By Reverend Matt Randles
Pastor, Headwaters Covenant Church
In the Easter season, we remember Jesus’ crucifixion and death for the sin of the world. Christians declare that Jesus’ death brings life, so how can we then demand the death of certain criminals?
The Old Testament says, “You are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth.” But developing a biblical understanding of capital punishment isn’t as simple as appropriating select verses from the Old Testament. Are we prepared to execute those who curse their parents or worship other gods? These are also capital offenses in the Bible.
In light of the New Testament, we don’t follow Old Testament regulations about such things as burnt offerings, building codes, or dietary laws. Jesus addressed “eye for an eye” and said, “Turn the other cheek.” He talked about murder but focused on the root issue of anger. And when faced with an actual situation–a woman guilty of adultery–he called for the one without sin to cast the first stone.
A biblical understanding of capital punishment isn’t a matter of assembling proof texts; it must be consistent with the gospel: that God redeems the worst people–and even calls them to do great things.
Consider the Apostle Paul. He originally persecuted Christians, overseeing the lynching of a Christian named Stephen. Consider Moses: before leading Israel out of slavery, he murdered an Egyptian. Consider King David: he seduced a woman and engineered her husband’s death. Yet, he is called a man after God’s own heart!
These stories aren’t incidental; they’re at the core of the Christian faith. Central to Christianity is the principle that those who have received mercy are to be merciful, renouncing retribution.
Now, this doesn’t mean that we abandon the rule of law. But perfect justice will only come from God; ours will always be tainted by mistakes, bias, and injustice. We cannot administer perfect justice; we must therefore not use irreversible methods.
Is fighting the death penalty worthwhile? Aren’t there more important priorities– poverty, homelessness, world hunger? But think about who Jesus stood up for: The guilty, the prostitutes, the sinners. Whom did he criticize? The self-righteous, the judgmental, those interested in maintaining the status quo. So, in speaking up for those that society disdains and against a corrupt system, we are speaking the language of Jesus. Jesus’ own death was unjust; Christians, then, of all people, should oppose a system that is impossibly flawed.
Reverend Randles is the pastor of Headwaters Covenant Church in Helena, Mont. This column is a version of the address he delivered in January at the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty national conference in Louisville, Ky.