The death penalty has been in the news again this week especially here in Georgia. For many years of my adult life, I supported the idea of the death penalty for murder, rape, or other particularly heinous crimes. I say “idea” of the death penalty because to me it was an intellectual position based on what I thought about justice. To be honest, it wasn’t something that had ever touched my heart in a personal way. As my Christian faith deepened, I became convicted of many sins against life, such as abortion. Like most Catholics and evangelical Christians, I considered myself to be “pro-life.” Making the call against abortion seemed so obvious: a fetus is a baby. Likewise, suicide or assisted-suicide (euthanasia) were actions against the gift of life and had to be wrong. For me, being pro-life also meant taking stands against embryonic stem-cell research, in-vitro fertilization, and artificial birth control. But somehow capital punishment seemed different. After all, abortion and many other scientific “advances” were sins against an innocent new life. The death penalty evoked images of purposeful violence and premeditated murder that a criminal committed without regard to life. I believed the fifth commandment forbade murder but not capital punishment. For me, taking the life of a duly-convicted criminal was justice, not murder.
My heart began to change on this issue one evening while talking with friends. The discussion centered on who exactly is the one who kills the condemned person. Of course the immediate agent of death is the executioner who flips the switch for the electric chair or the person who injects the deadly drug into the vein. But the responsibility for the death of the criminal broadens to include the legal and judicial system, the parole boards and/or Governor, and finally to all of us who are members of a society which supports and upholds the use of the death penalty.
And “all of us” means: me. Could I flip the switch or plunge the needle that takes a life? Yet my tax dollars and my vote support someone else in doing it. Thankfully, I’ve never lost anyone I’ve loved to violence. Would that personal pain make it easier to take someone’s life from them? I began to realize that I couldn’t support pro-life positions on the one hand while supporting the death penalty on the other. Life is life. Show me one Gospel verse that says otherwise. If I believe, as my Catholic faith teaches me, that every person is made in the image and likeness of God, then how can I believe in the justice of the death penalty? Of course, the murderer on death row isn’t the same as the innocent, unborn child in the womb. But how could I go on defending life in one setting and condemn it in another? The value of every human life comes from the One Who created it, not from me, and not from the Supreme Court. In my heart, all the intellectual arguments on both sides of the issues were drowned out by the life and example of Jesus Christ.
He came to “give His life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). He came to call sinners to Himself (Matthew 9:13). Jesus calls us to be reconciled with those who have injured us (Matthew 5:43-45) and to pray for the forgiveness of our sins “as we forgive those who have sinned against us” (Matthew 6:12). We hear the loving words of the crucified Christ dying on the Cross as a victim of the Roman death penalty: “…Father, forgive them, for they do now know what they do” (Luke 23:34). So lock up the criminals and throw away the key. And let God continue to call out to their hearts just as the Lord did to the Good Thief as they both hung dying on Calvary’s hill. I’ve come to believe that capital punishment is morally wrong and I pray for an end to the death penalty just as I pray for an end to abortion and other sins against the sacredness of human life. He calls me to leave behind my desire for vengeance or retribution and instead to work for justice and peace. His example of love and forgiveness is what transforms my heart each day.
“In [God’s] hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of all mankind.” –Job 12:10