THE BLOG
05/27/2014 06:28 pm ET Updated Jul 27, 2014

The Bible and Lethal Injection: Why the Man Who Wrote Oklahoma's Law Opposed the Death Penalty

William Wiseman, Jr., who wrote the world's first lethal injection law died in a tragic plane crash in 2007. In 2001, he took a biblical theology class, "Overcoming Violence," which I taught at Phillips Theological Seminary.

In 1977, Bill wrote Oklahoma's lethal injection law, the model for other states and countries.

His class paper was the first time he told the story and reflected on it theologically. I encouraged him to submit it to The Christian Century for publication. It got a lot of attention around the world.

The title was revealing: "The Invention of Lethal Injection: Confessions of a Former Legislator."

This was his "confession."

Since his bill became law, he kept track of lethal injections. He said that on the night each one occurred, he couldn't sleep. He felt personally responsible.

He was particularly troubled by the death chamber gurney.

Armrests are pulled out of the sides of the table where the prisoner's arms are strapped to prevent a struggle and make it easier to administer the lethal dose.

"From above, it looks like a crucifix!" Bill said. He started to laugh at the irony but choked up -- a fleeting crack in his hard-boiled facade. He'd been a Republican in a Democratic legislature and wasn't given to mushy sentimentalism.

For his class presentation, he arranged for us to meet in the hearing room where his bill had passed out of committee for final vote. There, he told us lethal injection was his attempt to atone for his earlier vote to reinstate the death penalty.

In 1972, the Supreme Court suspended executions nationwide because juries were so inconsistently applying the penalty that it violated the Eighth Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishment. It's as random and cruel as being struck by lightning, Justice Stewart wrote.

In 1976, the court lifted the moratorium under carefully tailored procedures the majority said now met constitutional muster. Three justices who voted to end the ban later changed their minds. Had they done so earlier, capital punishment would have ended in America.

There was no doubt Oklahoma would reinstate the death penalty, but Bill, a preacher's kid, had moral qualms about it.

He polled his district, hoping voters would be more divided than he expected. It wasn't even close. After a long talk with his dad, he decided to vote yes.

Before the moratorium, states like Oklahoma used the electric chair, a horrible, sometimes long and torturous way to die that could have a sickening effect on the body. Some states used a gas chamber. But the connotations of that, post-WWII, were horrifying. Some still used firing squads and hanging, though they too were grisly, not always as quick and certain as some apparently think today. Bill thought we needed something less gruesome.

He asked the Oklahoma Medical Association to help him find a humane alternative, but they wouldn't touch it with a 10-foot pole. So he asked Oklahoma's medical examiner, Dr. Jay Chapman, who came up with the three-drug procedure Bill wrote into law.

There wasn't time for lengthy research because Texas lawmakers were working on the same idea. Bill was in a race to make history.

He beat Texas by one day, but soon regretted it. He'd just made it easier to issue death sentences, he said.

Bill opposed the death penalty on religious grounds.

It's not that it's unbiblical. The Bible mandates death for murder and other things we wouldn't consider capital crimes -- like working on Friday night and Saturday, cursing parents, committing adultery, not listening to a priest, or not screaming loudly enough if you're raped in town (yes, really! Deuteronomy 22:24).

There are other differences between the Bible's views and ours.

The Bible assumes perfect knowledge about the guilt of the condemned, who were either caught in the act or identified by God through a ritual of divination. Our courts don't determine guilt by divine revelation. Juries don't have perfect knowledge. They make mistakes. People sometimes give false confessions. We know we convict innocent people. The last four decades, more than 140 death row inmates have been exonerated by new evidence. How many erroneous convictions have we missed? Death is an irreversible punishment. How much uncertainty should we tolerate? The Bible tolerates none.

Uncertainty is complicated further by our unequal application of the death penalty. Race and geography play important roles in who gets charged and convicted, but so does money. Defendants who can hire the lawyers and expert witnesses they need to fight their case are much less likely to be charged and convicted of a capital crime than people who go to trial with court-appointed attorneys. Class disparity is the elephant in the courtroom.

The Bible also requires the community to participate in the gruesome reality of execution: the whole village pounds the condemned to death with rocks or they kindle a fire and watch her burn. Execution was public and brutal and everyone took part.

Most of us don't have the stomach for that. We hire people to do the killing for us and appoint a handful of witnesses to watch it happen. When it's "botched," our representatives close the curtains and try to stop.

There's another side to biblical tradition, a counter-narrative of mercy and redemption. This profound and persistent theme begins in the story of the first murder in Genesis 4, when God puts a mark on the killer to protect him from retaliation. It continues in various forms throughout Scripture.

John 8 gives it an interesting twist. When people gather to kill a woman "caught in adultery," Jesus says, "Let the one who has no sin cast the first stone." The crowd melts away, and he says to the woman, "I don't condemn you either. Go and sin no more."

Jesus shifts the focus from the guilt and punishment of the criminal to the moral character of the community that conducts the execution. What does it say about us?

What does it say that we favor the death penalty but want it executed out-of-sight by anonymous people behind walls in the middle of the night? What does it say that we ask prison staff to bear the full emotional burden of killing a human being for us while we sleep?

Finally, Jesus thinks the woman can change and should be allowed to try. Justice in this story is restorative not punitive. Redemption trumps retribution.

Clearly, we must try to protect ourselves from monstrous people like Clayton Lockett, the sociopathic victim of Oklahoma's botched execution. But a long-term history of executions in Oklahoma did not deter him from committing horrendous crimes. Statistically, in fact, murder rates are higher in states that have the death penalty. Life without parole would punish people like this and get them off the streets forever. It has the added benefit of costing taxpayers much less money than putting these dangerous convicts on death row.

But the real question is what all of this says about us.

Bill Wiseman dreamed of America embracing the Bible's counter-narrative, rejecting blood vengeance, admitting that we sometimes get it wrong, and sending a clear message that we are a people of mercy and redemption who hold human life sacred. I share that dream and pray that it's soon fulfilled.