A few weeks ago at the GOP presidential debate, some in the crowd cheered as Rick Perry defended his record on the death penalty. It was a horrifying thing to watch. Why is anyone cheering for the death penalty? Regardless of one's political stance on capital punishment, it seems to me that at best it is a necessary evil, but certainly not something to be celebrated.
Perhaps sparked by the Rick Perry / audience cheering debate, the Washington Post has featured an array of columns on the issue of capital punishment in its "On Faith" column in recent weeks. Among other things, the columns have illustrated just how diverse the opinions are on this issue, even among Christians.
Richard Land's post, "The death penalty can be pro-life," argued that it is not inconsistent to be pro-life on abortion but also in favor of the death penalty. Citing Romans 13:4 and just war theory to defend his position, Land was also careful to note that "If one is going to support the death penalty, one also has to support its just and equitable application."
Meanwhile, on the other end of the spectrum, and in a seemingly direct response to Land's position, N.T. Wright began his rather curt post ("American Christians and the death penalty") with an assertive statement: "You can’t reconcile being pro-life on abortion and pro-death on the death penalty."
Somewhere in the middle--refreshingly--is John Mark Reynolds, director of the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University, who wrote a column with the title, "Death penalty an imperfect solution." Reynolds touches on the abortion/death penalty comparison by noting that "There is an obvious moral distinction between the taking of the life of a criminal and killing the innocent... One could support the death penalty for criminals as a necessity while supporting the right to life for the unborn and be morally consistent."
Later in the piece Reynolds gets it right when he says:
Poor cultures cannot protect themselves from murderers without taking the life of a killer. The death penalty, administered by the state after due process of law, was a Christian solution to this problem. It never was a perfect solution and many Christian nations, such as the Orthodox East, imposed more limits on it over time.
As a society rich enough to imprison wrong-doers the death penalty should be rare in the United States. The Lord Jesus Himself called us to love our enemies, so even in the cases where the state must execute justice no Christian would rejoice in the death of the wicked...
The death penalty is, I think, justified in some circumstances, such as when prisoners kill in prison, but it [is] always regrettable. When the audience bursts into applause at the mention of executions at a Republican debate, they had more common with the mob in the Roman arena, than with the martyrs in it.
Reynolds also points out some of the problems that must be addressed in the discussion of capital punishment, such as the disproportionate number of minorities executed, and the overcrowding of our prisons.
I probably fall somewhere near Reynolds' position, though I'm not necessarily going to cheer on or even actively support the death penalty. Is it sometimes necessary or appropriate? Probably. I think it was right and just for Osama bin Laden to have been killed, even though I was horrified by the cheers and street parties that event elicited, just as I'm horrified by the Tea Partiers who cheered for Texas' death penalty record. The death of any person is not something to rejoice in.
I believe the death penalty should be rarely used, and then only as a last resort. In cases where there is any ambiguity, any questions whatsoever about guilt, the death penalty should be completely off the table.
Case in point: Troy Davis, a death row inmate in Georgia. Davis was convicted of killing a police officer in 1989 and is scheduled to die tonight at 7pm. Thing is, his case has been cast into a lot of doubt, since seven of nine original trial witnesses have since recanted their testimony. Many have started wondering if David might actually be innocent, and it seems to me that even the suggestion of that should cause the execution to be postponed or called off until certainty can be gained. Sadly, Georgia's pardon and parole board Tuesday denied clemency to Davis, ending perhaps his last ditch hope for avoiding execution.
People should not be executed amidst ambiguity and lingering questions about their guilt. If that's how the death penalty is in the United States, then I cannot support it. I think it's ok to have the death penalty as an option in our justice system, but it must be in the rarest, most unambiguous cases. And it should always be something we approach soberly, quietly, something we treat solemnly and not as a political football. It's not something we should ever cheer on.