Saving A Murderer’s Life: Who Would Jesus Execute?

An example of the sorts of fun little pictures you get to see if you like my Facebook page....

An example of the sorts of fun little pictures you get to see if you like my Facebook page….

Today is the second Boston Marathon since the bombings in 2013. Tomorrow begins the penalty phase of the trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (Dzhokhar is pronounced “Joe-Car,” but most of the people he knows call him Jahar). Jahar was found guilty of all 30 charges brought against him…. Many of which carry with them the possibility of the death penalty. The trial is happening in Boston, but because Massachusetts has outlawed the death penalty over 30 years ago, Tsarnaev has been charged under Federal law in order to insure the death penalty as a possible punishment.

Great hair is wasted on mass murderers....

Great hair is wasted on mass murderers….

There are a lot of reasons why people might want to see Dzhokhar Tsarnaev put to death. It’s clear to anyone who has seen pictures from the streets of Boston after those two bombs went off two years ago that this young man and his older brother did something horrible that day. They spread misery and fear, killing three people and wounding over 100 more—some losing limbs. It was a heinous act that deserves punishment…. But the question I’m asking is this: What possible good comes out of taking another life because of this tragedy? What sense does it make to kill people who kill people to show that killing people is wrong. The answer is this: It doesn’t make any sense.

There are all kinds of practical, non-religious reasons to be against the death penalty. Here are a few:

  1. China, Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia…. These are the names of the other countries in the world’s top five in numbers of executions. Is this really the sort of company we want to keep with human rights practices?
  2. There is well-documented racism involved in who receives the death penalty. Black folks make up 13% of the U.S. population, but they account for 34% of the executions. In addition, even though since 1977 about half of all homicides have been black folks getting killed, 77% of the times the death penalty was handed down it was for killing a white person. Also, 82% of all the executions that have taken place since 1976 have occurred in the South.
  3. We’re sentencing innocent people to death. In the past 42 years, 140 people have been released from death row due to evidence coming forward of their wrongful conviction. During that same period of time, the United States has executed over 1200 people. Innocent people are being killed in order for us to quench some sort of ancient thirst for “eye-for-an-eye” style justice.
  4. It costs way more to kill people. In Tennessee (where I live) death penalty trials cost 44% more than ones seeking life in prison. In California, having the death penalty as an option costs them about $125 million extra every year.
  5. It doesn’t work. States without the death penalty have consistently lower levels of violent crime than those with the death penalty. Here is what that looks like on a graph: Screen Shot 2015-04-20 at 5.47.04 PM

Beyond the pragmatic reasons for ending the barbaric practice of killing people for killing people, in Jahar Tsarnaev’s trial the defense is making the case that Jahar was pressured by his older brother Tamerlan into helping carry out this crime. Many times in capital punishment cases, they give the accused the option to plead guilty in exchange for taking the death penalty off the table. In this trial, that was not offered, so there was no reason for him to plead guilty (allowing for a more lengthy appeals process if they decide to sentence him to death). They knew the evidence was overwhelming, and his attorney is just trying to save his life. Doing that will depend on the jury believing a narrative in which Jahar was pushed down a dark path by his brother. But how could we ever know this for sure? A man is either going to live or die based on whether or not his defense can show his dead brother’s influence more clearly than the prosecution can portray his autonomy. I just can’t wrap my head around this….

This is so awesome it makes me consider buying a Fusion.

This is so awesome it almost makes me consider buying a Fusion. Almost.

And I am aware I am in the minority in this country because of my stance on the inherent immorality of the death penalty. People in the United States LOVE their death penalty. When Hospira (the maker of the sodium thiopental that is a crucial part of the three drug cocktail used in lethal injection) decided to stop producing the drug, a nationwide shortage began. The maker of the drug decided to stop making it because they didn’t want a drug they developed to help people being used to kill people…. Go figure. Now people are writhing in pain while they are being put to death when they are trying to use a substitute, and courts are halting some lethal injections because it might be “cruel and unusual.” But that is just a small setback in our quest for death as a punishment. Here in Tennessee, they passed legislation making the electric chair legal again. In Utah, they are bringing back the firing squad.

And the craziest part of this whole issue–to me, at least–is how many people who identify themselves as Christians argue for state-sponsored killing. You’d think that people who follow a man who was brutally and unjustly killed by a state-sponsored execution would be at least a little bit suspicious of the death penalty. We follow a man who died forgiving his murderers. We worship a God who has–multiple times–chosen to use murderers as his representatives and mouthpieces and leaders here on earth….

People like Moses.

People like David.

People like Paul.

I wish this weren't so true.

I wish this weren’t so true.

And the saddest part about this “Pro-Death” stance by so many Christians is how utterly hopeless it is. It doesn’t believe that God is powerful enough–that love is strong enough–to redeem the lives of murderers (certain murderers, that is. The death penalty is applied very arbitrarily. “Of the 15,000 to 17,000 homicides committed every year in the United States, approximately 120 people are sentenced to death, less than 1%”). Imagine if Paul had been “brought to justice” and put to death for the crimes he committed as Saul before the road to Damascus. Paul presided over a group whose JOB it was to persecuted and kill Christians. People look at the horrors being committed against Christians by ISIS right now, and they cry out for swift and brutal justice against the people doing the killing…. But do you know who those people are? They’re Saul. They’re Saul before he was Paul. They’re Saul BEFORE he met Jesus.

That or it turns the whole world into pirates.... Either way, it's bad.

That or it turns the whole world into pirates…. Either way, it’s bad.

Very recently, I have sat down and talked with murderers. They are living with the consequences of their actions, but they are living. And they are being redeemed. They are still worthy of love, whether they believe it or not. This death penalty stuff should make no sense for any of us, but it should be ESPECIALLY foreign to those of us who claim to follow the one who said, “You have heard it said…. But I tell you.” We leave behind “an eye for an eye.” We are the people who even love the ones who hate us. That’s what makes us different. And we do it because we believe in a God who loves his enemies as well. You might be able to rationalize wanting to send Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to hell as soon as possible, but if this is you, I’ve got some news for you–You’re not following Jesus. If I know anything at all about Jesus, it’s that….

Shane Claiborne wrote about speaking with a death row inmate. Here is what he said:

“He confessed to having done something terrible, which he will regret for the rest of his life. But then it got even more interesting. He told me the story of his trial. During the course of his sentencing, the victim’s family argued that his life should be spared, that he should not be sentenced to death. “They were Christians… so they talked a lot about mercy,” he told me matter-of-factly, as if every Christian was against the death penalty. He went on, “They believed that Jesus came not for the healthy but for the sick. And they argued that God may not be done with me yet. So I was spared the death penalty because of the victim’s family.” Finally he said, “I wasn’t a Christian then. But you better believe that I am one now.”

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16 Responses to Saving A Murderer’s Life: Who Would Jesus Execute?

  1. Anonymous says:

    Thank you for writing this. I’ve never thought of it like this before. It gives me a lot to ponder.

  2. Mary says:

    And if you believe someone IS going to hell and that hell lasts for all eternity, what possible difference could it make when he or she arrives?

  3. mihipte says:

    Re: “practical, non-religious reasons”:

    1. An idea, such as the death penalty, is good or bad independent of who else (dis)agrees with it.

    2. I agree this is a problem, but I would say it should be addressed upstream, where the bias exists (cops, judges, juries), rather than via what punishment is allowed.

    3. This is definitely a cost of the death penalty, but I don’t consider life priceless, innocent or not. The innocent casualty rate should be kept minimal, but if the death penalty is otherwise beneficial to society I believe it’s worth that cost.

    4 & 5. If you’re right, then I agree that the death penalty is a bad idea.

    The death penalty does have a psychic cost, because killing our fellows erodes the conscience, and we’re generally better off with more people . (Prison corrupts guards, too, although maybe not as bad.) This cost is supposed to be offset by benefits; in theory, it serves three purposes: exile, deterrent, and cost-reduction.

    Prison colonies are a good idea when you can find an uninhabited area, but we basically exhausted those (and they weren’t really there in the first place). Now we can only exile criminals to prison or death. Death is weightier because we can’t undo it at all.

    Death is intuitively scarier than prison. If death doesn’t actually scare people away from crime, it’s less valuable.

    Death *should be* cheaper than prison. I think the lethal injections are stupid, personally. A bullet to the back of the head would be just as painless. If it’s more expensive in the courts, that’s a problem too.

    • mihipte says:

      I forgot to mention two things:

      * If we did fix the courts, the death penalty might not be so beneficial, partly because that would supposedly reduce the crime that puts people in the courts in the first place. 500 inmates are likely a lot cheaper to house and feed than 1500, for example.

      * To the extent that the Church (or any other organization) can reform convicts and reintegrate them into society, more power to you. And I do believe this would happen, but I wouldn’t expect it to totally compensate for a lack of the death penalty, as far as the prison population. If you guys ever do so well that the death penalty is limiting you, that would definitely be a point in favor of doing away with it.

  4. Thank you, Chris, for a terrific article that lays out a thoughtful and logical response to the wretched bloodlust that infects our nation and churches.

  5. Joann says:

    Really insightful. Many of the points are things I have considered, but could not bring so much clarity to.

    It is interesting how very different the Skandavian countries handle aggregiously heinus crimes. (Yes, I know I can’t spell.). They have to be on to something because there is almost no one in jail, and even the rare few that would be considered death penalty worthy in the US, don’t spend the rest of their lives in jail. There are certaintly some very different morals and mores to start with. Those alone form a totally different social climate.

    The return in the US to Social Darwinism is most distressing to me because the poorest of the poor are having more food taken away from them rather than sharing the abundance our country has. $29/wk for anyone to live on is really tough, contains too many potatos and too much rice and pasta because they fill you up. There are 2 counties in Georgia than do not have a supermarket in them. The poor that don’t have transportation, then are really in a pickle, because that leaves them dependent on convenience stores that way over-price their really aweful food.

    If we as a nation are truly taking a huge step back to Social Darwinism, and I think we are, I would be willing to leave, I think, IF it were not for the fact that I would be unable to be the mother and grandmother I want to be. The level of vitriol and hate that is being generated is very disturbing to my psyche.

  6. Gil Gonzalez says:

    Simply amazing. Wow! What a well written piece, and one to which I can somewhat relate.

    At the risk of coming across as self-promoting, I wrote about my experience as a jury foreperson having to decide on a sentencing hearing. It completely changed my outlook on the death penalty.

  7. Gil Gonzalez says:

    Reblogged this on Gil Gonzalez and commented:
    As Christians, does it make sense to be in support of the death penalty? Following Chris Boeskool’s post, the answer is quite obvious.

  8. Bri says:

    As a death penalty abolitionist and a Christian, I’ve read plenty of great articles both with secular and Christian arguments against the death penalty, but I have to say that I think yours is honestly the most powerful one I’ve ever read.

    And yours in particular is very personal to me, as I’ve been praying daily for Dzhokhar for two years now and have committed to pray for his salvation daily for the rest of my/his life (whichever is sooner). Back in April 2013, it was almost as if God whispered into my ear, “I love him and want him. Pray for him.” I truly believe that although he’s in such deep darkness and he seems to have made no progress away from radical Islam in the past two years, he’s going to become our brother in Christ. What a story that would be. May Dzhokhar become a modern-day Paul.

    I can only hope the jury gives him the time he needs to come to Christ.

  9. David says:

    Two questions for you: From where does the law of the Old Testament come, God or man? And in your worldview, does the State ever have the authority to punish in any form?

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