from Holiness Reeducation by Greg
In the debate about the death penalty, its purpose, and its fit in a Christian worldview, there is one question that should be considered. If you are a proponent of the death penalty would you be willing to be the executioner? It is one thing to think about an eye for an eye as a form of justice. The idea that someone is going to provide justice by executing someone who has taken a life can seem just. Thinking about having to carry out the execution yourself, however, is something entirely different.
There was a powerful article a couple of weeks ago about Jerry Givens who spent 17 years as the executioner for the state of Virginia. In his role as executioner Jerry Givens executed 62 people for the state. Now he is a leading opponent of the death penalty. What changed? Well that is as much a theological question as it is a personal question for Jerry. For Jerry the reality that DNA testing was exonerating people in prison, including one man he would have executed in a number of days, changed his view of the justness of the death penalty. What also changed was the effect that this role had on his own life. A man of faith, Jerry began to wrestle with God about ideas of forgiveness and justice. One thing he says with conviction now is that he will never be the executioner again.
This story struck me in a number of ways. First, it put a face and a name to capital punishment. We talk about those who are executed and the possibilities of killing the innocent, but how often do we consider the cost to those who are the executioners. The cost to ones soul for taking a life, especially in this sterile and creepy environment of government efficiency, must factor into the conversations. The politicians who promote capital punishment to seem tough on crime will never be the ones to throw the switch and watch that person die. Those of us who long for a world of justice, and turn to capital punishment as a way to draw closer to that world, keep our hands clean of it all. But there is a deep cost to real people and to our very souls as a nation when our justice is delivered via an executioner’s hand.
Our justice system is far from just. As Christians this should deeply confront us. God makes it clear that he desires us to seek justice and to work within the systems of power to bring justice. God also teaches us to subvert systems of power to bring about real justice. The justice we long for will never be found via violence and death. It will only ever come through the Kingdom of God. So wherever we can subvert violence, bring redemption and turn away from the justice of the world and experience the grace of God, there we will discover God’s justice. How can we openly support any role within our government, in the name of justice, if we ourselves would be unwilling to carry it out in the name of Christ?
If we are unwilling to be the executioner then we shouldn’t support the execution. The capital punishment system in this country is unjust and broken in numerous and easily apparent ways. And yet even without that evidence, as Christians we should wrestle with its existence for a multitude of reasons. So let us begin here, by putting ourselves in the executioner’s shoes and imagine for a moment that our support of capital punishment requires our direct involvement in its application. As a follower of Christ how does that change things for you?