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What is the Christian perspective on the death penalty?

Pope Francis kisses a child as he arrives to hold his Weekly General Audience in St. Peter's Square in Vatican City, Vatican. Pope Francis dedicated his General Audience on Wednesday to the theme of proper disposition expected by Christian faith toward the goods of the world, saying that they serve the common good if used in accordance with the demands of justice, charity and mercy, though they become a source of corruption and death if used selfishly and arrogantly. (Photo by Giuseppe Ciccia / Pacific Press) Pope Francis called on Catholic political leaders to put a moratorium on using the death penalty during the Church's Jubilee of Mercy. On Saturday in St. Peter's Square, the Pope said, "I appeal to the conscience of the rulers, so that we achieve an international consensus for the abolition of the death penalty." Speaking before thousands, Pope Francis built upon the Ten Commandments in his argument, noting, "The commandment 'You shall not kill' has absolute value and applies to both the innocent and the guilty."

Though this is not a new position for this Pope, it is one he wants to emphasize during this special year. This jubilee (year) of mercy started on December 8th and runs through November 20, 2016. Jubilees occur normally every twenty-five years, inviting individuals to experience God through emulating God. This particular year, Pope Francis chose to emphasize mercy. And in doing so, he has now called on Catholic political leaders to extend mercy to those incarcerated and on death row.

So will/should the death penalty be put to death?

Much like middle school relationships, it's complicated. And in an unsurprising twist, both those for and those against the death penalty utilize the biblical narrative in order to substantiate their argument.

For the Death Penalty

Most arguments (I mean this is logical sense, not in the brothers-fighting-for-shotgun sense) begin with Genesis 9:6.

"Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image."

In this particular verse, the Bible clearly calls for capital punishment in the instance of intentional murder. The penalty was rooted in the understanding that such a crime was an affront to God, the one who created man and made man in his image. The fatal consequence is not simply an exercise in vengeance but the extension of justice.

However, this injunction was rooted in an Ancient Near Eastern, theocratic society. Transitioning from that to the Roman empire, out of which we read the New Testament, the argument goes that God has empowered the government to continue to wield the sword (Romans 13:1–7). By wielding the sword, the state carries out justice, restrains evil, and, if necessary, utilizes capital punishment.

The government "does not bear the sword in vain." The magistrate "is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer" (Romans 13:4). The word sword, as pointed out by Charles Hodge, refers to the sword employed to execute Roman citizens found guilty of capital crimes. Consequently, most Christians who take biblical authority seriously in most eras have concluded that capital punishment is one biblically sanctioned option available to the civil magistrate to punish evildoers. And in turn, the logic follows that this not only carries out justice but serves as a deterrent to other criminals.

But what about grace? What about turning the other check and loving your enemy? We see even on the cross that grace does not exempt you from punishment. The thief received grace in his last hour, being promised to join Jesus in paradise, but he also received his punishment (Luke 23:41). Grace and punishment are not mutually exclusive.

Against the Death Penalty

The anti-death penalty position often begins with Genesis 9:6 as well, but deconstructs it to lessen the punch. They will argue that this passage is a proverb, not a command. This proverb is contextually placed in a world and during a time in which there was not a government, thus this would be considered an act of revenge (which is specially prohibited (Romans 12:19).

However, this literal proverbial explanation fails to sufficiently deal with the creative foundation of the passage. Namely, the passage is grounded in creation, the image of God. Created in the image of God, humanity exhibits such value that to murder results in someone bearing the worst consequence imaginable, the forfeiture of one's own life.

Moving from Genesis 9, the antagonistic side will often elaborate upon the various other instances that call for the death penalty. This eye-for-eye and tooth-for-tooth mentality iterates that, according to the Hebrew Scriptures, the death penalty is the only option for other crimes. Those include but are not limited to: those who have been caught making a sacrifice to a false god (Exodus 22:20), rape (Deuteronomy 22:24), adultery (Leviticus 20:10), bestiality (Exodus 22:12), kids who habitually curse their parents (Exodus 21:15–17) or are rebellious (Deuteronomy 21:18–21).

This list is not exhaustive of every instance, but it is used by the antagonistic side in order to make a point, drawing out the ludicrousness of the idea of the death penalty in today's culture. Then, they will often transition to the New Testament, indirectly implying that Jesus' words hold more weight.

This "canon within a canon" method of interpretation doesn't exalt Jesus, but rather limits Jesus to his explicit words in a confined portion of the entirety of the biblical text. Others find that Jesus' words hold just as much weight as the words of the Old Testament. They all point back to the hero of the story, accentuating the greatness of our King and the lengths he was willing to go in order to save those he loved (Matthew 5:17, John 5:39, Luke 24:27).

Nevertheless, proponents of this argument will then proceed to highlight the instances that Jesus admonishes his followers to love their enemies, pray for their enemies, and turn the other cheek (Matthew 5, Romans 12:19). Jesus is the one who will continually repeat, "You have heard it said, but I say unto you. . ." They argue that Jesus is ushering in a new type of way, departing from the past. But it is important to note that Jesus is teaching his followers; not offering public policy advice.

Preston Sprinkle, in his work Fight: A Christian Case for Non-Violence, offers this concluding, compelling word:

"From God's perspective, the wages of sin is death, which means that we all—even you—have already been convicted of capital crimes in God's courtroom and have been given the death penalty. It would be odd—some would say hypocritical—for Christians to thank God for taking their death penalty and then spin around to celebrate the death of someone they think is worse than them."

Conclusion

It's complicated. Both sides offer compelling arguments. Though they may differ on capital punishment, they both find common ground on a desire for justice. One side wants to be an active agent in carrying out justice, while the other side wants to actively point to the One who carried out ultimate justice on the cross.

With this desire for justice, could we come together to bring about a more just society in which all are equal? It is unjust that race often outweighs evidence relative to the death penalty. In Amnesty USA's research, they found that "the single most reliable predictor of whether someone will be sentenced to death is the race of the victim."

Wealth is also a significant factor. Former appellate judge Gerald Heaney notes:

"The decision of who shall live and who shall die for his crime turns less on the nature of the offense and the incorrigibility of the offender and more on inappropriate and indefensible considerations: the political and personal inclinations of prosecutors; the defendant's wealth, race and intellect; the race and economic status of the victim; the quality of the defendant's counsel; and the resources allocated to defense lawyers."

No one wants the death penalty. We would all desire to live and move in a world rid of crime and saturated in peace. But until then, may we pray with our feet that his kingdom would come, his will would be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

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