I have not read it yet but Christianity Today‘s review of Shane Claiborne‘s new book Executing Grace has much that resonates with me. My views on this issue have changed drastically over the years. I used to believe that capital punishment was not only justified but required because murder is the taking of a human life which is made in the image of God, therefore it was not only a de-valuing of human life but blasphemy (Genesis 9:6, etc.).
I now believe that it is more consistently “pro-life” to oppose the death penalty, precisely because all human life reflects the image of God. When the Supreme Court approved the modern death penalty, they declared that
capital punishment is an expression of society’s moral outrage at particularly offensive conduct . . .
For a Christian to defend capital punishment, it seems to me that we must argue from a theological perspective. It is worthy of death precisely because murder attacks the image of God. But we do not live in a theocratic state. Christian or otherwise.
Instead, the Supreme Court basis its justification of capital punishment on “society’s moral outrage.” A major problem with this, of course, is that society’s moral compass can sometimes seem like Jack Sparrow’s treasure compass in the Pirates of the Carribean movies. Wonky and ever-changing, especially when it comes to “society’s” norms. It wasn’t that long ago that we put suspected witches to the “swimming” text and burned heretics at the stake. What might have earned capital punishment at one time might not at another. Without the Christian under-pinning, there is no consistent ethic with which to decide which cases deserve death and which do not. In short, we cannot be trusted to be consistent. Since all people bear the image of God, we owe ourselves more than this. The taking of a human life cannot be left up to the shifting winds of “society’s moral outrage”.
Our justice system is not only deeply flawed and often unreliable, it is infected with systemic racism. Even if we agreed that murder is the consistent base-line for capital punishment, our application of any standards are not only inconsistent but often unjust. The ACLU argues:
the evidence from the past 33 years demonstrates that capital punishment remains arbitrary and that society’s moral outrage continues to be expressed loudest when wealthy white people are homicide victims.
Our court system simply cannot be trusted to always be impartial and “just” when it comes to this issue. The ACLU article continues:
empirical research across the country consistently demonstrates that a defendant who kills a white person is far more likely to receive the death penalty than a defendant who kills a person of color, and the racial configuration most likely to result in a death sentence is a black-on-white crime.
Amnesty International argues that “the single most reliable predictor of whether someone will be sentenced to death is the race of the victim” even non-whites are just as often the victims of murder. Time magazine comes right out and says it: “there is significant racial bias in the administration of the death penalty.” If we believe that all men are not only created equal but that all people are created in the image of God and therefore human life always has intrinsic value, then we must oppose the death penalty as it is currently practiced.
Capital punishment also carries the idea that certain criminals do not deserve even the possibility of rehabilitation. It simply negates some lives based on norms that we’ve already seen are shaky at best and likely to soon change.
Though there is more to be said, this serves as a brief summary of why I’ve changed my mind over the years. I’ve come to believe that the pursuit of wisdom necessitates that we are willing to sometimes change our views. I’m not saying that if you disagree with me on this issue that you are unwise but that my pursuit of wisdom has led me down this path. As I grow older and understand perspectives which my own experiences never provided, many of my views change.
I know that many of you will disagree and I look forward to hearing from you. But remember to express your views with humanity and kindness. After all, we are all God’s image bearers and deserve respect.