For a Consistent Ethic of Life, Death Penalty Raises Questions

On May 2 of this year, Maryland became the sixth state in six years to end the death penalty.  The faith community in our country has contributed greatly to this growing trend.  Increasingly faith leaders from a vast variety of traditions are standing together to oppose our system of capital punishment. 

And, they stand on the shoulders of giants.  In fact, Christians have played a significant role in the movement to end the death penalty for centuries.  Because of their belief that there is God in everyone, and a testimony of nonviolence, Quakers have actively worked to end the death penalty since the 1600s.  The Catholic Church has also played a major role in efforts to repeal the death penalty nationwide.  Sister Helen Prejean (a Roman Catholic nun who is the author of the autobiographical account, Dead Man Walking) is a leading advocate for the abolition of the death penalty.    

Sister Helen often says that support for the death penalty in this country may be a mile wide, but it’s an inch deep.  When we as Christians are able to take a closer look at our death penalty system, we see that our faith calls us to something different, something higher.

In a society where the sanctity of life is under attack, the death penalty represents another barrier to building a culture that truly values life.  Human beings are created in the image of God, and we must be consistent in our ethic of life – that life is precious from its inception to its natural end.  Human life is sacred, and as Christians, our respect for this gift from God must be unwavering. 

As people of faith, we are also called to bring comfort to those who are suffering.  Unfortunately, time and time again, we learn that the death penalty brings additional pain to those who have lost a loved one to murder.  Our system does not serve their needs, and it does not promote their healing.  In fact, it does the opposite by prolonging their pain while appeals and reversals force them to relive their trauma again and again.  Appeals, re-trials, and court appearances often go on for decades.  Most cases result in a life sentence in the end, but only after the victims’ family has endured years of uncertainty.

 A lethal injection table in a prison. 

A lethal injection table in a prison. 

There is another set of individuals that is affected by the death penalty, but often overlooked.  These are the people who are tasked with carrying out the actual execution.  Several wardens have come forward to talk about the traumatic process corrections workers go through in planning and orchestrating an execution.  Many have experienced post-traumatic stress and nightmares.  When Christians think about the death penalty, we must consider the effects on those who perform it.

Most importantly, for us though, is the fact that God says that no person is beyond His love, grace and forgiveness.  Ezekiel 33:11 says, “As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live.”  History is full of examples where God has used people who have done terrible things for his glory.  One needs only to open a Bible and read about the way that God utilized Moses or David who were both murderers to understand this fact.

There are also countless stories of people who have found Christ in a prison cell.  Why would we want to take the risk of executing a person before he or she has had the opportunity to come to know Him?  We are called to share the love of Christ with all who will listen, and this includes those who have committed terrible crimes.

Our faith calls us to a place of restorative justice where the offender takes responsibility for his or her actions and works to repair the pain that was caused.  This type of justice pays attention to the real needs of victims and allows them to begin the process of moving on with their lives.  

As Christians, we must question a system that risks executing innocent people, costs exponentially more than a sentence of life without parole, does not align with our value for human life, causes further pain to those it seeks to help, and disregards the real possibility for redemption.  

-Heather Beaudoin works with Equal Justice USA and Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty.  She and her husband live in Three Rivers, Michigan with their beautiful 11 month old daughter, Grace.