If It Weren’t for Jesus, I Might Be Pro-Death Too

A response to Albert Mohler’s recent defense of the death penalty.

Southern Baptist leader Albert Mohler wrote a piece this week defending the death penalty. In his 1200-word argument for why Christians should support the death penalty, he does not mention Jesus a single time.

Digging deeper, as you read the official pro-capital punishment statement of the Southern Baptists, there is not a single reference to Jesus or the Gospels.

There are plenty of other problems with the scriptural maneuvering that uses a few Bible verses to justify modern death penalty practices, in the same way that a few verses were misused to justify slavery. For starters, the Biblical death penalty was required not just for murderers, but also for folks that committed adultery, disrespected their parents, collected too much interest, had premarital sex, and disobeyed the sabbath. But I want to stick with the nagging problem of Jesus, the greatest obstacle for pro-death penalty Christians.

A recent Barna Poll shows that less than five percent of Americans think Jesus would support capital punishment, and less than a quarter of young Christians support it.  Nonetheless, some Christians find ways to sidestep Jesus, the lens through which all of us who claim to be Christians should interpret the Bible and the world around us.

Gandhi was once asked if he was a Christian and he responded by saying, “I love Jesus, I just wish the Christians took him seriously.”

Consistently, Jesus said things like, “I did not come for the healthy but for the sick, not for the righteous but for the sinners”…“blessed are the merciful for they will be shown mercy”…“inasmuch as you forgive you will be forgiven”… “judge not lest you be judged”…“you’ve heard it said ‘an eye for an eye’ but I tell you there is another way.”

Setting aside other compelling arguments against the death penalty, such as the fact that the determining factor for execution is often not guilt but economics and race, and the fact that nearly all executions come from two percent of U.S. counties, and that 144 folks have been exonerated with recent studies showing one in 25 folks sentenced to death are likely innocent…all that aside, I want to focus on Jesus.

There is an incident in the Gospels where Jesus is asked about the death penalty. Here’s the scene from John 8: a woman has been humiliated and dragged before the town, ready to be killed. Her execution was legal; her crime was a capital one. But just because it’s legal, doesn’t make it right.

Jesus interrupts the scene — with grace.

He tells all the men who are ready to kill the woman, “Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone.” And of course he reminds us all that if we have looked at someone with lust in our eyes, we are adulterers. If we have called our neighbor a fool, we are a murderer. You can hear the stones start to drop as the men walk away.

The only one who is left with any right to throw a stone is Jesus — and he has absolutely no inclination to do so. We can see that the closer we are to God the less we want to throw stones at other people.

It is this dual conviction that no one is above reproach and that no one is beyond redemption that lies at the heart of our faith. Undoubtedly it’s why the early Christians were characterized by non-violence, even in the face of brutal evil, torture, and execution.

For hundreds of years, Tertullian, Origen, Lactantius, and other early Christians explicitly forbid other Christians from participating in or supporting capital punishment. Other writings (such as the Apostolic Tradition) go so far as to prohibit the baptism of Christians who participate in the apparatus of killing. It was inconceivable to worship Jesus, a forgiving victim of the death penalty who died with grace on his lips, and call for the execution of others. Of all people, we who follow the executed and risen Christ should be people who are consistently pro-life, pro-grace, and anti-death.

Here’s when I realized the death penalty was a spiritual issue, not just a political one. I was talking to a man on death row, and he told me his story. He confessed to having done something terrible, which he will regret for the rest of his life. But then it got more interesting. He told me the story of his trial. During the course of his sentencing, the victim’s family argued that his life should be spared, that he should not be sentenced to death. “They were Christians… so they talked a lot about mercy,” he told me matter-of-factly, as if every Christian was against the death penalty. He went on, “They believed that Jesus came not for the healthy, but for the sick.  And they argued that God may not be done with me yet. So I was spared the death penalty because of the victim’s family.” Finally he said, “I wasn’t a Christian then. But you better believe that I am one now.”

Grace shines bright in the face of evil. But grace can be a scandalous thing, as we can see Jesus forgiving those who kill him — and as we see the stunning stories of murder victims’ families who stand against execution, many fueled by their faith.

We dare not forget the story — of a God who so loved the world that Jesus was sent, not to condemn the world but to save it. We must not forget that much of the Bible was written by murderers who were given a second chance: Moses, David, Paul.

The Bible would be much shorter without grace.  And our churches would be empty if we killed everyone who was deserving of death.

We cannot ignore Jesus as we discuss the death penalty. As was the case with slavery, many Christians misused scripture to justify injustice and ended up on the wrong side of history. It is my hope that Southern Baptists will reconsider their statement on capital punishment in light of Jesus, and not have to apologize 100 years from now for being on the wrong side of history.


Image via Shutterstock.

Shane Claiborne
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  • allinthistogether

    Author has made an accurate and compelling case for sparing the lives of those who commit even the most violent crimes. There is nothing about structured and rational processes of trial, sentencing and execution that make killing anything more or better than killing. The killing that society performs, for reasons of its own preservation or vindication or vengeance, or even as a deterrent, is no better than the killing that a murderer commits. The teachings of Jesus are valuable support in maturing beyond the need to kill and provide an alternative path for Christians and for non-Christians.

  • James

    I’m also a Christian who is against the death penalty, but I would just want to warn against the use of John 8 as a primary passage to defend against it. The first few verses of that chapter have not been found in the oldest manuscripts of John and hence are less than entirely reliable. I know the author isn’t using this as a central argument, but it’s just something to be wary of. I hope that we can all take a stand for a culture of life in a culture that is often (maliciously or ignorantly) against it.

  • Jason G

    I disagree with Mr. Claiborne’s assertion that Jesus was against the death penalty. He argues against Albert Mohler’s arguments based on the fact that Mr. Mohler did not cite one reference from the New Testament or from Jesus. I will use a few examples. First let’s look at Christ himself. When he was standing before Pilate in John 19, Pilate said this to him in verse 10 …”You do not speak to me? Do You not know that I have authority to release You, and I have authority to crucify You?”. Jesus’ response in verse 11 …”You would have no authority over Me, unless it had been given you from above ; for this reason he who delivered Me to you has the greater sin.” What does Jesus’ response tell us? He acknowledged that Pilate did indeed have the authority to execute Him and that such authority came from above i.e. God the Father. The Son of God Himself stated that the authority for capitol punishment came from God! Secondly, let’s look at Paul the Apostle. We know he was specifically chosen by Christ to be an apostle based on several passages (Acts chp 9:1-18, chp 22:1-16, 1 Tim 1:12, to name a few). Mr. Claiborne seems to ignore Mr. Mohler’s argument from Romans 13, so i will reiterate that. What does the apostle state in Rom 13:1-4? “1 Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God ; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. 3 For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority ? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same ; 4 for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid ; for it does not bear the sword for nothing ; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil.” Paul clearly states that the government is to act as a minister of God to bring justice on those who practice evil. How does the government do this? By bear(ing) the sword as stated in verse 4! The sword is a reference to execution by the sword, capitol punishment. Lastly let’s look at Paul’s attitude in Acts chapter 25. The apostle was being falsely accused by the Jewish leaders and he was standing trial before governor Festus. Notice his response in verses 10-11, 10 But Paul said, “I am standing before Caesar’s tribunal, where I ought to be tried. I have done no wrong to the Jews, as you also very well know. 11 “If, then, I am a wrongdoer and have committed anything worthy of death, I do not refuse to die ; but if none of those things is true of which these men accuse me, no one can hand me over to them. I appeal to Caesar.” We find two things from Paul’s statement. Number 1, Paul acknowledged that there were some crimes deserving of death and number 2 that he did not object to being put to death if he was guilty of such a crime. Clearly the apostle is in favor of the death penalty! His view aligns with that of Jesus’ Himself. Although the administration of the death penalty is not always just, that doesn’t take away the fact the God does allow for it. Yes there are other ways to punish evil, but based on scripture we find it is authorized by God as an acceptable form of justice. I hope this response was beneficial. In the end my goal is simply that we all have a better understanding of the will of God. Eph 5:17

    • allinthistogether

      These portions of the Bible just prove that the Bible is not pure revealed truth from God. Any message that is handed down through human hands is inevitably corrupted by human interpretation and often by deliberate politically motivated revision. The bottom line is that anyone who truly believes in the teachings of Jesus needs to honor the phrase “the greatest of these is love.” There is no accurate argument that Jesus would support capital punishment in a time when we know that a significant percentage of those who are convicted are innocent, and when we know that the poor are convicted and sentenced to death far more frequently than the rich (who can afford better lawyers), and when we have adequate ability to use incarceration to prevent a “murderer” from killing again. To argue that God and Jesus want us to kill each other, despite the inevitability of human error in the judicial process, is to argue that humans have the purity and infallible knowledge of God. We don’t. We shouldn’t choose legalized murder when there are successful means available by which we can employ love to protect the public and restrain the convicted person.

    • Mark Hatton

      I disagree with your interpretation of scripture in this instance. When Jesus referred to Pilate requiring the authority of God to judge him, this was the denial of that authority. Pilate was (obviously) not a Christian and as such the temporal authority possessed was insufficient to condemn the Son of God. This made any sentence passed by Pilate null in the eyes of God.
      However, as an atheist I am not going to debate you on the interpretation of scripture. I just agree with the author that the scripture regarding the character of Jesus represents him as a critic of the measure.

  • nwcolorist

    Shane Claiborne’s arguments contain a weak point that is found in many anti-death penalty positions. He speaks of grace and mercy, but avoids the concepts of justice and righteousness. If mercy and forgiveness mean ignoring the sin as if it never happened, then justice becomes meaningless and society descends into a state of lawlessness. We can forgive our neighbor for breaking our window, but there’s still a broken window to deal with.

    The fact that some innocent people are executed is a serious problem to deal with. But outlawing the death penalty because one out of twenty five are wrongly convicted, while twenty four are rightfully convicted seems an extreme solution. Why not create even more safeguards to prevent the possibility of these errors occurring.

    In my opinion, the death penalty should be legal, but used only in extreme cases.

  • Stefatropolis

    You follow a religion that celebrates an innocent man being executed, and a religion that regards the human sacrifice of an innocent man as necessary so that actually guilty people can avoid a fitting punishment for something they deserve to have happen to them. Unlike Jesus, you actually ARE guilty. In the truest sense, you endorse the killing of an innocent so that you can avoid the fate he’s undergoing so you don’t have to experience a just punishment for your acknowledged guilt. This is a thoroughly deranged sense of justice and morality, as well of ethics. Of course you’re for capital punishment; you’re in favor of capital punishment if it means you can be saved as a result. And of course you advocate leniency for the guilty, because your eternal fate requires leniency from Jesus in regard to your own acknowledged guilt. A guilt which DESERVES death.
    Against capital punishment. Please.

  • Mark Hatton

    I became an atheist in my early twenties, but I agree with Shane. As a teenage Catholic I found it rather confusing that other Christians were so at ease with the Death Penalty, it seems so obviously Old Testament and directly conflicts with the scripture relating to the teachings of Jesus.
    Though I do not have faith today I am still against the Death Penalty. I am not against it purely due the obvious flaws which lead to the execution of innocent men. I am against it because the State serves the people, all of them and as such it does not have the right to take a life. The individual is the paramount vessel of freedom and as such no organisation can countermand it’s existence.
    I have no objection to my taxes being used for the incarceration of violent men. Those who argue re the pragmatism of tend to draw my ire for such callousness.
    A human is always capable of redemption, regardless of his crimes. So to permanently remove any chance of this seems somewhat in conflict with the big book.