God and the Death Penalty
One of the big news stories recently was an execution in Georgia of a man who continued to plead his innocence right up to his death. Another recent story was one of the Republican candidates bragging about how many death penalties he had overseen in his time as Governor. The discussion raises some interesting questions, obviously politically and ethically but also theologically. In many cases, the death penalty is defended on the basis of God’s retributive justice. It isn’t a coincidence that the death penalty is strongest in states that also have the strongest nationalist conservative church presence. But let’s back track for a second and try to examine that assumption. There are basically three possible options: God is violently retributive and wants us to be too, God is violently retributive but doesn’t want us to be, or God isn’t violently retributive and doesn’t want us to be either.
For the death penalty carried out by Christians to be justified from a theological perspective they have to accept the first option. That is an incredibly scary option. Fortunately I do think that even some of the extreme Christians who occasionally support the death penalty don’t really think this most of the time. Even most people we would call conservative Christians like many in the American South would actually believe the second the majority of the time, although obviously they dip into the first often enough to keep the death penalty going. I’ve argued for the third position enough times before primarily for biblical reasons, but I am becoming less and less accepting of the second position as viable for a life that furthers the Kingdom of God. Which I guess makes sense because I think that we shouldn’t really be pursuing a Kingdom of violence, even if we claim that it is God’s violence.
As I think about this, I think the American context shows a general principle of these three positions: try as hard as many good and honest Christians do, those in the second position will inevitably drift to the first at least occasionally if they have the political power to do so. It is quite logical too. If God is violent and retributive, and we also affirm that God is perfect and that we want to be like God, then we will tend to think of violent retribution as a noble goal for ourselves, too.
I applaud the majority of post-Christendom Christians who hold this second position as they hasten to add the qualifier that God can be violent but we can’t – that is one thing that he has a right to that we don’t. But it is also a tenuous position to try to hold that double-standard at all times. Of course there are plenty of double-standards that Christians see between us and God, but I’m not sure of any other on ethical issues with something so broad and so central to Christianity as the concept of justice. If like many Christians you believe social restorative justice to be a core command for us to do, it is hard to do that while also saying that really God wants retributive justice in the end anyway. Again I applaud those who try to hold this tension, but while I grieve over “slip ups” into acting in angry violent retributive justice ways, I also can’t say that I am surprised that many Christians attempt to act out exactly what they think is a core value of the God they follow. And that’s when we get situations like Christians cheering for the state to enforce the death penalty as the obviously right thing to do.