Reflections on Easter and the Death Penalty

05/10/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I will be the first to admit that I am not a biblical scholar and lay no claim to a particularly profound understanding of Easter from a theological perspective. Nevertheless, I would respectfully submit that Easter is an appropriate time to reflect on the institution of capital punishment.

For one thing, Easter is when most Christians give more thought than usual to the implications of a legal and political system that has the power to authorize death as punishment. Whether one views the accounts of Jesus' trial and execution as historical or allegorical there is a deep understanding that in this case the system is about to make a cruel and arbitrary mistake.

When it comes to our modern American system of capital punishment, mistake is it's hallmark. A Columbia University study of capital sentencing found that 68% of all death verdicts imposed and fully reviewed were reversed by courts because of serious error. Half of the reversals called into question the reliability of the death verdict with 82% of the cases ending in a sentence other than death on retrial -- including 9% ending in not guilty verdicts. These statistics take on real world implications when you consider that one hundred thirty individuals have been exonerated from death row -- some coming within hours of execution for a crime they did not commit.

We identify with and understand the overwhelming grief and despair of Jesus' friends and followers. But most of all our hearts break at the thought of what his poor mother must have endured in the days and hours leading up to his death.

I was taught that Jesus' role in the world was, in part, to take on and understand what it is to be human -- to learn our joys as well as the nature of our suffering. In so doing he learned and expanded his compassion for our condition.

Christians remembering Jesus' suffering at Easter are instructed in compassion for self and others. So this is an appropriate time to seriously consider the ripples of pain that the death penalty brings mothers, daughters, sons and grandchildren, providing little solace in return for the suffering. This lesson in compassion also challenges us not to turn away, as we too often do from the pain of survivors of homicide -- but calls us to be a part of and actively promote services that are healing.

But the transcendent message of Easter is that despite the frailties of the human condition -- our capacity to lie, turn our backs on and cruelly hurt one another -- there is also always the opportunity for hope, renewal, redemption and an earth shattering, rock rolling away capacity for love.

One last reflection on Easter: does retaining the death penalty or ending it bring us closer to its meaning?