A few weeks ago the state of Georgia executed Troy Davis, who had been convicted for the 1989 killing of police officer Mark McPhail. The case against Davis rested on the testimony of multiple eyewitnesses who identified him as the shooter and two who also testified that Davis had confessed to the killing. In the two decades following his conviction Davis steadfastly maintained his innocence. Several eyewitnesses recanted or changed their statements. Some claimed police had coerced their testimonies. Davis’ execution was stayed three times, but on September 21, despite pleas from Amnesty International, Desmond Tutu, Pope Benedict XVI and many others, the state administered a lethal injection.
The Davis case is not the only recent event to bring attention to the death penalty debate. Texas Governor Rick Perry’s entrance into the 2012 presidential race has also spotlighted the issue. Texas has carried out 236 executions since Perry became governor in 2000. In a recent debate Perry defended Texas’ capital punishment process, stating he’s never worried that any innocent people have been put to death. Death penalty opponents don’t share Perry’s confidence. They point out that since 1973, 138 people have been released from death row upon new evidence of their innocence. Opponents also fear that, even when defendants’ guilt is not in doubt, the death penalty has been applied unfairly.
Is Capital Punishment God’s Will?
Legal experts and ethicists debate whether or not the death penalty deters crime and whether or not it can be administered fairly. As Christians our unique contribution to the discussion springs from our faith in Jesus Christ. But even that faith doesn’t lead us to one “right answer” that is accepted by all believers.
“Whoever sheds human blood,” God instructed Noah, “by a human his blood will be shed; for in the divine image God made human beings” (Genesis 9:6). Ancient Israelite law provided the death penalty for several situations—not only premeditated murder but also offenses such as blasphemy (see Leviticus 24:16) and cursing one’s parents (see Exodus 21:17).
But some Christians see the death penalty as inconsistent with Jesus’ teachings. Jesus, after all, called his disciples to a different, higher standard of justice than retribution: “I say to you that you must not oppose those who want to hurt you . . . [L]ove your enemies . . . so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:39, 44, 45). Murder and other monstrous crimes are wrongs; but killing a killer does not set things right.
Many Christian churches have issued statements in opposition to capital punishment. The United Methodist Church officially opposes the death penalty because “the possibility of reconciliation with Christ comes through repentance . . . [and] is offered to all individuals without exception and gives all life new dignity and sacredness.” The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) maintains that “the use of the death penalty tends to brutalize the society that condones it.” Other Christian bodies take a different view. The Southern Baptist Convention, for instance, calls for “the fair and equitable use of capital punishment by civil magistrates as a legitimate form of punishment for those guilty of murder or treasonous acts that result in death . . . administered only when the pursuit of truth and justice result in clear and overwhelming evidence of guilt.”
What Will We Say?
Though Christians don’t always agree on what we will say, we can surely agree that the gospel speaks to this issue. When we participate in the debate, we must do so with more than gut reactions and personal prejudices. We must point beyond ourselves to Jesus Christ.