Thursday, June 6, 2013

Sadly the death penalty is probably returning to North Carolina

Sadly, it looks like the death penalty is likely to resume in North Carolina. An unofficial moratorium on capital punishment has been in place in this state since 2006 due to various legal challenges, some of which resulted in the passage of the Racial Justice Act four years ago, a measure designed to help administer the death penalty fairly. This act was weakened last year and, as of yesterday, the North Carolina House repealed what was left of it. Since the Senate has already passed this latest bill, it looks like the death penalty is nearly ready to return to North Carolina.

I used to be a big supporter of capital punishment--I mean really big. I was once in a debate on the death penalty in school and I was on the pro capital punishment side of the question which is the side I wanted to be on and my team won the debate. But my views on the death penalty changed about 21 years ago.

I was leading a study in church called "Issues and Questions" in which we took up numerous controversial ethical questions including the death penalty. I always presented arguments on both sides of the issue and then asked questions of the group designed to spur discussion. Near the beginning of this series of discussions, a former pastor in the congregation loaned me a book that contained essays by various Baptist authors exploring how the Bible speaks to numerous ethical questions. I was very glad to see that the article on the death penalty was written by one of my seminary professors.

This professor is a highly respected Old Testament scholar. He was one of the translators of the first edition of the New International Version of the Bible. He is also very, very conservative. I turned to his essay on the death penalty first where I was sure that I would find a well structured, Bible-based defense of capital punishment. But I got a big shock. This esteemed, conservative Bible scholar presented a persuasive scripture-based argument against the death penalty.

Well, that just turned my world upside down with regard to this issue. I prayed a bunch and I studied some more and I concluded that I could no longer support the death penalty. Indeed, for more than two decades I have strongly favored life imprisonment without parole as punishment for the most dangerous criminals rather capital punishment.

What are the the specific arguments that led me to this change of heart? It was not secular arguments outside of the Bible, although one can make a pretty good case from that angle. One bit of logic against the death penalty worth bringing up here is that the death penalty costs more than life imprisonment--a lot more. According to one study of four years ago, North Carolina could save $11 million per year if we did away with the death penalty.

Isn't it interesting that our current crop of lawmakers who run ads on TV saying that they are in the business of cutting costs are so anxious implement a practice that costs taxpayers $11 million more annually than a very sensible alternative. Think of all the other things that we could do with that money. Even if we simply applied it to our budget deficit we would be a lot better off than using it to kill criminals when simply incarcerating them will keep citizens safe for a lot less money.      

But it is not the logical, secular arguments that are most persuasive to me in opposing the death penalty. It is, rather, biblical arguments. I won't take the time and space here to list all of the Bible-based arguments that I find compelling in rejecting capital punishment. Perhaps I'll do that in future blog entries. Right now I'll mention only the argument that I consider the most important.

Romans 1:16 tells us that the gospel "is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith" (NRSV). The power of God is powerful enough to transform anyone, even murderers, but not if we give them lethal injections first. We can protect society from the most dangerous criminals short of killing them. Because life is precious and because the gospel, the power of God, can transform anyone we must put murderers in prison for life rather than executing them.

When we put the most dangerous criminals in prison for life, we take their lives. Their freedom is gone and they die in the custody of the state. In view of the sanctity of human life and the power of the gospel and the realities of the grace of Jesus Christ, we must not rush the process with a lethal injection.