and against God Himself whose image the murderer does not respect.” (p. 111-113)

    “. . . a secondary measure of the love of God may be said to appear. For capital punishment provides the murderer with incentive to repentance which the ordinary man does not have, that is a definite date on which he is to meet his God. It is as if God thus providentially granted him a special inducement to repentance out of consideration of the enormity of his crime . . . the law grants to the condemned an opportunity which he did not grant to his victim, the opportunity to prepare to meet his God. Even divine justice here may be said to be tempered with mercy.” (p. 116).

    “A Bible Study”, Essays on the Death Penalty, T. Robert Ingram, ed., St. Thomas Press, Houston, 1963, 1992.

    and why did Jesus select this well known OT command made by His Father?

    Jesus: ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and ‘Whoever curses father or mother must certainly be put to death.’ Matthew 15:4 full context (NAB)

    What was the prupose of Jesus bringing passages from the OT into the NT?

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