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Death, Christ and California's Prop. 34

Posted: 11/02/2012 4:44 pm

As a people, we often cringe when religion and politics combine. We avoid it when we can. That said, the two must be discussed together in the context of Proposition 34 -- which would abolish the California death penalty -- for one simple reason: It is likely that the majority of those who support the death penalty are Christian and that their faith influences their votes.

Given that the central narrative of the Christian faith is an unjust execution, to separate faith from our discussions about the death penalty is to guarantee an incomplete consideration of Proposition 34 for most voters.

The fact that Jesus was executed is unusual among religions; Gautama Buddha died of old age or food poisoning, and the Prophet Muhammad fell ill before his death. To Christians, Jesus's life was scripted by God, and thus it must mean something that he was executed on Rome's own instrument of death, the cross.

What is the Christian view on the death penalty? Along with poverty, it was one of the few social issues that Jesus directly addressed. In John 8, Jesus is called to witness the legal execution of an adulteress, but stops that execution by challenging "he who is without sin" to throw the first stone. None do so. Jesus's point was that the woman's accusers lacked the moral authority to exact capital punishment, even where Mosaic law called for it.

As Christian lawyers -- one of us a public defender and one a former federal prosecutor -- we see evidence throughout the story of Jesus that our faith is incompatible with executions. We base that on what Jesus said and did, and three things his actions and words tell us about God.

No one is beyond the forgiveness of God. Jesus told his disciples to forgive "seventy times seven." He declared the sins of a man brought to him for healing forgiven without asking what those sins were. He told the story of a Prodigal Son whose father forgave him before the child even had a chance to express remorse.

No one is beyond the redemption of God. Time and again, Jesus brought the most despised, marginalized members of his society back into community. He cleansed lepers, whose disease caused them to be shunned and separated. He cured people thought to be possessed by demons, who stayed in graveyards rather than among the living. He called a tax collector -- hated for collaborating with the Romans occupying Israel -- to be one of his disciples.

No one is beyond the purpose of God. Jesus told stories about how precious each individual is to God, even those who have gone astray. God is like a good shepherd, looking for that one lost sheep, or like a woman who searches her home for a lost coin, and rejoices when she has found it. So long as one is alive, that purpose can be found and fulfilled.

The most unlikely, the most humble, the most improbable: God has a use and future for all, and is never willing to give up.

If God is one who forgives, redeems, has a purpose for all, how can we have a death penalty? The people with stones in their hands ready to slay the adulteress walked away not because the woman didn't deserve to die, but because they didn't deserve to kill her.

Christian faith teaches that God alone is the creator of life; it is God that has made us. When we deliberately cut short the lives of any of God's children, innocent or guilty, we are playing God -- and that may be the greatest blasphemy of all, given Christ's teaching to those with stones in their hands, ready to kill pursuant to the law.

We are more like those people than we may think. The law granted them the power to throw those desert rocks, to end a life with violent death; just as the law grants the people of California the power to execute their fellow citizens. But we can put down those stones. As a matter of faith, we should.

 

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