The Death Penalty and Why the Arizona Murders Should Trouble Christians

A troubled loner with a gun decided to kill his Democratic Congresswoman outside a Tucson grocery store, and now six people are dead. As a former prosecutor who now trains future prosecutors, I grieve with a heavy heart. As a Christian, I am troubled. The blood in the desert will re-open two debates in which we Christians have strayed too far from the very teachings of Christ.

First, I am troubled because I know that this will re-open the discussion over whether incendiary political rhetoric, mere words, can inspire such violent acts. For Christians, there should be no debate on this subject. Our faith, like so many others, is built on the thesis that words do inspire action.

As I carry a Bible into church I am testifying that words are important, that they imbue our lives with meaning, that they damn well do inspire action. The Gospels, words in a book, are at the heart of my beliefs about God and human relationships. I certainly do hope that they inspire action. So do most Christians. Christ had no army, he had no formal power — all he had were words. And if we believe that those words of love can change the world, why do we doubt that words of contempt and anger can inspire violence in the weakest among us?

As Christians, we accept that words shape lives. With that comes a moral duty to use them carefully and gently for what is just. Too many among our faith have forgotten that. Civil discourse is not just a civic duty; to those of us who follow Christ, it is a Christian duty.

The second debate re-opened by Jared Loughner is that over the death penalty. Most Americans, including most Christians, support the death penalty. This support too often is unchallenged by the fact that an unjust execution is at the center of our faith, and that Christ himself came upon a legal execution and stopped it (in John 8).

There will be a riotous cry to kill the killer, as is so often the case with high-profile murders. The basis for this cry will be nothing more than an urge to exact retribution, since there is no deterrent value in killing someone who wants to be a martyr — if anything, it has the opposite effect. What we will achieve is nothing more or less than a satisfaction of our bloodlust.

How can we justify, as Christians, a killing that is nothing more than bloodlust? Doesn’t Christ call us the other way? Yes, it is against our essential desire for retribution, but so much that Christ taught was restraint against our base instincts.

Like so many of Christ’s teachings, his moral challenge to a legal execution, when examined closely, makes sense. After all, what we revile in the killer is that he has killed. How, exactly, does killing him break that chain? We can argue that he killed innocents and he is guilty, but in this case we should remember that Loughner probably thought his Congresswoman was guilty of outrageous crimes against our country. He wanted to smite this enemy. Our smiting him in turn solves no problem. Rather, it only exacerbates the problem as others like him see his execution as martyrdom.

Timothy McVeigh was similarly motivated to strike out at a government he was taught to hate. A large part of his anger built on legal killing by the government (in the Branch Davidian episode). We executed McVeigh. It apparently did nothing to deter Jared Loughner.

Perhaps we should have listened to Bud Welch. His young daughter, Julie, was killed by McVeigh and his bomb. Welch felt the hatred and fierce hunger for retribution we might expect, but he came to see the uselessness of executing McVeigh. As Welch put it, “It was hatred and revenge that made me want to see him dead and those two things were the very reason that Julie and 167 others were dead.”

As people who get angry (we all do), it is hard to accept that hateful words can inspire horrible actions, and that our urge to retribution in blood might be wrong. Yet, Christ so often calls us to do the hard thing, not the easy one. This is one of those times.

 

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