Are Followers of Jesus the Kind of People Who Put Someone to Death?

Ryan Gear By on

This Holy Week, Shane Claiborne, Brandan Robertson, and other faith leaders are collecting signatures for a “Christian Faith Leaders Lenten Statement Calling for an End to the Death Penalty.”

You can sign the petition here.

The U.S. is among the last countries on earth to retain the death penalty. Of the 195 countries in the world, the United States is one of only 36 countries (18 percent) still enforcing the death penalty in law and practice. In 2013, the U.S. was the only country in the western hemisphere to carry out an execution. Pharmaceutical companies in the European Union are no longer supplying U.S. states with certain chemicals after they discovered their medicines were being used to put inmates to death.

We are known by the company we keep, and the list of 10 countries executing the most persons annually is one many Americans are not proud to make. The U.S ranked fifth in the number of executions worldwide in 2013, behind China, Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. The other countries rounding out the top 10 are Pakistan, Yemen, North Korea, Vietnam, and Libya.

The majority of executions in the U.S. take place within a small number of states. In 2014, U.S. states executed 35 persons, with 80 percent of these executions taking place in Missouri, Texas, and Florida. Texas has executed, by far, more inmates than any other state (522 since 1976), comprising 37 percent of all executions in the U.S. Since 1976, 81 percent of all U.S. executions have taken place in the South.

There is one other glaring reason Christians should ask serious questions about the death penalty — Jesus, Himself, was executed.

As we approach Good Friday, commemorating the crucifixion of Christ, it is worth noting that the Catholic Church opposes the death penalty, as do most mainline Protestant denominations. Evangelicals, not so much. The National Association of Evangelicals continues to support capital punishment.

There is a difference between denominations and the people in the pews, however. As of November 2014, 67 percent of white evangelicals and 64 percent of white mainline Protestants support capital punishment, compared to 36 percent of Black Protestants.

While only 13 percent of the U.S. population, African Americans make up 41 percent of death row inmates, calling into question the racial fairness of the entire justice system.

Among U.S. Christians who support the death penalty, however, there is a startling disconnect. When asked, “Would Jesus support the death penalty?” only five percent of Americans said He would. This means that a significant portion of Christians in the U.S. approve of doing something they don’t think Jesus would do.

In addition to this, there is one other glaring reason Christians should ask serious questions about the death penalty —

Jesus, Himself, was executed.

The cross was the equivalent of our electric chair or lethal injection. Rome wanted to be tough on crime, and Jesus was a poor man from a nowhere town who noisily cleansed the Temple as an act of protest against religious corruption. Pontius Pilate viewed Jesus as a disruption of his iron-fisted order, and our Lord was then sentenced to the death penalty. What killed Jesus was a lethal cocktail of politics and religion.

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My friend Greg Parzych is a criminal defense attorney in Arizona. Greg regularly feels the weight of another human being’s life in his hands, as he often represents clients who are facing the death penalty. He feels the burden of knowing that a jury will decide whether his client lives or dies based (hopefully) on the evidence and mitigating circumstances he presents to them. Therefore he has a unique, up-close-and-personal view that many of us will never experience.

I asked Greg to share his thoughts about capital punishment this Easter season, and I’m thankful he obliged:

Renewed discussion regarding the death penalty is occurring in the United States after the botched executions of Clayton Darrell Locket on April 29, 2014 in Oklahoma and Joseph Rudolph Wood III on July 23, 2014 in Arizona. Death Penalty discussion often focuses on the possibility of the execution of the innocent, or the method of execution, or the pain and suffering of the condemned vs. the pain and suffering of the victim.

However, any discussion of the death penalty cannot ignore two factors that have always been involved in the imposition of the death penalty — politics and religion. Both play a major role, and both present inherent dangers.

Terms and phrases such as fairness or mercy and moral culpability inevitably invite religion into the life or death consideration.

In 1972 the United States Supreme Court, in effect, suspended the death penalty in Furman v. Georgia. The Supreme Court held that the imposition of the death penalty was wantonly and freakishly imposed, comparing it to being struck by lightning. The suspension of the death penalty was short-lived, however.

In 1976 the Supreme Court, in Gregg v. Georgia, held that the state of Georgia’s new death penalty scheme was constitutional. Since Gregg v. Georgia, the United States has executed over 1,400 individuals. Georgia’s revised state statute in Gregg legislated objective criteria to direct and limit the imposition of death and allowed consideration of the character and record of the defendant. It is in this consideration of the character of the defendant where the inherent danger of religion and politics is most prevalent.

In a normal guilt or innocence phase of a jury trial, jurors are to determine facts, and, from those facts, determine if the state has proven a defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. In the sentencing phase of a death penalty case, however, jurors are to determine life or death.

In doing so, jurors are instructed to consider aspects of a defendant’s character to determine if there are any factors in fairness or mercy that may reduce the defendant’s moral culpability.

Determining who should live and who should die is a moral decision, an individual and personal moral decision. And as such, religion plays a major part. Unlike a guilt or innocence phase of a jury trial, in the sentencing phase, jurors are told that they should not change their individual personal beliefs solely because of the opinions of the fellow jurors. Each individual juror must make his or her own moral decision. Terms and phrases such as fairness or mercy and moral culpability inevitably invite religion into the life or death consideration.

The problem in death penalty cases is that a person whose moral and religious beliefs forbid them from imposing a death sentence cannot serve on a death penalty case.

The problem in death penalty cases is that a person whose moral and religious beliefs forbid them from imposing a death sentence cannot serve on a death penalty case. Yet those whose religious and moral beliefs allow for the imposition of death routinely sit on death juries. “Death qualification” as it is called, stacks the deck for death. “An eye for an eye” may not necessarily prohibit you from serving on a capital case but a belief in the sanctity of all human life most certainly will.

Despite the use of objective criteria in determining who should live or die, the decision of who lives and who dies is obviously subjective. The question becomes, “Should we as a society be making the decision of who lives and who dies?” Who is smart enough to not only decide life or death, but to decide what should be considered in making that determination?

Research is actually being conducted to determine a “Depravity Standard” in an effort to give jurors “guidelines” to help them make the life or death decision. Researchers are actually trying to quantify and qualify “evil” to aid jurors in imposing death sentences. In effect, they are trying to give scientific validity in death sentences and thereby add a level of comfort to those who impose a death sentence knowing “science” backs their moral decision.

Politics, of course, also plays a major role. The death penalty has and always will be politicized. It can certainly be argued that the higher the media attention in a murder case, the greater chance the state or federal prosecutor will seek the death penalty. “Tough on crime” wins elections, from local elections to presidential elections. In 1992, then-Governor Bill Clinton of Arkansas returned to his home state in the middle of his presidential election campaign to make sure the execution of Ricky Ray Rector took place.

As we approach Good Friday, Americans who claim the Name of Jesus must ask ourselves how our crucified Lord views capital punishment.

Many in Arkansas opposed the execution of Ricky Ray Rector, not because of what he did, but because of who he had become. Ricky Ray Rector was convicted of killing two men, one of whom was a police officer. Before being apprehended, Rector shot himself in the temple. He survived his self-inflicted gunshot wound, which in effect destroyed his frontal lobe and severely impaired his mental capacity.

For his last meal, Rector put his dessert, pecan pie, aside, telling guards he was saving it for later. Despite Rector’s clear impaired intellectual mental capacity, he was executed on January 4, 1992. Then Governor Clinton used the publicity of the execution to show he was not “soft on crime.” Many believe that this may have been a turning point in the presidential election.

The debate and discussion of the death penalty must continue as long as the United States continues to execute its citizens. But the debate and discussion must be an informed one. The debate must include the practical effects that politics and religion play in the imposition of the death penalty — and the inherent danger of both.

As we approach Good Friday, Americans who claim the Name of Jesus must ask ourselves how our crucified Lord views capital punishment. When considering the use of capital punishment, perhaps the question is not, “Does the person deserve to die?” Perhaps the question is, “Are followers of Jesus the kind of people who will put someone to death?”

Gregory T. Parzych, Esq. is a graduate of Marquette Law School and has practiced criminal defense in Arizona since 1992, representing capital defendants for two decades.

OnFaith Voices is a series of perspectives about faith.
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  • allinthistogether

    Great article. Thank you. And I’ll add two simple points. Because there is no compelling evidence that the death penalty serves as an effective deterrent to crimes for which that penalty is given, there is clearly no need for killing these prisoners. So, the death penalty results in needless killing. A victim’s family or a random citizen may want someone to pay with their life for a particular crime, but there is no actual need for the death to occur.
    The fact that states allow those who approve of the death penalty onto a jury, but not those who oppose it seems to be strong evidence that those writing the laws regarding jury selection are willing to manipulate the law to make sure that these executions will continue to occur. I”m sure there are legal rationalizations for such a contorted legal arrangement, but those rationalizations are not based in truth.

    • Jim Watson

      There is compelling evidence that the death penalty serves as a deterrent to crimes committed by the person convicted and executed.

      The fact that states allow those who approve of the death penalty onto a jury, but not those who oppose it is a precaution against people who have already judged the case without regard to the applicable law. While a person who supports the death penalty might not vote to impose it at the end of the trial, a person opposed to the death penalty has decided not to impose it before the trial even begins. This is called prejudging the case, and our courts should be as free from prejudice as possible. It’s not a legal rationalization. It is just a means to seat a fair and impartial jury instead of people who have decided in advance to put themselves above the law.

      Such truths may seem inconvenient to those who have already decided not to follow the law, but these people often have trouble distinguishing between absolute truth and their truth (i.e. prejudice). This is exactly the same trouble with truth that Pontius Pilate had.

  • Jim Watson

    From the Article:

    In addition to this, there is one other glaring reason Christians should ask serious questions about the death penalty —

    Jesus, Himself, was executed.

    The cross was the equivalent of our electric chair or lethal injection. Rome wanted to be tough on crime, and Jesus was a poor man from a nowhere town who noisily cleansed the Temple as an act of protest against religious corruption. Pontius Pilate viewed Jesus as a disruption of his iron-fisted order, and our Lord was then sentenced to the death penalty. What killed Jesus was a lethal cocktail of politics and religion.

    Question:

    Where would we be if Rome had outlawed the death penalty?

    Answer:

    Unsaved and hopeless.

    • nice_marmot

      Is this answer supposed to be an indictment or an endorsement of capital punishment? Based on your other comment posted here, I’m guessing the latter.
      It doesn’t much matter, though, because your answer to the question you yourself posed is utterly and completely absurd: An omnipotent God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, but he was stymied by the Romans’ policy on capital punishment so he just gave up on the whole eternal-life-for-whoever-believes-in-Him thing because, hey, you can’t fight City Hall?
      Hopeless, indeed.

      • Jim Watson

        God was stymied by nothing. God uses the circumstances that He chooses to use, the methods He chooses to use, and the timing that He chooses to use.

        The truly hopeless people are the ones who do not understand that God often acts in ways that run contrary to their thinking.

        God REQUIRED a blood sacrifice for the remission of sins. You really should stop guessing at what believe until after you come to grips with what God has said. God not only endorsed capital punishment, He required it. It was part of His plan since before the world was created. He did not tell us why. He does not owe us an explanation.

        You do not know my views on capital punishment. And, I don’t owe you an explanation either. But, I will tell you this much about the other answer to which you refer. It contains facts. It contains reasoning. It does not contain my opinion. Neither did the answer to which you responded. And, this one does not either.

        Ask yourself these questions:

        1. Why am I guessing at what someone else believes?
        2. Why does it matter what they believe?
        3. Why do I feel the need to belittle what God has done?
        4. Is my faith in God that poor?
        5. Am I really that hopeless?

        I will not guess at your answers. I do not ask them for a response. I ask them so that you can reflect on your own beliefs. In eternity, those beliefs are the only ones that will truly matter to you.

        • nice_marmot

          So if God was not – and cannot – be stymied, why would Rome outlawing the death penalty leave us unsaved and hopeless?

          • Jim Watson

            God would have used the death penalty somewhere else. This is about the death penalty, not the location.

            It would have taken you more time to answer those questions for yourself than you used. Maybe you should just start with #3 and #4.

          • nice_marmot

            That makes absolutely no sense. You wrote that if the Romans had outlawed capital punishment we would be unsaved and hopeless. Now you’re claiming that if the Romans had outlawed capital punishment Jesus would simply have been executed at another place and time, which means we would not be unsaved and hopeless. To top things off, you posed a series of questions to me and stated that you would not guess at my answers and that you did not ask them with the expectation of receiving a response. Then you claimed that I hadn’t taken enough time to properly consider the questions – which include:

            1. Why am I guessing at what someone else believes?
            2. Why does it matter what they believe?

            So let me pose the same questions to you: Why are you guessing at what I believe (you assume my beliefs are not sufficiently developed to answer your questions quickly), and why does it matter to you what I believe?
            Actually, don’t bother answering. You’ve already demonstrated that you’ve already sorted out what you believe as well as what everyone else should believe. Neither matters one whit to me. But you’ve also clearly demonstrated that you have no compunction about dodging questions by completely contradicting yourself and criticizing others’ beliefs, so there is no point in trying to have a discussion with you.

          • Jim Watson

            And, yet, you keep putting out your opinions as if they carry the weight of scripture. Then, you complain because I believe differently than you do. You have demonstrated an unwillingness to have a discussion from the beginning. You have been telling the world what I think since your first response.

            The truth is that the article suggested that Jesus being executed was a problem. Further, it is true that His execution was required for your sins and mine. The point was that the execution was necessary, not that Rome was important. You chose to make the latter minutia your focal point.

            You also chose to ignore the difference between wanting a response (which I don’t) and you taking the time to answer them to yourself (which you should). I have made no guess at what you actually believe. I have made no guess as to whether you believe what you have been saying. I do not clarify things for your benefit. But, there are many people who read these comments and believe that your comments represent what Christians believe.

            In fact, I have made no guess as to whether you believe anything at all.

            Your main problem is that you confuse fact with belief. You can reject what the Bible says, but, please, don’t say that you are disagreeing with me. If the Bible makes no sense to you, your problem is with God, not me.

            You are free to end the discussion if you wish. All you have to do is stop replying to me. At that point, this discussion will end. If you continue the discussion, I must conclude that further discussion is your goal.

  • Anonymous

    There is a law given in the Old Testament that states that a murderer should be killed. But, it only says to kill the person if the person killed someone else. I can’t provide the exact book and verse, but it is clearly stated for us to follow. Though some may say that the rules in the Old Testament don’t apply anymore,we still follow the Ten Commandments, so other laws given by God should also be adhered to.

  • CryingCons

    Christians have zero problems enforcing a death penalty. So the abortion clinic bomber……death penalty?

    • Jim Watson

      That is a matter to be determined by a jury. We should never be so prejudiced as to sit in judgment without the facts and the authority of the courts. Why would you ask us to do so?

  • Ralph A Jansen

    The main object of capital punishment is found in the Declaration of Independence. The Right to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. The idea is that if you believe you have a right that transcends the right to life, to say that you have the right to end someone else’s life, then your life too should be forfeit. If you take ways someone else’s right to live, then your right to live should also be revoked. It really is that simple. You have violated someone’s inalienable right to life, and in such a manner your rights should be violated. (Well, considered null and void.) The only reason capital punishment should go away is if people stop capitally punishing (murdering) other people. Since that is never going to happen, capital punishment should always remain. Which is more likely to curtail the crime of murder, capital punishment, or an all expenses paid trip to club fed? The fear of death can be a powerful motivator. (For instance, Mayor LaGuardia in New York City issued a shoot to kill order when there was a known threat of a mob which would result in the death of innocent bystanders. There was no mob. Fear of death can be a powerful motivator.)

    Note: I believe that capital punishment should only be used in cases of murder with premeditation.