Often when I express my opposition to the death penalty, the standard response is, "Well, what about the victims' families?" It's as though the only way to right the wrong of murder is to take the killer's life. Our revenge instinct is strong in the United States. On this issue, we are out of step with our neighbors in Europe and North America and aligned with repressive governments like China, North Korea and Muslim nations. (In my view, there's much non-Muslims could learn from Islam on issues of personal morality and economic justice, but the death penalty is one of those issues where a faith built on grace and a faith built on works will struggle for agreement).
I must confess: In the long process of study that moved me from fundamentalism to progressive Christianity, it was Jesus, not victims' families, who convinced me to oppose the death penalty. From a pragmatic perspective, I can see how a society would want to rid itself of individuals who have proven themselves capable of taking life. I can also imagine having trouble sleeping at night if I knew someone who killed someone I love was still walking the earth. But, then again, I suspect the Old Testament prescription "an eye for an eye" has formed us so deeply, we don't even think about why we believe it, until someone challenges us. In other words, revenge may well be a natural human response, but it may also be the result of our cultural formation, or some combination of the two.
In Matthew 5:38-48, Jesus overturns "an eye for an eye" and demands forgiveness. Absorb violence into yourself, he says. Hold loosely to material things. Work for terrible bosses and do more than they ask. Pray for your enemies. Love those whom everyone else hates.
Damn it if Jesus doesn't sound like a nutcase a lot of the time. I can't live this way. It aggravates my herniated disk just thinking about it. You know who's nuts is those prosperity preachers: In the short term, following Jesus is probably going to hurt you rather than make your life wonderful.
But on the issue of capital punishment, you know who agrees with Jesus? A group of murder victims' families in Connecticut. I've got a story in the current Christian Century about states that have been abolishing the death penalty in recent years and how religious communities have been involved in that. And one thing I learned is that murder victims' families helped to get it abolished in Connecticut last year.
They opposed it for two reasons. (Here's their letter to the CT legislature: VFLetterWSignatures). First, the appeals process takes too long, so instead of closure, they have to keep reliving the murder in courtrooms over many years, even decades. Second, they feel the death penalty, because for a variety of reasons it's only used on particular kinds of murders, tends to prioritize some victims over others. "From experience, we can tell you that every murder is heinous, a tragedy for the lost one's family. The death penalty has the effect of elevating certain victims' families above others. Connecticut should be better than that."
We may not be better than that, but let us not pretend that Jesus is on our side.