Last night the state of Oklahoma executed a man. This morning the headlines said, “Botched execution prompts closer look.” Every execution should make us take a closer look.
This was a chance for the media to latch onto controversy and work the story lovingly between their collective jaws as my brother’s pit bull does for hours with a very unfortunate bone – left, right, left, right, left, right – everybody gets a turn. This time around, the headlines are a bit bigger because the state accidentally killed the condemned, 38-year-old Clayton Lockette, the wrong way. Instead of suffocating to death (which is what the drug is intended to do after the inmate is sedated and made unconscious) he suffered for 20 minutes and then had a heart attack.
The headlines prompted conversations and people were saying things like this over coffee or around their offices:
“I hope he suffered more than the girl he killed.” During a robbery, Lockette shot a 19-year-old girl with a sawed off shotgun and watched as his accomplices buried her alive. A sickening thing, begging for justice.
Another person said, “It’s just another reason why the state shouldn’t execute people. They just said 1 in 25 people on death row are wrongly convicted.” If you’ve ever served on a jury, observed the thinking of your “peers” in a country where “Law and Order” has been on television for 26 seasons, you should believe that stat and it should scare you.
But, both of these are emotional reactions to a question that shouldn’t be answered emotionally. If I really want to know who we should kill, I have to ask: Is capital punishment against God’s law? Is capital punishment in line with the principles Jesus taught and demonstrated? Is being for or against capital punishment a violation of my conscience, grieving the Spirit within me? If you’ve read this far you’re going to have to promise to stick with me till the end. Deal?
Death penalty opponents often hold signs at prison vigils displaying the commandment, “Thou Shalt Not Kill.” They’re wrong about that. Capital punishment is not a violation of God’s law. “If you shed blood, by man your blood will be shed. Man is made in the image of God” (Gen. 9:6). It’s often pointed out that the word “kill” in the commandment is better translated “murder” or “having bloodguilt.” More importantly, the Torah called for the community to execute murderers, rapists, adulterers, false prophets and others. Beyond demonstrating that God demands holiness and values his creation, the death penalty in Hebrew society was a big stick for order. In Romans 13, Paul brings this principle even into the Christian age under a corrupt Roman government, saying that God has given the government the “power of the sword” and that law-abiding people do not need to fear the government, only those who rebel against the established law and God, “for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason.”
So, according to God’s word, it seems the death penalty is just in God’s eyes. But, if I’m a disciple of Jesus, implementing it must line up with the principles of my faith, especially since we live in a country where (ostensibly) “we the people” are the government. Should we not look at the sacrificial life of Christ and his atoning death on the cross and desire mercy over judgment (James 2:8-13)? Our Father demonstrated this mercy toward the whole world (John 3:16). Murderer or adulterer or liar or thief, we are all sinners guilty before a holy God who did not wink at our law-breaking, but instead poured out his wrath on Jesus who said, as he hung dying, “It is finished.” Is it? Or does Clayton Lockette still have to die for us to be satisfied? Through his miracles and teachings, Jesus showed over and over again that he was concerned both with the physical and the spiritual, but he also placed more emphasis on the spiritual than the physical (Mark 2:5-12). Apart from Christ, our souls are all equally condemned before God and the death of these bodies is an inevitable part of the curse of sin. But Jesus, the creator who entered creation and died a criminal’s death, desires to redeem the condemned soul more than he desires to punish a body already condemned (Matt 10:8).
This question of conscience is much more personal and subjective. In the past, I have struggled with the answer. I’ve never actually been faced with making the decision – only in theoretical discussions. We are a government of, by, and for the people – that means you and I. The government does things on our behalf. They collect taxes, go to war, pass laws, enforce laws and so on. I don’t believe I could raise my hand in the courtroom and cast the vote for death, not out of weakness or pity, but knowing there is a great likelihood that the soul sitting before me is lost. For the same reason, I could not push the button, pull the lever, or flip the switch in the prison. If I could not do it, I should not ask someone else to do it for me. I could not, in good conscience, share the gospel of love and grace with a condemned man on death row, telling them that Christ died for all of our sins “while we were yet sinners” and then advocate for the death penalty to be carried out on them. Because of this, I do not desire the government to execute anyone in my name. Maybe someone with a Jesus fish on their bumper and a T-shirt with crossed Colt pistols that says “Blessed are the Peacemakers” can, but I can’t.
As heinous as this world is, I must ask Jesus to bring healing to the victim’s families and to society, brokenness and repentance to the murderers and rapists, and rest in the fact that our risen savior is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Justice is his and he will have the final word. I know this isn’t a fun thing to talk about. There’s my idiotic foray into politics and religion. But, as my wife said today, we “can’t live in a thought bubble with rainbows and pink unicorns all the time.” I don’t know if that’s totally fair, but I liked it. I do know that this is a pointless discussion unless we bring it to bear for the gospel. The gospel changes people, our gut reactions and opinions don’t. In Oklahoma, we’ll have another chance to bring the gospel into this discussion in 14 days when Charles Warner is scheduled to die. Who should we kill if not Charles Warner? He was convicted of raping and killing an 11-month-old girl. Sickening thing. Have I changed my mind already? Thankfully Jesus didn’t.