The Death Penalty Doesn’t Make Sense

Photo by wesmagruder 

I have covered a lot of thematic ground in this blog. I’ve written about interfaith experience, Methodist history, the drug war, patriotism, and the politics of the church. I recognize that you never quite know what you’re going to get on this page, but there is a kind of logical thread that holds “The New MethoFesto” together.

And that is a constant attempt to make sense of this world, in all its glory and filth, through the lens of the man named Jesus, whom I would argue, greatly transformed the world through his life, death, and resurrection.

Today I tackle a new subject – the death penalty. But this subject is, in some ways, the most important of them all. In talking about the death penalty, we encounter all of the major themes that run through the current societal, political, and religious landscape in America – race, the role of government, human rights, criminal justice, the potentialities and limits of science, and Scriptural authority. When we argue about the death penalty, we are really arguing about the kind of country that we have become and are becoming.

For followers of Jesus, the issue is particularly poignant, because Jesus himself was a victim of capital punishment. Since we believe that his death did have significance and, in some sense played a role in our salvation, we must grapple with the facts of his execution by the state. (Whatever we do, we cannot argue that Jesus’ death on a cross was theologically necessary, thereby blithely justifying capital punishment as necessary across the board – but that’s another subject.)

There are many, many reasons to be opposed to the death penalty. I could point out the problem of executing innocent people, or the disproportional rates in which persons of color are executed. I could point out the enormous costs of maintaining the death penalty system. I could quote the experts and statistics which seem to show that capital punishment is not a deterrent against serious crime. I could simply compare and contrast the nations which continue to use the death penalty, and those which don’t.

But there is a very simple logical problem with the death penalty – in order to punish a certain behavior which we do not want to allow, we engage in the very behavior which we don’t want to allow. This simply does not make sense.

This makes as much sense as lying to your child so that she will learn not to lie, or beating the crap out of your kid so that he won’t hit someone else.

If killing is morally wrong, then it should never be allowed – period. Even by the state. Even by moral arbiters. By anyone anywhere.

Death penalty logic turns the Golden Rule on its head. Jesus admonishes us to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” but death penalty advocates argue that we should “do unto others as they have already done unto you or others.” That’s not what Jesus meant at all. As far as I can tell, the Golden Rule is not invalidated by the actions of others. In fact, Jesus clearly intends that we should keep living by the Golden Rule even when our neighbors don’t: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

For a person of faith, however, there is an even deeper, more basic reason that the death penalty is just plain wrong — we are created in the image of God.

Though we are not God, either with a big G or little g, we are made in the divine image. In other words, we resemble God. There is something “of God” inside of us, each of us, regardless of what we have done or not done. It is by God’s grace that we are created in this way, of course, but it is true of all of us. All humans share in this basic grace, which Methodists would call “prevenient.”

For that reason alone, I would say that taking another person’s life is wrong. When we execute someone, we are destroying a being which is made in God’s image. When we kill people, we are, in a sense, killing God.

This is why we have to demonize those who are sentenced to capital punishment. They must be monsters, evil, abominable, irreparable. If they are human at all, then we would be forced to recognize, however faintly, the still faint image of God in their eyes.

And who would make the lethal injection then?



  1. Tom Lambrecht

    Thank you, Wes. For me, the decisive argument against the death penalty is that it precludes the possibility of repentance and transformation of life that the Gospel brings. We believe that, whatever crime the person has committed, it is possible for them to repent and lead a new life in Christ. Putting them to death could preclude them from doing that (unless they do so prior to the execution). It also perceives the payment of the debt to society in the form of taking their life. What if they could fulfill that debt by serving others in some way? (See the movie “The Mission”, starring Robert De Niro.)

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