Capital Punishment in California – an opportunity for grace

By Kristen Johnson

Californians have a big, moral decision to make in November about capital punishment in the state. Voters will decide whether or not to abolish capital punishment in the state, or to speed up executions.

Proposition 66, backed by the Republican Party and police groups, would resolve capital punishment cases within 10 years, instead of the California average of 20 years. It would speed up the first appeal, second stage appeals, and reduce defense lawyers’ filing times by 2 years. It would also end further appeals unless the defendant has proof of actual innocence. (San Francisco Chronicle.)

Proposition 62 would abolish the death penalty, instead moving to life imprisonment for capital cases. If both measures are approved, the one with the highest percentage would win. (San Francisco Chronicle.)

In summary, voters can choose whether to outlaw the practice of capital punishment in the State of California, or they can speed up the process for inmates. The usual arguments are already ensuing in the media. The pro side says that the process takes too long, it’s about “justice,” and will bring California in line with other states who speed the process along more quickly. The con side says that the practice of capital punishment is not a deterrent for crime, it’s too costly to taxpayers, and innocent people are sometimes executed. (San Francisco Chronicle.)

As a Liberal Christian, I find capital punishment to be barbaric and archaic. The only one who can decide whether a person lives or not is God. Capital punishment has been proven over and over again to be applied more often to those living in poverty and those of color, it is not a deterrent, and it’s immoral. My opinion aside, what does the Bible say about it?

The argument given most often by Conservative Christians is that God said in the Old Testament that it’s okay to mete out this type of punishment.

Exodus 21:23-25 (NRSV): 23 If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.

If Conservative Christians are going to use the verse above to say that it is okay to use capital punishment, then they can’t ignore the rest of the laws given in the Old Testament. For example (among others), forbidding eating fruit for 3 years in new lands, not rounding off hair or the edges of beards, not eating anything with blood, death for cursing your mother or father, no punishment for slave owners who punish a slave who doesn’t die, and planting fields with different kinds of seeds. We can’t uphold one law and ignore all the others in the name of cultural differences.

Jesus taught us a new way – one of forgiving and being forgiven, turning the other cheek, and loving our neighbors. The message of forgiveness and not seeking vengeance is abundantly clear in the New Testament:

Matthew 5:38-41 (NRSV): 38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.

Matthew 6:14-15 (NRSV): 14 For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; 15 but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

Romans 12:17 (NRSV): 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.

As Christians, we should also understand that everyone, absolutely everyone, should have the opportunity to seek forgiveness and to turn to God. It may take someone a long time (life imprisonment) but they are entitled that opportunity:

2 Peter 3:9 (NRSV): The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you,[a] not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.

Californians (especially Christian Californians) should vote for passage of Proposition 62 to end the barbaric, immoral practice of capital punishment in our state. Hopefully, other states will soon follow suit.

Everyone should have the opportunity to come right with God. Vengeance is not justice. Jesus is for everyone.

Serve all with love.

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