During an event on Monday, liberal activist Shane Claiborne and other panelists went on the offensive against capital punishment. They made the case why capital punishment was wrong and Christians should oppose it.
The panel, held on March 7 at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, included Claiborne; Rev. Bernard “Chris” Dorsey, a professor at Western Theological Seminary; Gail Rice, an author, consultant and adult literacy specialist; and Randy Steidl, a former death-row inmate who was falsely accused of murder in 1986 and finally released in 2004.
This event was both thought provoking and perplexing; at some points convicting and at others theologically muddled.
On the one hand, Rice and Steidl presented powerful first-hand testimony about how capital punishment can go wrong. Steidl began the session by sharing his experience of spending nearly 18 years in prison, most on death row, after being wrongly convicted of a brutal murder in Paris, Illinois, in 1986. Although the case against him was weak, it took a monumental effort over many years to overturn his conviction, in large part because of a dysfunctional and corrupt justice system in Illinois at the time.
“Until they start holding police and prosecutors accountable, and make them do serious jail time, you’re going to continue to have innocent people on death row and doing life without parole in this country,” Steidl said.
Rice wrote in 2011 that capital punishment was “personal for me,” too. She has worked with prisoners over the years, including many on death row. But her connection goes even deeper than that. Her brother Bruce VanderJagt, a policeman in Denver, was murdered in 1997.
During her talk, Rice explained that after her brother’s murder she became even more convinced that capital punishment was wrong because it was “always going to be unfair to poor and minorities.”
Claiborne and Dorsey took a more academic approach. They argued that capital punishment contradicts Christian ethics. Dorsey said that capital punishment lacked scriptural support, and that the 5th-century Church backed it under Constantine because they wanted to execute heretics.
“I lift that up for us to understand that regrettably, the Christian Church has had this uneasy and indeed very unfortunate entanglement with violence, state-sponsored violence, which is in the effect Christian violence,” Dorsey said.
Claiborne went even further, implying that Christ was personally opposed to capital punishment. He said Jesus was “like the water that was poured on the electric chair. He short-circuits the whole system.”
During his talk, Claiborne developed the idea of rehabilitative justice and the need for forgiveness, neither of which he argued could be accomplished through capital punishment. Claiborne, a firm pacifist, decried violence in general during the Q&A time at the end of the session.
“Our whole world is addicted to violence,” Claiborne said. He continued that Jesus pointed His followers away from this “contagion of violence” and their enslavement to fear. Claiborne quoted 1 John 4:18, which says that “perfect love casts out fear.”
Undeniably, panelists at the event made some salient points. Capital punishment is not always administered justly in America. It disproportionately affects the poor and racial minorities. I believe this should give Christians pause.
But in my view, the panel went off track in renouncing capital punishment in all situations and “state-sponsored violence” in all forms. Not many of us would want to live in a society where the government refused to use any type of force. That would mean no national defense, no law enforcement, and no taxation – in essence, no government at all.
I believe individual Christians’ mandate to turn the other cheek in the face of evil is misapplied to government. In Romans 13:3-4, Paul clearly affirms governments’ right to employ force:
“For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.”
Marc LiVecche, just war and global statecraft scholar at Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD), has tackled this issue repeatedly. In a recent essay called “The Violence of Pacifism,” he argued that pacifism has the opposite effect of creating peace. He noted that force is not desirable, but it is often necessary to achieve justice and order.
“Force cannot create peace, but it can create the conditions necessary for peace to have any chance at all of taking root,” Livecche said. “In any case, while there is a divine mandate that speaks to turning our other cheek to our attacker, there is never such warrant to turn our neighbor’s unstruck cheek to their attacker.”
In other words, the type of forgiveness which Christ expects of individual Christians simply isn’t viable public policy. This logic applies to both war and capital punishment.
From 1977 until just last year, the progressively-oriented National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) recognized the necessity of capital punishment. (Interestingly, Shane Claiborne admitted that he “conferred with NAE board members during their otherwise closed deliberation” regarding its stance, as IRD President Mark Tooley discussed in an article last October.)
In its previous statement on capital punishment – before consulting with Claiborne and liberalizing on the issue – the NAE recognized the complex interaction between forgiveness, rehabilitation, and justice:
“The place of forgiveness and rehabilitation of the criminal must not be minimized by those who are concerned with the administration of justice. However, concern for the criminal should not be confused with proper consideration for justice. Nothing should be done that undermines the value of life itself, or the seriousness of a crime that results in the loss of life.”
So where does this leave American Christians? I believe Claiborne and his fellow panelists got it partly right. Many conservative Christians seemingly turn a blind eye to how both capital punishment and incarceration disproportionately affect racial minorities and the socioeconomically disadvantaged. Some give a free pass to law enforcement and prosecutors.
“At the very least, we have to acknowledge the reality that sometimes the prosecutors get it wrong,” Dorsey pointed out. I believe all American Christians – particularly well-off, white conservative Christians – should take this to heart. As Christians, we should be actively holding the government accountable when it comes to the just use of force.
But at the same time, progressive Christians can maintain unrealistic expectations when it comes to reducing violence in society. Governments and individual Christians promote human flourishing in different ways. While the Church pursues social and individual reconciliation, our authorities must continue employing force to maintain order and relative peace this side of Heaven.