This is going to be a long one. And I’ve discovered the “More” tool, so I’m overusing it.
On this eve of the possible execution of Phillip Workman, I need to go on record with a FAQ about how and why I am for the death penalty, even though I believe in the sanctity of life. It’s a seemingly odd position, and I don’t want to give the impression of not having arrived at it logically. So for all of you who’ve scratched your heads over this seemingly bizarre dichotomy among the conservatives you share air with, here’s my attempt at an answer.
How can you be Pro-Life but still support the Death Penalty
This question is similar to all of those “how can you be a moral athiest” questions I see floating around out there, and the answer is similar. The Death Penalty underscores the seriousness of life. Capital Punishment is one of the most life-affirming tools available to a society. It allows us to say that life itself is so sacred, so valuable and so honourable that when you take another life under very heinous circumstances your own life is forfeit. There are some crimes for which there is an ultimate price, and that ultimate price is the sacrifice of life.
How can you deny a convicted criminal the possibility of redemption?
The Death Penalty does not take redemption off the table. It does, however, shorten the window considerably. I do believe firmly in redemption, but I also believe in consequences.
Doesn’t it cost more to execute than to keep a person in prison for the rest of their natural life?
Yes, it presently does. My answer to this is twofold. First, if we are emphasising the value of human life, an execution that costs more merely underscores the seriousness of taking life illegally. Second, the cost of execution is higher because the appeals process takes longer. Phillip Workman, our current Death Row celebrity has been filing costly appeals for over twenty-five years. That builds a lot into the back end expense of the death penalty. In our desire to make sure we execute only those deserving, this society dots every i and crosses every t.
What about all of those innocent folk who are wrongly executed?
I’m sure that it happens. I don’t want it to happen. That’s why I’m all for dotting every i and crossing every t. And making sure our system of due process works. But as I’ve watched the Phillip Workman case unfold, I’ve become acutely aware of the misuse of the word ‘innocent’ by those who oppose the death penalty. Countless pro-Workman writers and speakers refer to him as ‘innocent’, yet an analysis of the facts of the case show that Workman is definitely guilty*. Lawyers have laboured for more than a decade to find a loophole in the law which would excuse him from the death penalty. I consider being ‘freed on a technicality’ to be completely different than ‘innocent’. It makes me wonder how many other supposedly innocent folks really were guilty of their capital crimes yet semantically declared innocent by anti-death penalty advocates in later years.
What Would Jesus Do?
This is my favourite death penalty question. It always cracks me up that people ask this about a man who willingly went to his own execution without an appeals process. That’s exactly what Jesus did. He didn’t labour to find loopholes in the law or languish in a Roman jail for twenty-odd years arguing the merits of His claims. He accepted the consequences of his actions. As he hung on His cross next to another convicted criminal, he forgave that man of his sins, yet still allowed the thief to pay the earthly consequence of those sins.
What about “Let He Who Is Without Sin Cast The First Stone”?
This verse appears in context in John 8:1-11. Jesus is teaching a religious lesson, when other religious leaders (scribes and pharisees) approach him with an adulterous woman. In verse 5 the religious leaders say
“Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?”
That’s when Jesus gives this famous answer–which is now both misused and overused. Jesus was answering a religious question put to him in a religious context by religious authorities. Most historical scholars agree that no one in this context had the governmental power to execute anyone. (Only the Romans retained that right at that time.) This was yet another instance of the Pharisees attempting to get Jesus to trip up, do something stupid and be removed from their hair once and for all. Had Jesus advocated stoning the woman–per Mosaic law–the Romans would have executed Jesus for murder. In short, Jesus’ words here are against vigilantism, not state execution. This is, after all, the same Jesus who repeatedly acknowledged the earthly authority of earthly rulers while teaching us all to strive toward Heaven. “Render unto Caeser” are, in my opinion, three of the most important words Jesus ever spoke. He never advocated that the religious be exempt from earthly law, nor that they subvert earthly law.
Isn’t The Death Penalty A Poor Deterrent?
It’s not supposed to be a deterrent. It’s not a hot stove or a plate of bad shrimp. It’s a punishment for a crime. It’s not called the Death Big Warning To People. It’s called the Death PENALTY.
Isn’t The Death Penalty A Bad Way To Get Revenge?
Well, if the Death Penalty were indeed about revenge, yes it would be. But it isn’t about making the victims’ families feel better or more complete or satisfied. That’s vigilantism, and that’s exactly what Jesus preached against. The Death Penalty is about society enforcing its rules. People are not executed because they killed someone’s father or sister or aunt. They are executed because they broke a law of society. Executing killers is not meant to restore the fathers and sisters and aunts to their loved ones. That would be a bizarre sort of human-sacrifice ritual. Executing killers is about forcing them to pay the price to SOCIETY.
What If Someone Raped And Killed Your Sister/Mother/Daughter?
I’d be very angry. Scathingly angry. I’d have long talks with God about why. But I would recuse myself from any of the conversations regarding the death penalty for that killer. Because I firmly believe that the Death Penalty is not about personal revenge, nor is it about making me feel better for the horrible loss I’ve suffered. I’d have to find my personal peace with God and work on forgiving the killer in my heart. I’d have to leave all question of that killer’s punishment up to society.
How Can You Be So Heartless?
I’m not at all heartless. In fact, that’s why I’m so clinical about the Death Penalty. If I didn’t believe in the higher authorities of God and The State I’d turn into one of those angry vigilantes Jesus preached about. It’s easier for me to accept boundaries and know that those boundaries and consequences exist apart from me.