Legislators in the General Assembly soon will be voting on a measure to abolish the death penalty in Virginia. Support for the death penalty has been waning but it still is strong among Christians. White Protestants are the strongest supporters of the death penalty.
As an opponent of the death penalty, this concerns me because more than 70% of our representatives fit this demographic. I hope to persuade readers that abolition is more consistent with Christian moral reasoning.
I often have heard Christians cite Genesis 9:6 in support of the death penalty. It reads, “Whoever sheds the blood of a human, by a human shall that person’s blood be shed.” That text would lead readers to believe that the Bible unambiguously demands the death penalty for murder, and that Christians should support the death penalty.
I want to correct this false impression and to explain why many Christian denominations (United Methodist, Episcopal, Evangelical Lutheran Church, American Baptist, Church of the Brethren, Presbyterian Church USA, United Church of Christ, and Roman Catholic) oppose the death penalty.
There are many notable examples in the Bible where the death penalty was not administered. Cain murdered Abel, and God did not kill him — but only made him a wanderer and a fugitive.
Ironically, the mark God put on his forehead was meant to protect him from execution. Moses murdered an Egyptian taskmaster but God used him to free God’s people. King David committed adultery with Bathsheba and then murdered Uriah, both capital offenses, but when Nathan the prophet delivered God’s judgment, it did not include execution.
The law demanded capital punishment for the woman caught in the act of adultery, but Jesus reminded her accusers of their own sins and he had mercy on her. These are not minor Biblical characters; these are key figures in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament. So, though a Biblical case can be made for the death penalty, I believe the case against it is stronger.
These denominations also believe it to be unjust. Space will not allow me to fully develop this argument but I will present it in outline:
1) It is unjust because death sentences almost are entirely reserved for the poor. Most of those facing capital charges cannot afford their own attorney and often are poorly represented.
2) The death penalty is unjust because there is ample evidence the death penalty is applied in a racist manner. In 1990, the U.S. General Accounting Office reported “a pattern of evidence indicating racial disparity in charging, sentencing, and imposition of the death penalty.”
3) The death penalty is unjust because it is likely that innocent people are being executed. There is no way to tell how many of the 1,532 people executed since the restoration of the death penalty in 1976 were innocent, but the Death Penalty Information Center reports 170 people convicted of capital offenses and sentenced to death have been exonerated by later evidence.
But these aren’t the main reasons many Christians oppose the death penalty. Our key reasons are theological. God made humans in the image of God. Human life is sacred: All of us share in God’s image, even those with character defects and moral failings. Jesus even calls us to love our enemies because they, too, are created in the image of God.
George Bernard Shaw put it well: “It is the deed that teaches, not the name we give it. Murder and capital punishment are not opposites which cancel each other out, but similars that breed their kind.”
There is no evidence that capital punishment deters murder; in fact, murder rates are lower in states that have abolished capital punishment.
We do not show respect for human life by taking the life of the murderer — rather in doing so, we cheapen it. Let us break the cycle of violence. As the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Violence is a descending spiral begetting the very thing it seeks to eradicate.”
John D. Copenhaver Jr., Ph.D., is a professor emeritus of religion and philosophy at Shenandoah University.