Thursday, September 22, 2011

Repentance and the Death Penalty

As the twitterverse tweedle-de-deets impotently about the questionable execution of Troy Davis, I find myself reminded again of why capital punishment is so antithetical to any authentic follower of Jesus of Nazareth.  It's not just that there's the risk of ending the life of an innocent man, which should have unpleasant resonances for anyone who calls Christ their friend.

It's that you're also ending the life of those who are guilty.   Yes, the guilty.  I mean those human beings who are angry, selfish, bitter, and cruel.   I mean the racist, the homophobe, the thug, and the terrorist.

These are not nice people.  These are not the innocent, or the unjustly accused.  I'm talking about the monsters.  They have murdered, and raped, and brutalized.  They have violated the the fundamental norms of compassion and mercy that govern the lives of sentient beings.  Their existences are darkly radiant with the demons that drive humankind to do all manner of horrific things to itself.

I do not excuse such beings, or rationalize away their culpability for their crimes.  As they are, they have no place in human society.   They cannot be permitted to cause harm.

Thing is, once they've been stopped and incarcerated, they pose no further threat.   And when we as a society choose kill them, we are saying:

Nothing further can be done with this one.   They will never change.  They can never be different.  They must cease to be.

And that means we assume that repentance and redemption are no longer options.   For many, that might be true.  Sociopathy burrows its way deep into the minds of men, sometimes running so deep into a soul that rending it out would leave nothing remaining.    But for others, change can come, as time and age give new shape to a life.

For followers of Jesus, the default assumption is repentance.  It must be.  It is the central message of the Gospel.  Transformation is possible.

Is it always likely?  No.  Is it sometimes highly improbable?  Sure.

But a culture that executes cannot coherently call itself Christian, because it has rejected the core redemptive message of the Nazarene.  By ending a life, we either preclude repentance or...if it has already occurred...we assume it has no meaning.  There is no small irony that those who want America to be a "Christian Nation"  are those most eager to spill blood in the name of what they imagine to be justice.

It only shows that they understand neither the Gospel nor the Cross.


  1. "Thing is, once they've been stopped and incarcerated, they pose no further threat."

    But Jesus forgives, so then where do we find justification for even that punishment?

  2. @ Jonathan: Good question! I tend to think of it in terms of Luke 6:38. Preventing someone from causing harm to others not only protects the one directly harmed. It also prevents the violator from entering into a relationship of harm..which, ultimately, would be the measure of their existence.

  3. tYou are incorrect in how you think about punishment vs correction, as well as execution, and about the forgiveness of the cross.

    For the moment, let me focus. Execution does not say 'we cannot fix this person.' We can't fix people anyway; and we can't protect everyone from someone by putting them in prison. Punishment is not a therapeutic process. It does not succeed or fail as therapy, and more severe punishments are not some sort of scaled therapeutic dose.

    Execution doesn't kill someone, really. It simply incarnates, makes flesh, the thing they have already done. They have taken their blood on their own heads. They killed themselves; the power of the sword makes it visible. Not making it visible like this disrespects the free will of the person and creates an injustice.

    As for forgiveness; there is no issue with forgiveness in this matter. The government cannot forgive the underlying sin; it was not the one offended. God is free to forgive and at the judgement seat may choose to, depending on the individual. However the state is powerless to judge in this matter. It can only discern the facts of the case, and then execute the demands of justice; at risk of being unjust and stepping outside the bounds of its authority under God.

  4. @ BenK: Execution does more than say "we cannot fix this person." It says: "God cannot fix this person." It says: "Christ will not save this person." It says: "The Holy Spirit cannot work in the heart of this person." It disrespects the love, the promise, and the wrath of God.

    And Ben? When you say that execution does not kill someone, then you've wandered into that place where words have no connection to reality. It's easy to go there. I do myself sometimes. But it is not a safe place spiritually.