Are Millennials Shaking Up the Death Penalty Debate?

The living example of Jesus Christ moves each generation of Christians into social action, and each generation is called in its own way. I have the privilege of working with many young evangelical leaders who want to see an end to the death penalty. Inspired by our faith, we are challenging old beliefs with new realities, as well as promoting a consistent ethic of life.

Young evangelicals have grown up in an era where it is broadly understood that the death penalty is far from perfect. They know that innocent people get convicted in our country and that there are racial disparities throughout our criminal justice system. It is this awareness, and an interest in promoting a culture of life, that have brought young Christians to question the death penalty. 

Some of those joining me at the forefront of this anti-death penalty youth movement are national figures like evangelical activist Shane Claiborne, a founder of The Simple Way in Philadelphia, and the author and commentator Jonathan Merritt. Others are less prominent nationally, but no less committed, such as Justin Phillips, an evangelical organizer with Tennesseans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty and Stacy Anderson, the executive director of Nebraskans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. We are part of the growing number of millennials who are actively working to end the death penalty across our nation. I asked some of these leaders to weigh in on the issue via email:

“Young Christians have watched our society waste so much energy and so many resources all in the pursuit of death,” Claiborne said. “This is not a Christian value and this is not what we were taught in Sunday school.”

Merritt said that Christians should be concerned about the death penalty and how it is disproportionately applied against communities of color. “The most reliable predictor of whether someone will be sentenced to death is not the amount of evidence, but the race of the victim,” he said.

Another factor driving concerns is the very real prospect of taking an innocent human life. A recent study indicates that at least four percent of those currently under a sentence of death are innocent. Our generation, now assuming the mantle of evangelical leadership, cannot be blind to these stark realities.

“The more exposure there is to the issue, to the simple facts about this flawed system, and people are stunned,” Justin Phillips said. “Theological interpretations can be argued endlessly, but the realities of the death penalty are beyond dispute and provide stubborn testimony for the necessity of its repeal.”

It’s no wonder that even many Christians who support the death penalty have become uneasy with the system. Along with recent reports of botched executions and the risk of killing innocent people, their eyes have been opened to how the decades-long process hurts victims’ families and the racial disparities incumbent with the death penalty.

When dealing with matters of justice, the young evangelicals that I am aligned with are looking to the New Testament for answers, and they are guided by the spirit, example, and teaching of Jesus Christ himself. “Of all people, we who follow the executed and risen Christ should be people who are consistently pro-life, pro-grace and anti-death,” Claiborne said. “The conviction that no one is beyond redemption lies at the heart of our faith. God's grace is bigger than our mistakes.”

The burst of young evangelical voices into the death penalty debate is now changing hearts and minds. We are doing what generations of young people have done before us as we take the helm of evangelical leadership. We are taking what we’ve learned about our faith and about the world, and we are putting it into action.

-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 daughter Grace.