Is the Death Penalty Dying?

There was just the faintest rustling in the leaves. Did you hear it? The wind shifted ever so slightly in the world of Christian political engagement.  There was plenty of other noise in the headlines to drown out so quiet an announcement.  But it happened.  And it demonstrates that Christians may have entered a new era in a longstanding debate.

The issue to which I’m referring is the death penalty.  The news that came out last week was that the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) has changed its position on the topic. They did not reverse their 1973 stance of support, but for the first time they officially acknowledged evangelicals who oppose capital punishment.  They admit division in their ranks.  What are we to make of this decision?  And, more pointedly, how should we approach the death penalty?

The decision by the NAE is one we should support.  The NAE’s established backing of the death penalty is no surprise.  The NAE represents mostly white evangelicals, who are overwhelmingly in favor of capital punishment.  The NAE’s official opinion of unanimous support reflected that fact for decades.  It is not insignificant, therefore, that they now “acknowledge” dissenters.  After all, this is a not just a different way of looking at this particular issue; it is a different way to approach position-making altogether.   It demonstrates a desire for more dialogical representation rather than hard-and-fast doctrinal pronouncements.  This is a welcome change in general.  It is particularly hopeful for this issue.

The NAE’s change signals a shift, even among the death penalty’s most ardent supporters.  This is not a revolution.  It is the very definition of incremental reformation.  But it is a shift nonetheless.  We might see it as an increasing discomfort with both the idea and the implementation of the death penalty.  I am one of those Christians who believe that the death penalty is fraught with problems.  Many of those problems have been highlighted in recent news stories about botched executions, among other things. 

The problems are manifold.  The debate is impassioned.  We would do well to take stock of it.

  • Many estimates show that there is a great cost to performing executions.  It is usually more expensive to the taxpayer to execute someone than it is to imprison them for life. There is also psychological cost.  Execution brings the potential emotional toil of years of appeals and court battles and media attention.  This can be difficult for those close to the victims.  Families of victims do not always agree that execution is the most emotionally healthy option.
  • The death penalty is also very suspect as a deterrent to crime.  People who often commit these types of crimes are not motivated in such a way as to be deterred by future punishment. This issue is still very much alive, however.  There are those who defend the death penalty as an effective deterrent as well as those who argue it has no deterrent power.
  • Death is irreversible.  There is no way to correct or exonerate someone once he has been executed.  In the face of a flawed justice system this is disconcerting.  Steven Monsma’s article in Capital Commentary argues this point eloquently.  “Should we wed an unavoidably flawed criminal justice system with an irreversible punishment?”  For a people who tell the story of God’s transforming grace, it can sound radically disconnected to support a punishment that limits the potential of redemptive intervention. 
  • One of the characteristics of our broken system is that people are unequally sentenced to death.  Thestatistics are almost grotesque – people of color and people who are poor are executed at much higher rates. Racism and access to resources dictate too many outcomes – Monsma’s question rings loud here.
  • Church unity is also at stake in this debate.  One thing that would have been easy to miss in the Post article about the NAE is the graph at the beginning.  Look at it again.  The strongest support for capital punishment is from white evangelicals.  The one group equally opposed to it is black Protestants.  This gaping discrepancy alone should make us pause.  Maybe we’d be tempted to shrug this off.  After all, these two groups diverge on several controversial issues.  But I argue that we should take this opportunity to be disturbed by the statistical chasm, at least if we pretend to care about unity, solidarity, or racial reconciliation.  White evangelicals should take a long, hard look at this issue and ask some questions, not just of themselves, but of leaders in the black community.  It’s a good time to ask “why is there only 37% support?”  It’s a good time to do some listening.

You may disagree with some of my interpretations above, but the broken reality of the death penalty has been quite clear for a quite a while in this country.  Which leads me to ask, whence comes support for the death penalty?  To me the burden seems to be on supporters to articulate its merits.  The death penalty cannot be adequately supported only as a deterrent, cost-saver, or ethical inevitability (there is too much dissension).  If the system itself is flawed, you would have to believe in it on principle, as an ideal.  That is, you would have to believe in the inherent value of irreversible retribution – a life for a life.  And you would have to believe in it so passionately that you would be willing to overlook all the flaws I have outlined.  It would have to be an ideal worth aspiring to against great odds.  So is it?  Is our thirst for retribution that strong?  Is our desire for revenge that persistent?  And if we believed in it that strongly, wouldn’t we be working tirelessly to reform it and lift it up toward its lofty ideal? 

I’ll admit that my gut instincts have some sympathy for the logic of capital punishment.  It certainly seems fitting to my sense of rage at some of the horrendous crimes I read about.  In other words, there are certain crimes in which retributive justice feels more fitting than restorative justice.  But are we called to listen to our most basic instincts in the implementation of public justice?  I believe not.  Let’s take heed of decisions like the NAE’s and keep the conversation moving forward.  I would like to see the practice ended.  But for now a modest reformation is still hopeful. 

-Dan Carter is a husband, father, neighbor, reader, runner, and Senior Pastor of Calvary on 8th St. located in Holland, MI.