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Against Capital Punishment

[Religion News Service, October 3, 1995]

When Jane’s fiance, a tugboat engineer, disappeared at sea, there were many theories about the cause of his death. When his best friend suggested that he had been murdered after stumbling across a drug deal, the idea electrified her.

"It caused such a rage it was almost a physical reaction," she told me. "I could feel a coolness in my blood, starting with my fingers, and working its way up my arm. I remember thinking, `I don’t want this to go to my heart. I don’t want to be destroyed by a murder.’

"Yet it just made me so terribly angry that a sweet life could have been snuffed out. I worried about such an evil force loose in the world, and the damage that man could do. One day I said to the Lord, `Lord, whoever it was, I want him caught.’"

Not many experiences are as harrowing as losing a loved one to a murderer. Like many survivors, Jane found herself brooding about the unknown assailant. Unlike many prayerful people, when Jane prays, she sometimes gets a distinct reply.

"In my mind," she said, "I could hear the Lord say to me, `What then?’ So I said, `I want him to go to prison.’ And the Lord said, `What then?’

"I thought, well, he could get released. So I said, `Throw away the key!’ And He said, `What then?’

"And I thought, he could influence other prisoners. I said, `I want him in isolation.’ And He said, `What then?’ And I thought, he could still reach the guards.

"So I said, `I want him electrocuted.’"

As Jane gradually came to the conviction that only the death penalty would restore justice, she echoed the opinion of more than 75 percent of Americans.

In many states the death penalty is being restored after a gap of several decades, and the first six months of this year saw more executions than all of 1994. Frustrated by revolving‑door sentences and crimes of increasing vileness, citizens are more willing than ever to stop criminals permanently.

Arguments in favor of capital punishment vary. Sometimes there is a raw lust for vengeance, understandable among the victim’s family, less attractive in a gleeful crowd partying outside the execution site. Many believe with Jane that nothing else can halt the evil, especially if parole will someday set the killer free. Some argue that only serious punishment, like execution, can deter serious violence.

Some point to biblical justification: not only the Hebrew Scriptures’ regular prescription of the death penalty, but also the New Testament’s assertion that civil authorities "do not bear the sword in vain." And sometimes, as in the case of mass murder or the death of children, the crime is so horrifying that to the human heart it seems only another death could right the balance of justice.

In the face of all this, those who oppose the death penalty fight an uphill battle. Some arguments are purely pragmatic: It is not wrong to kill the guilty, but the risk of inadvertently executing an innocent person makes the entire practice unacceptable.

Some opponents say the death penalty would be just if it were administered justly. But those who murder whites are far more likely to be executed than those who murder blacks. Until racial equity is restored, we shouldn’t execute anybody. Besides, statistics show that the death penalty doesn’t deter violence after all.

Another argument presents an emotional appeal, by showing the murderer as himself a victim of earlier violence; this can undermine an equally emotional cry for vengeance.

Some people point out that death‑row appeals waste too much government money and recommend that we economize by eliminating death row.

These pragmatic arguments fail to get at the root, however; they presume that capital punishment could be just if it were only rehabilitated. On the contrary, the problem with capital punishment is that it takes a life. Heinous crimes deserve severe punishment: life‑long incarceration with no hope of parole, with the murderer’s prison‑industry wages going for his own keep and restitution to the victim’s family.

But the taking of life belongs to God alone. The issue is time: every human is the object of God’s life‑long seeking love, a love that longs to conquer and transform evil, not merely punish it. How long will God’s patience wait on someone who rejects him? How long do we want God to be patient with us? A sentence of life at labor both protects and punishes, while leaving the death penalty to be administered at God’s chosen time.

Jane had told the Lord, "I want him electrocuted."

"And the Lord said to me, `What then?’

"And I thought, Oh, my God ‑‑ even if he was killed, that would not destroy the evil that did this horrendous thing. Only the power of God’s love could transform such evil. And I said, `Oh Lord, I pray that man would come to know you.’ And I said that with all my heart.

"And at that moment I felt such peace and forgiveness," Jane said. "And in all the years since then, I’ve never felt any feelings of bitterness or revenge. Just peace."

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