EDITOR’S NOTE: In the first part of Dr. Brown’s article, he argued that the U.S. death penalty system, as it is currently, does not fulfill its intended purpose. On the contrary, there actually might be factors present that work against its original intentions. In the next section, Dr. Brown compares the meaning of contemporary justice to biblical justice. Christians hold that the Bible is the foundation for everything we need, both in life and salvation. The Bible teaches us that God’s ways are both redemptive and restorative, not just punishing. Therefore, we must examine the death penalty as it is used in the United States and ask ourselves if it truly measures up to God’s redemptive and restorative work.

One definitional challenge we face is how to define justice. The American justice system is predicated upon the notion of retribution, giving what is due either as a reward or punishment, an “eye-for-an-eye” or proportional approach to crime.[1] A challenge faced by judges and prosecutors is determining how to create adequate punishment to fit the crime. In this schema, the only equitable and proportional sentence for a capital crime would be the death penalty. An alternative is restorative justice, defined as “repairing the harm caused by criminal behavior…through cooperative process that allow all willing stakeholders to meet…this can lead to transformation of people, relationships and communities.”[2] While retributive justice enacts punishment purported to deter future criminal behavior, restorative justice works to bring healing and wholeness, which are biblical aims. Restorative justice is redemptive, based upon the ideal that even criminals’ lives have value and potential to be redeemed. As opposed to the death penalty, which is irrevocable and therefore cannot lead to redemption, it provides time for God to work in the life of both the perpetrator and victim.

In addition to redemption and restoration, Christians believe in the Imago Dei. Humans are created in God’s image and thus have inherent value. The pro-life movement is predicated upon this ideal. It is my contention that a pro-life viewpoint must be consistent; our concern is for life, not just to the point of birth, but through the entire lifespan. To honestly endorse a consistent pro-life ethic is inconsistent with a pro-death penalty stance.

We also follow a Savior who was unjustly sentenced to execution. James Cone writes, “if the cross teaches us nothing else, we should understand that innocent people are unjustly crucified.”[3] It also teaches us that humans have value. That the God of the universe would send His only Son to die for a sinful people, renders the execution of criminals, as a means of maintaining human dignity and value, unnecessary.[4]

Christ also modeled a restorative justice position. In John 8 a group of religious leaders brought a woman to Jesus for judgment. Caught in the act of adultery, a capital offense established by Old Testament law, Jesus exonerated her, forgave her, and freed her from the death sentence imposed by her captors.[5] Fully aware of the Law, Jesus showed grace and forgiveness, redeeming her to live a new and improved life.

Christ also overturned the established and deeply entrenched Lex Talionis, which remains a primary justification for the death penalty today. In Matthew 5:38-42, He is quoted as saying, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.” In a world where punishment far exceeded the crime, the Lex Talionis established the principle that no punishment could be more severe than the crime. Jesus, however, established a new premise, one that rendered the Lex Talionis obsolete, thereby rendering it insufficient as a modern justification for the death penalty.

The story of Saul is a powerful illustration of why Christians should be opposed to the death penalty; he is an exemplar of the power of God to redeem lives. Saul was a terrorist bent toward the destruction of all Christians and not opposed to killing them. In Acts 26:9-11, we read an indictment of his destructive path:

“I too was convinced that I ought to do all that was possible to oppose the name of Jesus of Nazareth. 10 And that is just what I did in Jerusalem. On the authority of the chief priests I put many of the Lord’s people in prison, and when they were put to death, I cast my vote against them. 11 Many a time I went from one synagogue to another to have them punished, and I tried to force them to blaspheme. I was so obsessed with persecuting them that I even hunted them down in foreign cities.”

After his Damascus Road experience, God would use the newly-named Paul, to spread the Gospel throughout the known world and write epistles that have instructed Christians for many years since.

My work at various prisons has taught me much about redemption as well. On behalf of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, I oversee extension centers that provide seminary education inside six maximum security prisons in four states. The men and women who enroll in the programs have committed crimes that would make most blanch. A significant portion of them have received life sentences; many will never be released. Hundreds of them are involved in Christian ministry in a world that few of us will ever realize. These men and women teach others the good news of redemption in Jesus Christ, leading other inmates to a personal relationship with Jesus, discipling them in the Word, planting churches, and becoming part of incredible acts of transformation. Like Paul, they have become powerful change agents in a mission field closed to most Christian ministers. Their work compels me to believe the death penalty quells opportunities for such men and women to become ministers of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:11-21), ambassadors of Christ, through whom God is fostering a unique ministry performed by those indigenous to the prison environment.

Christians believe in redemption. We recognize that all have sinned (Romans 3:23), and thus have committed crime punishable by death (Romans 6:23). Instead of the death penalty, however, we have been offered the gift of grace (Ephesians 2:8-9), the right to become children of God (John 1:12). As followers of Jesus, therefore, redeemed from a justly deserved death penalty of our own, believing in the inherent dignity of all humans, followers of an unjustly executed Savior who even forgave a fellow prisoner being executed next to Him (Luke 23:43), how can we possibly endorse a penalty that ends the possibility of God’s work in and through a criminal sentenced to die?

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NOTES

[1] Craig DeRoche, Heather Rice-Minus & Jesse Wiese, “Outrageous justice,” Hoffman Estates, IL: Prison Fellowship.

[2] Centre for Justice and Reconciliation, “Lesson 1: What is restorative justice,” 2019, http://restorativejustice.org/restorative-justice/about-restorative-justice/tutorial-intro-to-restorative-justice/lesson-1-what-is-restorative-justice/#sthash.1cWYjv5Q.dpbs.

[3] James H. Cone, “The cross and the lynching tree,” Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.

[4] Prison Fellowship, “The death penalty,” 2019, https://www.prisonfellowship.org/resources/advocacy/sentencing/the-death-penalty/

[5] Benjamin Corey, “5 reasons why Jesus people ought to oppose the death penalty,” February 5, 2014, https://sojo.net/articles/5-reasons-why-jesus-people-ought-oppose-death-penalty