It’s not too complicated, really. Jesus tells us to "turn the other cheek," and "love your enemy." I struggled to accept this for many years. This position seems so weak, and I was always trying to be strong. I desperately combed through the gospels again and again looking for some hint of an exception; I found none. Eventually, I was left with a decision: Am I going to follow Jesus, or not?
What Jesus says
I regard the Sermon on the Mount as a goldmine of practical instructions on how to follow Jesus. It contains Jesus’ own words, and he’s pretty darn clear. In Matthew 5:21-22, Jesus clearly ups the ante on the Old Testament command forbidding murder.
“You have heard that our ancestors were told, ‘You must not murder. If you commit murder, you are subject to judgment.’ But I say, if you are even angry with someone, you are subject to judgment!”
- Matthew 5:21-22 NLT
This was compelling, but capital punishment is justice, not murder. The perpetrator obviously didn’t show any mercy for the victim, so wouldn’t we be justified in delivering the same treatment? It’s that how justice works?
Not quite. Jesus addresses this, too:
“You have heard the law that says the punishment must match the injury: ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say, do not resist an evil person! If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer the other cheek also.” - Matthew 5:38-39 NLT
“An eye for an eye” was once the cornerstone of my justification of the death penalty. Frankly, it’s hard to imagine that a person who takes the life of an innocent does not deserve the same. I remember reading about the case of Barney Fuller, the most recent man to be executed in the state of Texas. Barney resolved an ongoing dispute with his neighbors by shooting up the house with an assault rifle and shooting the couple with a pistol. Since Jesus has overturned “an eye for an eye,” what do we do with a man like Barney Fuller? Thankfully, Jesus answers this question.
“You have heard the law that says, ‘Love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy. But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike.” - Matthew 5:43-45 NLT
The Jesus not mentioned
This is some difficult stuff and, sadly, it’s not often discussed in church. By and large, Western culture has smoothed out the edges of Christianity. The consequences, the cost, and the pain have all but been removed.
Wait--what?! Isn’t Christianity supposed to be a feel-good, God-loves-you thing?
Yes and no. Yes, God loves you and there is unimaginable peace waiting for anyone who is willing to really grasp that truth. You are accepted, loved, cherished, protected, comforted. All of those things are true, but that’s not all there is to a life of following Christ. “Take up your cross and follow me,” Jesus said (Matt. 16:24). Did you think “take up your cross” was supposed to be warm and fuzzy? No, following Jesus costs you something; sometimes, it costs everything.
After studying these and other scriptures on the subject, I came to a crossroads. I knew that to follow Jesus, I’d have to trade retribution for love. Am I willing to love my enemies? I stood at this intersection for a while--a long while--praying that my indecision wasn’t a goats-versus-sheep situation (see Matt. 25).
A new perspective
A few months ago, I learned that Shane Claiborne was coming here to Fort Worth to promote his latest book, Executing Grace (HarperOne, 2016). I knew Shane’s position on the death penalty and although I couldn’t yet agree with him, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to meet him. During his presentation, Shane shared a statistic and analogy that brought my indecision to the surface once again. For every 9 people who are executed in the United States, 1 is exonerated. “Imagine if one in every ten planes crashed,” Shane challenged, “we’d probably ground the planes for a while ‘til we figure out what the problem is.” I had no idea the rate of false convictions was so high! A new question crossed my mind: Could I still support the death penalty if 1 in 10 people are falsely convicted?
My wheels now turning, Shane’s presentation ended and a panel discussion began. One by one, I listened to each panelist's story: a man falsely convicted of murder who spent 15 years in prison before being exonerated; the sister of a death row exoneree who was convicted and sentenced to die at just 17 years old; and finally, the pastor who supported the mother of a mentally ill young man who was executed earlier this year.
My indecision reached a boiling point. There was nothing I could do to stop the flood of tears from pouring down my face and I hoped no one could tell that my tears were mostly triggered by my own inner pain. How could I look this woman in the face and tell her I would have sentenced her brother--an innocent 17-year-old boy--to death? How could I look into the face of a mother and tell her that her mentally ill son deserves to die? How can I tell this kind and gentle man who was robbed of 15 years of his life that our system functions as it should? How could I tell any of them that our system can be trusted to dole out death sentences?
Meeting these people face-to-face changed everything. This was no longer some obscure debate; the death penalty now had names and faces. That was the final nail in the coffin of my indecision. I was moving forward now, and by the grace of God, I was following Jesus.
If you’re still undecided about the death penalty, I urge you to study the words and life of Jesus--and, if necessary, sit face-to-face with someone who was personally affected by the death penalty. Above all, remember that it’s supposed to be hard! I leave you with this quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a theological giant:
“Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life.” - Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship