Calling for Blood

Screenshot 2017-04-24 10.08.30

In this season of Eastertide, the newspaper headlines cause me to remember that my Lord and Savior, the risen Christ, was the victim of capital punishment.  Jesus’ death came at the hands of the State and with the apparent approval of a great many.  Even though he had grave doubts about Jesus’ actual guilt, the Roman Governor Pilate gave assent to his execution.  Jesus’ death was cruel by any standard, but by the standard of the Roman Empire in the first century, it was not unusual.

The blood lust of “the crowd” is a major feature of the Passion story.  Governor Pilate offers to release Jesus, but the crowd insists, “Crucify him!”  On this all the Gospels agree.  Horrible as crucifixion was, it seems to have had the approval of the people Pilate listened to.  By the end of the day on Good Friday, it appeared that the people’s lust for blood had the final say.

I hear echoes of the Gospels in the way the State of Arkansas has attempted to set up a conveyor belt of death.  The Governor in that fair state attempted to kill eight prisoners in eleven days.  Apparently, he needed to fill  all eight coffins before the State’s supply of midazolam had reached its expiration date.  Governor Pilate had a similar propensity to execute people in batches.  That’s why there were three crosses on the hill called Golgotha.

I am thankful that the courts threw a monkey wrench into Governor Asa Hutchinson’s killing machine, but I take no solace in knowing that a majority of Arkansians probably support his effort.  True, a few are aghast, but crowds have not stormed the capitol demanding a return to something approaching sanity.

One wonders where the Christians are.

Nor do I find consolation in the fact that the same thing hasn’t happened (yet) in Florida.  Recently, Orange-Osceola State Attorney Aramis Ayala announced that she would not seek the death penalty in any case.  This is, of course, her prerogative under state law, and she has good reasons for her decision.  She’s dead right when she says that the death penalty serves neither the interests of the community or the cause of justice.  Would that Governor Pilate – or Governor Hutchison — had such insight and courage.

As for Florida’s Governor Scott, he has taken 23 capital murder cases away from Ms. Ayala, and turned them over to a prosecutor who does not share Ms. Ayla’s aversion to execution.  This is no surprise, coming from a Governor who has signed more death warrants than any of his predecessors since the death penalty came back into use in 1977.

In a recent online meditation, Richard Rohr writes about the death of Jesus, and how his death “takes away the sin of the world.”

Jesus takes away the sin of the world by dramatically exposing the real sin—ignorant hatred and violence, not the usual preoccupation with purity codes—and by refusing the usual pattern of vengeance, which keeps us inside of an insidious quid pro quo logic. In fact, he “returns their curses with blessings” (Luke 6:28), teaching us that we can “follow him” and not continue the spiral of violence. He unlocks our entrapment from within. (

It’s clear to me that we are indeed trapped in a pattern of vengeance.  As Easter people, we know in our hearts that there is a better way.

Why I Oppose the Death Penalty

Death Gurney My primary objection to the death penalty is theological. Killing for vengeance does not reflect the God revealed in the Bible. In Deuteronomy  32:35 God says, “To me belong vengeance and recompense.” Leviticus 19:18 adds, “You shall not take vengeance . . . but love your neighbor as yourself.”  Similar themes recur frequently in the Old Testament.

Jesus himself as asked to rule in a death penalty case.  His response: “Let one without sin cast the first stone” (John 8:7).

For those who see capital punishment as a way of upholding the sanctity of life, I suggest that Christ’s death on the cross, itself an application of capital punishment, overrules the idea that shedding blood testifies to the sacredness of life.  Christ died that others might live.  He took the places of the guilty and of the enemy, including the murderer Barabbas.  Christ died for all.  “Unless we believe that every person, whether murderer or not, is redeemable and must have the chance to be redeemed, there is no real gospel” (Howard Zehr).  Reconciliation with God and with humanity is at the heart of Christian hope.  When the Sate executes, it kills that hope.

There are many other reasons why I oppose the death penalty. Here are a few:

  • Maintaining the legal machinery of death and carrying out executions costs taxpayers a staggering amount of money.
  • There is no scientific evidence that the death penalty actually deters crime any better than long prison sentences.
  • The very real possibility of executing the innocent exists – especially in Florida
  • Minorities and the poor are most likely to receive the death penalty.  As Florida Governor LeRoy Collins put it, “Most who are killed are poor and friendless.”
  • The death penalty is applied randomly and capriciously – influenced more by politics  and the  quality of legal counsel than by the even application of “justice for all.”
  •   The death penalty puts the U. S. in embarrassing association with the few countries that cling to it.  Only three countries execute more prisoners than we do – China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia.  We belong to a notorious club of human rights abusers.  More than 128 nations have abandoned capital punishment in law or practice.
  • Life without parole is a sensible (and more economical) alternative to death.

There is no denying that most of the people on Florida’s Death Row have done terrible things.  Like familiar murderers in the Bible, Cain, Moses, David, and Paul, they deserve punishment.  God, however, did not sanction the execution of those offenders.  Instead God showed them the mercy that is one of the chief attributes of God.

 I don’t expect the State to change its laws to accommodate my theological objections, but I do plan to keep saying that the death penalty is morally wrong and terrible public policy.