Crime and Sacrifice: What Does the Cross Tell Us about the Ethics of Capital Punishment?

By Winright, Tobias | Sojourners Magazine, April 2007 | Go to article overview

Crime and Sacrifice: What Does the Cross Tell Us about the Ethics of Capital Punishment?


Winright, Tobias, Sojourners Magazine


AT EASTER, CHRISTIANS celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ from death and the tomb. We praise God who raised, and thereby vindicated, the falsely accused Innocent One who three clays earlier was executed by crucifixion at the hands of an occupying Roman military force. Considered one of the cruelest, most humiliating methods of capital punishment, the cross was reserved by the Romans for slaves who were thieves and for rebels who were not Roman citizens. Especially during the highly charged atmosphere of the Passover festival, which commemorates the Israelites' earlier liberation from the oppressive Egyptians, the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, and his troops were on red alert for insurrectionist threats from Zealots among the Jewish population.

Meanwhile, the religious council in Jerusalem, the Sanhedrin, accused Jesus before Pilate of being precisely such a malcontent: "We found this man perverting our nation, forbidding us to pay taxes to the emperor, and saying that he himself is an anointed king" (Luke 23:2b). They apparently hoped that focusing attention on this man from Galilee might forestall any Roman counterinsurgency reprisals. In a succinct articulation of this sort of consequentialist reasoning, Caiaphas, the high priest, averred: "[I]t is better ... to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed" (John 11:50). This is a quintessential case of scapegoating.

FOR THIS REASON, Baptist ethicist Glen H. Stassen writes, "Christians who remember that their Lord was unjustly and cruelly given the death penalty have a hard time being enthusiastic about imposing the death penalty on others." Of course, one might disagree with this statement by noting that there are those who are guilty, unlike Jesus, who should still have the death penalty imposed on them (in a just and humane way). And Stassen's comment is not descriptively accurate of Christians historically. In much of the Christian tradition until recent decades, capital punishment was supported. During the 13th century, for example, Thomas Aquinas wrote that "it may be justifiable to kill a sinner just as it is to kill a beast, for as Aristotle points out, an evil man is worse than a beast, and more harmful."

Nevertheless, Stassen is spot on prescriptively, that is, with regard to how Christians ought to be and behave when it comes to the issue of capital punishment. As he goes on to say, "The cross on Christian churches signifies not that we should advocate more crosses for others, but that we all need mercy." On this basis, Christians should take issue with state executions regardless of whether a person on death row is guilty or innocent, or regardless of whether lethal injection is cruel or humane. In short, executing people is morally wrong in principle.

This is not to say that the current public debate about questions of innocence, race, cost, and deterrence in relation to the death penalty are unimportant. Indeed, due to serious concerns about these matters, 10 states have put executions effectively on hold while their capital punishment laws and practices are under review. Two of these states, Illinois and New Jersey, presently have formal moratoria on all executions, while the other eight states are reconsidering their use of lethal injection. The death penalty is being implemented less frequently even in those states that continue to execute. During 2006, only 14 of the 38 states with capital punishment carried out any executions, and only six states executed more than one person. The number of executions in 2006 was 12 percent less than in 2005 and 46 percent less than in 1999. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, the number of death sentences given annually is at a 30-year low.

Accordingly, Christians who are opposed to capital punishment on moral grounds can pragmatically support their position with studies and data that show the patterns of race-of-victim or race-of-defendant discrimination in capital cases; that most criminologists and police chiefs don't think capital punishment is an effective deterrent to murder; and that the total costs of the death penalty exceed those of life-without-parole sentences. …

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