The Gospel Coalition

Why I Oppose Capital Punishment

Editors’ note: Last month a unanimous jury sentenced Dylann Roof to death for killing nine black churchgoers as they attended Bible study in a Charleston, South Carolina church. The reaction to Roof’s sentencing has rekindled discussions—even among his victims’ families—about whether Christians should support capital punishment. To consider both side of the debate, TGC is presenting personal essays on the death penalty by Matthew Arbo, assistant professor of biblical and theological studies at Oklahoma Baptist University, and by the late Charles W. Colson, founder of Prison Fellowship.

Dylan Roof, the white supremacist who murdered nine African Americans attending a church bible study, was sentenced to death in a federal court earlier this month. It was expected. Roof’s crime was a monstrous evil. You’ll find few who feel he’s undeserving of the sentence. To be honest, I resonate with that sentiment too. And yet, when I peer deeper into my anger toward him, I have to admit executing him doesn’t really set things to right; it only feels it might. Therein lies the crux of the problem: on the Christian account, the justice in capital punishment doesn’t consist in feelings of satisfaction achieved through retaliation or vengeance, but in setting to right what really can be set to right.

Christians are not obligated to support capital punishment, and indeed should not support it. My reasons for opposing the death penalty are both philosophical and theological. Let me begin with philosophical objections, which I divide into theoretical and practical aspects, and then conclude with theological objections.

Philosophical Objections

Advocates of capital punishment will often appeal to the importance of perpetrators receiving what they deserve, or paying back the wrongdoer for their crime. This exchange is believed to follow the old legal principle of lex talionis—an eye for an eye—and thus in a sense “settles up” a criminal debt incurred by the wrongdoer. But thinking of punishment as exchange—tit for tat—is a mistake. Punishment is better conceived as a symbolic representation. If one person murders another, killing the wrongdoer doesn’t reestablish the state of affairs that existed before the murder took place. That moment is irrecoverable.

Punishment can’t finally and of itself restore just equilibrium to society. It’s a necessary but not sufficient condition for social ordering. The death penalty, as one form of punishment, can only represent the violent crimes. As in Roof’s case, it punishes symbolically, bringing the accused to trial and in turn notifying the public of what’s happened and what’s being done to correct it. Capital punishment isn’t so much re-establishing of justice, as it is a respecting of it.

It’s not some past state of affairs that’s most desired anyway, but rather the deep-seated feeling that wrongdoers should receive retribution. For the retributivist, the purpose of punishment is simply to punish. That’s literally what the word “retribution” means, and in many respects retribution has a rightful place in our penal code. When applied to capital punishment, however, the theory begins to break down.

Retribution can at best form only part of punishment’s purpose. It is equally essential that punishment tell the truth about the crime, and with pedagogical purpose. That’s Augustine’s position. He argues punishment should both tell the truth about the crime and discipline the accused in formative, proportionate ways. The death penalty is unique among punishments in that it is incapable of exactly this pedagogical purpose. The dead do not learn from their mistakes or from the discipline imposed. Suggesting that capital punishment somehow expresses our sincere respect for human life—the image of God—is, on its face, far too paradoxical to accept. For this reason and reasons offered below, I do not believe Gen. 9:6, which refers to shedding blood for shed blood, is morally applicable. The fact of our being co-executioners of Christ is ample enough reason to adjust our hermeneutic on this point.

Evidence also suggests capital punishment doesn’t serve as an effective deterrent to capital offenses. Some capital crimes are charged as unpremeditated, or in the heat of passion, and so never entered the wrongdoers mind before perpetration. Moreover, in 14 states without the death penalty, homicide rates are at or below the national average. Positive evidence of the death penalty’s effectiveness at dissuading violent crime is uncompelling.

Practical Objections

Let me now shift briefly to the practical aspect, beginning with a couple of suggestive statistics:

  • More than half of death row inmates are people of color.
  • Since 1977, the overwhelming majority of death row inmates (77 percent) have been executed for killing white victims, even though African-Americans make up half of all homicides.
  • Since 1973, 140 individuals on death row have been exonerated.
  • Almost all death row inmates could not afford their own trial attorney.
  • Since 1976, 82 percent of all executions have taken place in the South.
  • Of the 344 exonerees represented by the Innocence Project, 20 served time on death row. Of those 344 exonerations, 71 percent involved eyewitness misidentification, 46 percent involved misapplication of forensic evidence, and 28 percent involved false or coerced confessions.
  • Of those 344, a full two-thirds were people of color.

This is but a small sample of the practical problems endemic to the criminal justice system. I wish to highlight, in particular, the problems of attorney representation and racial bias. Given the current strain placed on public defenders, both because of case load and prolonged underfunding, it’s difficult to see how violent offenders who can’t afford their own counsel are comparably represented by state-appointed counsel—no matter how well-meaning or talented that counsel might be. Likewise, mounting evidence suggests people of color receive a disproportionate percentage of capital sentences. Together, they are reasons enough to place a temporary national stay on capital punishment.

Theological Objections

Finally, let’s consider theological objections to the death penalty.

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First, if one wishes to base one’s justification for capital punishment on the Old Testament’s lex talionis (eye for an eye) principle, then one must demonstrate how death as a punitive measure is morally right, since the civil and ceremonial elements of the law have been fulfilled in Christ. In doing so, Christian advocates of capital punishment will also have to reckon with Jesus instruction in Matthew 5:38–41, where he makes clear this retaliatory interpretation of the law was incorrect. If one is subject to wrongdoing or injustice, Jesus implores forebearance and charity, dismissing any reading that justifies vengeance. It is especially difficult in practice to disentangle vengeance from retribution in capital punishment. Governing authorities are sometimes required to use force to uphold the law and secure peace, of course, but nothing constrains them to kill offenders in order to do so. The same idea is presumed in the logic of Romans 13: the political authority may, but is not required, to impose a penalty of death. Neither is the Christian insubordinate or disrespectful in pleading for measured clemency.

A second theological point, offered long ago by Augustine, is this: Once the condemned is put to death, that person is no longer eligible for evangelization and conversion. Clemency better allows for the possibility of rebirth in Christ. It doesn’t guarantee conversion, obviously, but execution certainly shortens the chance. I sense the early church took this particular opportunity very much to heart.

Third, the Christian faith is fully and entirely pro-life—beginning to end. This commitment has broad enough scope even for the condemned. Every human being has dignity and no one, not even the monstrous, can lose their dignity altogether. I find Oliver O’Donovan instructive on precisely this point. If Christians take human dignity seriously, we should criticize any penalty that fosters attitudes of contempt toward the condemned. The Deuteronomic code, for example, limits the number of times the guilty can be flogged, “lest your brother be degraded in your sight” (Deut 25:1–3). Degradation is here distinguishable from shame, which may rightly attend punishment, but execution is degradation by definition. As O’Donovan puts it, “When the suffering of punishment becomes an object of vulgar curiosity and fascination, even experiment, the condemned person ceases to count among us as a human being deserving of neighbor-love, and ordinary human respect seems to vanish.”

Those are my objections and explanations. I put them frankly knowing many will vehemently reject my arguments. I understand the feeling; I really do. I ask only that you consider whether capital punishment actually gives the condemned what they deserve, or whether it simply assuages the anger, however justifiable, of those with relation to the slain—who then equate “justice is served” with “the one who killed my loved one has been killed.”

Many so-called Christian defenses of capital punishment are, I fear, more utilitarian than theological.

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