Should death penalty be scrapped?

September 16, 2012
Author: 
Kathi McShane; The Sacramento Bee, Death Penalty Editorial

YES: Jesus taught us to forgive, not to exact vengeance - Of all people, Christians ought to appreciate the danger and tragedy of executing someone who might have been wrongly convicted and condemned. After all, we are the followers of an innocent victim of another nation's system of capital punishment.

In my years leading churches and now training graduate students who will themselves lead churches, I have come to think that the hardest – and the truest – lessons of faith are those that challenge the ways we react instinctively. The natural reaction to being hit is to hit back, to exact revenge. The power of a religious and moral system in our lives and in society is to challenge those patterns that we think of as reasonable and expected human behavior.

The point of much of Jesus' teaching was to challenge the judgments people felt most sure about. "Remember 'An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth'?" he asked. "I know that rule too, but I'm saying something different."

Don't resist someone who intends you evil. Love your enemies. Forgive – over and over again.

These are hard, counterintuitive teachings. We could argue about whether these lessons are realistic in today's world. But is there any reason to think that Jesus would have supported the death penalty? If we look carefully at his life, there's nothing to suggest that humans are charged with exercising life-or-death judgment over one another's lives.

There's no question that the responsibility of a civil society includes dealing with dangerous criminals in a way that keeps them from hurting others. But judging whether a person has forfeited his right to life sounds like the ultimate moral skepticism: We'd like to think that God will distribute justice ultimately, but just in case that doesn't happen, we're going to make sure people get what they deserve now.

The question is: What kind of world do we want to live in? One where an act of violence prompts more violence, where we are caught in a continuous cycle of vengeance and retribution?

I want to live in a world in which we are all pro-life, where we value every life. I want to live in a state where we are the last ones to give up on the possibility of hope and redemption; where the resources we have to spend on our criminal justice system are put toward education and the things that offer renewed humanity. No doubt there will be people who cannot or will not take advantage of the possibility of starting over, but let that be their choice, not ours.

Kathi McShane is one of four death penalty editorials published by The Sacramento Bee on Sunday, September 16, 2012.