October 1, 1996
Alan W. Dowd
Amnesty International’s 1996 Human Rights Report details a disturbing increase in executions around the world. At least 41 governments carried out executions last year. At this writing, prisoners are under government death-sentence in 58 countries. Iraq, Algeria, Turkey, Serbian Bosnia, and the United States were among the 41 countries that killed on behalf of the governed last year. In the US, 56 prisoners were put to death by the state––the highest number since 1977.
But to what end? The Iraqi government kills to maintain order and fear. The Islamic mobs that control Algeria kill to win the favor not of God, but of men who claim to represent God. The Turks kill to maintain their sovereignty. The Serbs kill to cleanse their territory of undesirables.
But Americans kill for more legitimate reasons, at least that’s how the argument goes. Americans kill to deter and extract justice. But these oft-cited justifications for state-sanctioned killing do not hold up to the scrutiny of the heart or the mind.
Of the many places remembered for killing and death, one is set apart from all others. This place is not a battlefield in Europe or Asia; it’s not a concentration camp or gulag. It is a quiet, desolate hill just northwest of the old city limits of Jerusalem. Called Golgotha, it is where Roman soldiers carried out the executions of thousands of men for the good of Rome. Of the many who died on the Roman cross-works, only a carpenter from Nazareth is remembered by name.
Quite understandably, his execution is often obscured by what many believe occurred three days later––his resurrection. Lost amid the din of centuries of disagreement and disbelief, the death of Jesus is the most famous of all executions in the history of mankind.
Set aside, for a moment, the spiritual dimension of Christ’s death. Set aside the debate over his divinity. Leave religion out of the story. Set aside man’s redemption and God’s faithfulness. Strip it down to its secular, lifeless bones, and you find that the execution of this carpenter-turned-prophet is, if nothing else, an indictment of the very punishment he endured.
The politics of execution
At the time of Jesus’ execution, Rome granted local leaders broad powers of self-rule. Hence, even though ultimate civil authority rested with Rome, Jews continued to live by the Mosaic Law, which governed all aspects of life. And it was this Mosaic Law that Jesus violated, according to many Jews of the day.
The Law prescribed that blasphemers be stoned to death. Since he claimed to be the Messiah promised by God and the king foretold by the prophets, the teachers of the Law found Jesus guilty of blasphemy. However, they did not carry out their sentence. Instead, they handed him over to Roman territorial governor Pontius Pilate.
Their rationale was twofold: With the Sabbath fast approaching and the Passover holiday already underway, the Sanhedrin did not have time to kill Jesus. Moreover, several members of this ruling body had serious qualms about their death sentence. So, they convinced Pilate that since Jesus claimed to be the King of the Jews, he undermined the authority of Caesar. In doing so, the religious ruling class distanced itself from the killing. Rome would bear responsibility for that.
In America, we constitute the ruling class, and the government––like Rome––carries out the sentences we demand. However, entrusting the authority of ending life to the state or any earthly entity is wrong for practical as well as moral reasons, and it does not relieve the governed––us––of any culpability.
Among the practical problems with capital punishment is the difficulty of administering it in a just and measured way. By his own admission, Pilate did not want to put Jesus to death. He found him without fault. However, he ultimately relented to the demands of an angry mob because it was the easy thing to do. Moreover, it made for good politics to appease the religious and cultural leaders who saw Jesus as a challenge to their authority. So, he fulfilled their wishes and killed the Nazarene.
No one of sound thinking would compare Jesus of Nazareth to the killers and predators and terrorists and even "innocent" men who sit on death row today. He was sentenced and killed for doing good. They are sentenced for doing evil. However, it is not difficult to compare us to the mob that thirsted for blood and vengeance in Jerusalem that day two millennia ago.
Furthermore, aside from whom they execute, American politicians are not much different than Pilate. Nearly 2,000 years after the most infamous of executions, the death penalty endures in our criminal-justice system because it still makes for good politics. Americans overwhelmingly support the death penalty because they believe it ensures justice. But the numbers show quite the opposite.
At the time of Christ’s death, there was a racist dimension to the imposition of the death penalty. A Roman citizen could not be crucified, whereas a non-Roman could be killed in any number of ways. In America, black defendants are sentenced to death much more frequently than white defendants. In Georgia, for example, 22% of blacks convicted of murdering whites are sentenced to death, while only 8% of white murderers are sentenced to death. Only 3% of whites who kill blacks are given the sentence of capital punishment.
Nationwide, 48% of America’s death row population is black, but blacks do not commit an equal percentage of the murders or violent crimes. This disproportionate use of capital punishment undermines the legitimacy of our system. It is clearly not just.
Justice must be fair, impartial, blind to race, and unmoved by the passions of the public. The discrepancies caused by racism alone should be enough to put an end to capital punishment. Man is fallible. The state, which is controlled by man, is equally fallible. This is why the death penalty is unevenly administered to blacks and whites. This is why scores of death row inmates have been proven innocent of capital crimes and spared the irreversible punishment of death. But this is also why many others––those without large quantities of money to defend themselves, those tried and killed to quiet a mob, those sent to the gallows for the sake of expedience rather than justice––are not spared.
Expedience and public approval do not ensure justice. As Pilate probably suspected that afternoon in Jerusalem, very often they ensure the opposite.
The promised result of the death penalty is deterrence. But this is its main failure. The death penalty does not deter violent crime. If it did, then there would be fewer violent crimes and murders in states that sanction it. But the numbers don’t support this.
In fact, the death-penalty culture may have the opposite effect. When the state liquidates human beings, whether at conception or middle age or old age, it cheapens the value of life and erodes respect for life. A society cannot uphold the sanctity of life by killing, even if it is killing those who murder.
Why was it so commonplace to attend a crucifixion in first century Rome? Perhaps because life had been so cheapened across the known world by that time. Children were drowned or beheaded at the whim of kings and potentates. Slaves and free laborers were beaten or worked to death. Rome’s conquered subjects could be killed without cause. Executions became a public event. Within years of Christ’s death, the killing of humans became a blood-sport to entertain Rome’s depraved government and citizenry. Disrespect for life destroys society.
The promise of life
We know killing is wrong. And killing to punish killing is wrong as well. The former is part of God’s first covenant with man. The latter is part of a new, deeper covenant between God and man.
But people still thirst for vengeance and seek "life for life, eye for eye."1 They point to the Mosaic Law to justify their wrath. However, the Mosaic tradition of reciprocity was installed not to validate retaliation but to limit punishments. Before God made His first covenant with humanity, the law of the jungle––where might made right––reigned.
Mosaic Law offered the law of reciprocity, bringing punishments and crimes into balance. In trying to redeem and restore humanity, God revealed His own nature to mankind and sought to replace the law of the jungle and the law of reciprocity with the promise of life. In examples and episodes stretching from the Garden of Eden to Golgotha to today, His forgiving, faithful, loving nature is repeatedly revealed.
Death-penalty proponents cite the Old Law in choosing death. God cites all of history and says you have abused and misunderstood the Law. You must choose life and learn to forgive.2
This does not mean society must absolve the murderer or rapist. It does not advocate releasing those who sit on death row. It does not blame society for the criminal’s plight. It does not seek to weaken our over-burdened criminal-justice system. It merely reaffirms the sanctity of human life, which is made in the very image of God.
We must end state-sponsored execution not because it is beneath us, not because the US is more civilized than Iraq or Serbia or first century Rome. To the contrary, we must end this practice because it is not beneath us. We have more in common with Rome than we would care to admit. The execution of Jesus was carried out in the name of justice. However, political expedience and revenge were then, as they are today, the true motivations for invoking the death penalty. And this is why Golgotha, even when separated from the miracle that occurred three days later, continues to cry out against the culture of death.
1 The Bible, Exodus 21:23-24
2 The Bible, Matthew 5:38-48 and Deuteronomy 30:19