taking the words of Jesus seriously

We must abolish the death penalty.

For Christians, who are called to love their enemies and view every human as made in the divine image of God, this is especially important. The way we treat others is supposed to be distinctively Christlike—radically loving. 

According to the Equal Justice Initiative, 167 people have been exonerated and released from death row since 1973. For every nine people executed, one person on death row has been exonerated—a remarkable 11% exoneration rate. EJI also points out that capital punishment is racist, with African Americans making up 42% of people on death row and 34% of those executed, but consisting of only 13% of the population.

 A long history of racist executions exists in America, and capital punishment was synonymous with lynching for much of our country’s early history. White mobs would incite racial furor, and with the oversight—and active participation—of law enforcement officials, victims would be captured, tortured, and murdered under the guise of “justice.”

From 1882 to 1968 there were over 4,500 recorded lynchings in the United States, and these numbers don’t include the countless lynchings that were never recorded on any public record. Most blacks were killed without evidence, trials, or any semblance of due process. The few cases that somehow did make it to trial faced all-white juries, racist judges, and corrupt politicians, which in turn made the victim’s death-sentence all but guaranteed. In the miraculous event that a person of color was declared innocent, mobs would take matters into their own hands and kill them regardless. Philip Dray’s critically acclaimed book ‘At the Hands of Person Unknown: The Lynching of Black America’ is a sobering resource documenting the history of lynching. The book provides important context proving that law enforcement and the unjust judiciary processes they feed victims into play vital—and horrific—roles that lead directly to the death penalty.

 In 1944, it only took 10 minutes for an all-white jury to convict a black 14-year-old boy named George Stinney of murder. His was sentenced to be executed but “The chair’s straps were loose on Stinney’s 5-foot-1-inch, 95-pound frame, and books were placed on the seat so he would fit in the chair. When the switch was flipped, Stinney’s body convulsed, dislodging the oversized mask and exposing his face to about 40 witnesses…”  In 2o14 his conviction was vacated by a South Carolina judge, and the Sydney Morning Herald reported the judge as saying “the state committed a great injustice.”  Unfortunately, these types of injustices are still happening today.

WATCH: RLC Maundy Thursday ‘Executing Grace’ Discussion with Shane Claiborne

There are currently over 2,600 people on death row. And with an 11% exoneration rate, the chances that a significant number of death row inmates are the victims of racism, bad evidence, false accusations, or police and prosecutorial mismanagement are high. Surely the statistical prerequisite for death needs to require a 100% guarantee of equity and fairness, a justice system that is absolutely perfect, something no legal process—however good—can ever attain. 

Our criminal justice system is significantly flawed. Our legislation is influenced by millionaire lobbyists and partisan politicians. Our law enforcement is poisoned by racism and bias. Our incarceration facilities are managed for profit. Our judicial systems give undue favor to those who can afford good lawyers and representation.  Our system of justice is unreliable at best and cruelly oppressive at its worst. We cannot in good conscience execute people while relying on such a problematic structure. 

Many fail to realize just how inhumane executions can be. Orlando Weekly describes the horrifically botched execution of Jesse Joseph Tafero in 1990: “During his execution via the electric chair, Tafero’s head erupted into flames, and it took three shocks for him to stop breathing. Tafero, who was accused of shooting and killing two law enforcement officers, was later found to be innocent.” This is just one example among a long and ghastly list of mismanaged executions in the U.S. Even “successful” executions can resemble forms of torture, and most developed countries have long outlawed capital punishment. In the latest global rankings of quality of life put out by US News, not a single country listed in the top ten has a form of capital punishment. As recently at 2017, the U.S. ranked 8th in official state-sponsored executions, behind China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Pakistan, Egypt, and Somalia.

EJI founder Bryan Stevenson, who calls the death penalty a “stepchild of lynching,” argues in his bestselling book ‘Just Mercy’ that “we would never think it humane to pay someone to rape people convicted of rape or assault and abuse someone guilty of assault or abuse” and goes on to ask if we then deserve to kill someone who has committed murder? For Christians who believe that all humans are created in the divine image of God, we must also ask ourselves, “Is God commanding me to kill this person?”

This question is answered by Jesus, who himself was killed via capital punishment by the Roman Empire, something we are keenly aware of this week. “Love your enemies” Jesus commanded (Matthew 5:44) and “Do unto others” (Matthew 7:12) is the golden standard by which Christ instructs his followers to live by. If anyone had just cause to kill in self-defense or execute someone for the sake of justice, it was Jesus. Yet the Prince of Peace never gave us a precedent to take someone’s life. On the contrary, he gave up his own life for the sake of others. If you believe the person of Jesus is the ultimate example of how we should live as Christians, your stance should be pro-life instead of pro-death. Jesus says that “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy” (Matthew 5:7). May we show mercy. God help us. 

About The Author

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Stephen Mattson is the author of "The Great Reckoning: Surviving a Christianity That Looks Nothing Like Christ." Follow him on Twitter (@mikta)

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