For millions of American Christians, grappling with the question of capital punishment (“The Bible and the death penalty” (Robert Michaels, March 25) means grappling with some of the deepest convictions stemming from our faith in Christ.
Whether the state has the right to take a life in the name of justice is wrapped up in the much larger questions of sin and righteousness, accountability and redemption, and ultimately divine justice. Translating divine justice into criminal justice, however, is no simple task.
Turning to our scripture for guidance is also not simple. Seemingly stark affirmations of the death penalty (“Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed; For in the image of God He made man,” Genesis 9:6) are side by side with examples of condemned murderers granted life by God. Indeed the first murderer, Cain, is punished harshly by God but protected from harm. Even Biblical heroes like Moses and David who were guilty of murder were spared the ultimate punishment and used by God for greater purposes. Divine justice meant knowing the souls of those individuals and knowing what they might later accomplish in God’s name.
Capital punishment is also at the center of the Christian story. The public execution of Jesus of Nazareth, the man from Galilee celebrated by us as the Christ, the Anointed One, is the pivotal moment in the history of God’s people. In the execution of Jesus, the important message of love, justice, compassion, and mercy in resistance to Roman occupation is met with state violence. The resurrection of Christ meets this violence with an affirmation that Jesus was faithful to the ways of God, even unto death. In this way, God overturned the human, political act of state execution in a way that confirms God’s desire for social equity and justice. God’s love for all creation is sealed in God’s cosmic plan for divine justice that elevates rather than denigrates our humanity. To paint Jesus only as God’s victim on our behalf denigrates all of his teachings, which point us to a lifestyle of justice and mercy.
For some, however, the central place the death penalty holds in Christian history serves as an endorsement of executions. But that understanding ultimately confuses criminal justice with divine justice. That confusion has led governments to take divine justice into their own hands, seeing themselves as willing and able to carry out God’s will in matters of life and death, causing some of the gravest injustices in our history. Reading Romans 13 to give states all authority, blessed by God, is misreading the text and the rest of scripture. To say that the crucifixion of Jesus was divine retribution misunderstands the resurrection.
God offers us a different way to understand justice, which exposes our own systems of criminal justice. For one, divine justice requires divine knowledge, the ability to always perceive the truth and the future potential of all God’s children. In the absence of full knowledge, the criminal justice system has substituted a trial and appeals process that is much more thorough when the death penalty is on the line. But no matter how much time and money we spend on investigations, experts, trials and hearings, criminal justice — unlike divine justice — will always run the risk of error.
Our efforts to find the truth and protect the innocent in the trial and appeals process mean the death penalty comes at an extremely high price, but so does preventing crime, providing restitution to families traumatized by violence, offering counseling for victims, and educating young people so they can stay safe. Yet we continue to choose the death penalty. The latest estimates now say our state will spend $1 billion over five years on the system unless we replace it with life without the possibility of parole.
That one billion dollars can be used more wisely to implement justice. It may not be enough to save California from its fiscal woes all at once, but it can pay for some police officers and firefighters, heal sick children, and fund the Victims’ Compensation Program that seeks restitution and healing for families scarred by violence. With the alternative sentence of life without the possibility of parole, we can save resources and provide real justice. Such a sentence holds murderers accountable by ensuring they will never experience freedom again and can never harm another person, and at the same time ensures swift and certain justice for the family members of their victims. Rather than waiting a lifetime for an execution that likely will never happen, those families can see the permanent sentence imposed at the end of trial and can begin to rebuild their lives.
The truth is that our fiscal realities are wrapped up in our flawed ability to implement justice. While we insist on sentencing people to death at an enormous cost, we ignore the needs of victims and fail to create safe communities. Americans committed to our faith in Christ are also committed to ensuring justice for all members of our communities. This requires of us wise and just stewardship of our community’s resources. In California, the time is long overdue to reevaluate the priority we give to executions and the resources we divert from the other demands of justice.
The Rev. Will McGarvey
Community Presbyterian Church
The Rev. Renie Stamm-Kirk
Community Congregational Church
The Rev. Christy Parks-Ramage
First Congregational Church