Behind that move lies the retributive idea that it's intrinsically good to inflict suffering on wrongdoers, suffering that's proportionate to their offense.
But this is one idea that Jesus consistently challenged. As Christians--followers of Jesus--think about the death penalty, they would do well to ask, "Who would Jesus execute?" And although Jesus was Himself put to death by the state, He was never in a position to order an execution. So evidence of what Jesus would have done has to be more indirect.
Here, then, are some things for Christians to think about as they wrestle with the ethics of the death penalty:
1. The love ethic Jesus taught was radical--and radically inclusive.
Sometimes we lose sight of how radical Jesus' ethical teachings are. To love your neighbor as yourself isn't epitomized by bringing them baked good when they move in, or taking in their trash cans (the kinds of things my students often mention when I ask them for examples of loving your neighbor). If Jesus' life is to be our model, loving our neighbor has to be epitomized by something far more radical--such as sacrificing your life to save the neighbor who just finished murdering your family.
Here's the heart of the Christian story: God's only Son was unjustly tortured to death, and through that agonizing death took on and erased humanity's sins for the sake of their salvation. Not just the trivial sins. All of them. Including the sin of murdering God's only Son. If Jesus is our model of love, then our love cannot end at the borders of those who have lived decent lives. We are called to love those who have lived horrific lives and committed intolerable wrongs.
A.J. Muste once said, "If I can't love Hitler, I can't love at all." He was making a claim about the nature of Christian love--a love that does not wait on worth but seeks the good of even the most horrible mass-murderer in history.
I'm often accused of endorsing a soft, sugar-coated love ethic because I argue that acceptance of our gay and lesbian neighbors is demanded by our love for them. But the love ethic I follow is anything but soft. It is hard. The hardest thing in the world. But not because it's hard on others. It's the hardest thing in the world because it demands so much of us. More, probably, than most of us are ready to give.
2. Jesus rejected "eye for an eye" justice
One of the things Jesus' radical ethic demands is that we let go of an idea which sits deeply in our human bones, and which finds such clear expression in Deuteronomy 19:21: "Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot."
Radical Jesus rejects that scriptural injunction in favor of another:
"You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles." (Matthew 5:38-41)I'll return to the question of what Jesus might have meant by "turn the other cheek" in a minute. For now I just want to stress what Jesus rejects. Specifically, he rejects the ethical view which says that the rapist-murderer got what was coming to him during the botched Oklahoma execution. When we give an eye for an eye, we fall radically short of what Jesus calls us to do.
3. Jesus was critical of Scripture.
In rejecting "eye for an eye" justice, Jesus was rejecting something endorsed in Scripture--not just in Deuteronomy 19:21, but in Exodus 21:24 and Leviticus 24:20. Eye-for-eye justice was popular enough to enjoy repeated scriptural endorsement. Jesus repudiated it.
And His willingness to reject scriptural injunctions doesn't stop there. Perhaps one of the most celebrated stories in the New Testament appears in John 8:1-11 (apparently part of the oral histories, which wasn't in the earliest versions of the Gospel of John but was inserted later). In this story, Jesus comes upon a group of religious leaders preparing to stone an adulteress. They ask Him what He thinks of that--noting, correctly, that execution by stoning is what is explicitly prescribed in the Hebrew Scriptures for the crime of adultery.
Jesus' answer is, of course, well known. But it deserves repeating: “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”
Wow. No wonder someone made sure this story made it into the Gospels. While I'll return to the significance of Jesus' response below, for now I want to stress what it shows about narrowly "biblical" approaches to capital punishment: Jesus didn't, based on the scriptural texts calling for it, endorse the execution of the adulteress. He repudiated the execution despite these texts, based on a deeper insight into the ubiquity of human sin.
And this means that Christians who claim to follow Jesus can't proof-text their way to a conclusion about the morality of capital punishment. When it comes to taking life, the laws of ancient Israel called for it rather liberally, not just as a punishment for murder but also for disobedience to your parents (Deuteronomy 21:18-21), not being able to prove you were a virgin on your wedding night (Deuteronomy 22:20-21), having consensual sex with the wrong people (Leviticus 20:10-14), and being raped in the wrong place at the wrong time and not shouting for help loudly enough (Deuteronomy 22:23-24).
Some Christians draw from all of this the conclusion that God endorses the death penalty. But, if the story in John is to be believed, that's not the conclusion Jesus reached. And if Christians want to be followers of Jesus, they need to wrestle with that.
4. If you care about standing against sin, look inward.
When Jesus said, "Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her," He was expressing a recurring theme in His teachings. It's a theme that finds clear expression in the following passage from the Sermon on the Mount:
Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. (Matthew 7:3-5)The theme is this: Morality isn't first and foremost about judging others. It's about looking inward, recognizing our own moral failings, and taking responsibility for them (which, in Christian teaching, has usually been taken to mean opening ourselves up to the transforming power of God, so that God's grace can not only assure us of divine forgiveness but help us to be morally better than we could be on our own).
In the story from John's Gospel, this idea is paired with another message: Our own moral failings are sufficiently grave, and our understanding of where others have come from so limited, that we lack the moral authority to stand in that kind of judgment over others: the kind that justifies bashing someone's head with a stone...or pumping lethal chemicals into their blood. When it comes to a punishment so total, so final, so irreversible, we need to be especially conscious of our limits.
And our limits are enormous.
5. Forgive, forgive, forgive...even when you punish.
When Peter asked Jesus how many times he should forgive those who sinned against him--proposing seven times (a rather generous number if you think about what that means in your own life)--Jesus answered him, "Not seven times, but seventy times seven" (or seventy-seven on some translations). (Matthew 18:21-22) The point is not to stop at 490 (or 77), but to forgive without limit. And at least part of what forgiveness calls for is letting go of the urge to get even for the sake of getting even.
When we confront someone who has committed horrible crimes, what Jesus' ethic calls for is not an eye for an eye, but love and forgiveness. We are called to love our enemies, and forgiving them their trespasses against us is a central part of what that means. The question Christians need to wrestle with is this: What does this mean for criminal punishment? What sorts of approaches to criminal punishment should Christians be willing to stand behind as Christians, given Jesus' injunction to love and forgive each and every criminal, no matter the brutality of their crime?
My own instinct is that punishment has a place within an ethic of love and forgiveness--but not the sort of punishment that is defined exclusively by "eye-for-eye" retributivism (or by the utilitarian focus on deterrence). Wrongdoing demands a response, but a response that targets the wrong done in a way that aims to heal the victims and transform the wrongdoer---perhaps something along the lines of the Restorative Justice model of punishment.
Targeting the wrong done means one cannot ignore or whitewash the offense. It demands, instead, that offenders face their crimes honestly, appreciating the full gravity of what they've done in such a way that they are motivated to do whatever they can to mitigate or repay their crime.
Such punishment is consistent with an ethic of love and forgiveness insofar as the moral transformation of the criminal is good for the criminal, and is thus an expression of love. But when criminals feel genuine remorse, when they experience the full gravity of what they've done and yearn to do penance for their offenses, it's not just good for them. It is, I would argue, good for society. And it contributes to the effort of victims to find closure. It helps us all to achieve what Jesus calls for in the face of wrongdoing: forgiveness.
Christians need to think about the place of the death penalty in such an approach to punishment. Is killing people the best way to inspire sincere remorse, a renewed allegiance to the good, and a commitment to making it right? Is it the best way to promote the healing that comes from forgiveness?
6. Respond to evil with creative nonviolence.
And this takes us to the final point. When Jesus called for us to turn the other cheek and walk the second mile, He was offering examples of His alternative to an eye for an eye. The theologian Walter Wink has argued that these are actually rather ingenious examples of creative, non-violent responses to evil.
Jesus didn't merely say, "Turn the other cheek." He said, "If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also."
The right cheek. Wink thinks this is important. He notes that when someone was hit on the right cheek in Jesus' day, it was either because they were receiving a backhanded blow of the sort a master gives to a slave, or a blow with the unclean left hand. Neither was the kind of blow one delivered to an equal. To turn the left cheek, in the face of such an insult, meant that one was saying, "If you are to strike me, do so as an equal."
Wink offers similar intriguing understandings of handing over your coat and walking the second mile. But the point is this: Jesus replaced "eye-for-an eye" with something else--and that something else, while nonviolent, wasn't passive or submissive. What He advocated was a strong, determined, and creative nonviolent response aimed at jarring the aggressor into rethinking what they're doing. In response to evil, what Jesus recommended wasn't self-protection or flight or cowering submission, but the pursuit of moral transformation--even if it meant risk or self-sacrifice.
Where there is evil in someone's character, Jesus doesn't call for violence or hatred or passivity, but the kind of love that seeks a creative way to save the person from their sin. According to the story at the heart of the Christian worldview, that's what Jesus did on the cross. And that's what Jesus was asking for when He said, "Take up your cross and follow me."
I can see how that injunction might call on me to risk execution for the sake of bringing moral transformation to a heinous murderer. It's harder to see how it would justify calling for the murderer's execution.
ADDENDUM: When I wrote this the other day, I hadn't noticed that Al Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, had written a piece earlier this month on why Christians should support the death penalty (the things you miss when you're grading term papers and final exams!). A nice blog post by Tylor Standley, responding to Mohler, called my attention to this fact. Unfortunately, Mohler addresses exactly none of the Christian concerns I raised above (or Tylor raised in his piece) about the death penalty...leaving me to wonder exactly how a conservative Evangelical like Mohler wrestles with these sorts of issues and reconciles them with a pro-death-penalty stance. If anyone has insight into how Mohler or those like him would engage with the arguments in this post, let me know.