Life or Death: Who Decides?

Is the death penalty a divine prerogative that we have usurped?

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Posted in , Jan 2, 2015

Do you believe in the death penalty? Photo by C_FOR, Thinkstock.

If it wasn’t for capital punishment, Christianity might not have been born in the first century A.D. After all, Christ got the death penalty.

He was executed like a common criminal, in fact side-by-side with two unexceptional thieves, in the crude but effective manner prescribed by Roman law; crucified, like hundreds of thousands of others during the Empire’s long, often brutal reign.

Crucifixion was as ordinary then as hanging horse thieves was in the Old West. The cross was not a symbol of redemption but an ominous reminder of what could happen if you stepped out of line criminally or politically.

Lenny Bruce once joked that it was a good thing Jesus’ execution didn’t happen in the 20th century or we’d all be walking around with little electric chairs around our necks.   

Do you believe in the death penalty?This train of thought left the station when I was cruising around a news site today checking out what users voted as the most important stories of 2014.

Botched Executions
Relatively high on the list were accounts of gruesomely botched executions in Ohio, Oklahoma and elsewhere, as well as the exoneration of a poor 14-year-old boy named George Stinny, Jr., who was sent to the electric chair for the rape and murder of two young white girls in Alcolu, South Carolina, a segregated mill town in 1944.

George Stinny, who was black, confessed after he was promised ice cream and told that he would get to see his mother. His trial took less than a day, the all-white jury took less than 10 minutes to convict, and 84 days later George Stinny died.

He was so small that he had to sit on telephone books so his head could be secured in the metal cap atop the chair. Even then, in the process of electrocution, the adult-sized mask slipped off his face to reveal the tears coursing down his cheeks.

In the parlance of the day, George was said to be “slow,” and he never understood the crime he confessed to and was put to death for. All he wanted was to have some ice cream and see his mom.

In fact his family had to flee Alcolu, and he only saw his mother once, secretly, before being executed. I don’t know if they ever let him have any ice cream.

Long Overdue Admission
I do know that 70 years later a South Carolina Circuit Court judge vacated George Stinny's conviction with a writ of coram noblis. Not a pardon, mind you.

There was never evidence of wrongdoing by George Stinny. Just a long overdue admission by the state that grievous errors had been made in his prosecution and death. 

All nations and people have shadows that fall upon their history, and I think we Americans have been remarkably frank and honest about ours. We count our blessings but we recognize our failings.

And lately I’ve been thinking about our changing and conflicted views on the death penalty, focusing on my own unease in particular. And I’m wondering about yours.

If I am honest, there are people who commit crimes so heinous, so inhuman, so evil, that I would have no problem personally administering the lethal injection.

If a criminal hurt my wife Julee or someone else I loved, I would want the death penalty to be applied, preferably with my own bare hands. I totally understand the emotional logic.

Are We Playing God?
But I have begun to wonder about the moral logic and the legitimacy of the death penalty as enlightened social policy. Are we playing God when we carry out an execution?

Should our government, by which I mean we the people, be allowed to deliberately take life? Or is that a divine prerogative we have usurped?

Polls show that support for the death penalty is falling off dramatically, even among conservative Christians, traditional supporters.

Formerly pro-death penalty governors have suspended executions in their states after modern forensics, especially DNA evidence, have spared scores of death row prisoners and belatedly revealed the innocence of executed inmates.

Moreover we live in a free-market economy. The better lawyer you can afford, the more expert witnesses you can hire, the greater chance of beating the needle. Maybe that’s not fair but that’s the way it is. And it’s only that way here.

No other western democracy executes its citizens. You don’t want to know the list of countries that still do, but we’re on it, and pretty far up there too.

I turn to the Bible and am told, “Thou shalt not kill.” I’m also told an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth as well as specific circumstances where people deserve to be put to death, circumstances we no longer even regard as criminal.

Jesus urges us to love the sinner. Can you kill someone you are supposed to love?  \Even my own church opposes the death penalty, yet isn’t hell itself the ultimate death penalty? Isn’t God the ultimate judge, the giver and taker of life?

Rapidly Shifting Attitudes
The death penalty seems to be one of several issues where our attitudes both as citizens and people of faith are shifting rapidly, and there are good people on both sides of the debate.

I feel like some of my own beliefs are being tested and I am wondering how you are thinking about this issue.

What could be more serious than the deliberate taking of a life? Does God allow us that privilege or not? Or should Christians be humble and yield to God’s judgment on such matters?

Does life in prison without the possibility of parole at least leave room for redemption and penance? Are there people who are simply evil beyond redemption, the very redemption that the cross Christ was executed on has come to represent?

Julee always says I’ll never find answers to all the questions I have, but I know the first step is asking the question.

What do you think?

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