The death sentence of convicted Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, combined with four allegedly botched executions in the U.S. last year and an anticipated Supreme Court ruling on the death penalty this summer, has fueled debate among evangelicals regarding the legitimacy of capital punishment.
Nebraska became the 19th state to ban the death penalty, when lawmakers overrode Gov. Pete Ricketts’ veto of a capital punishment ban May 27.
Whether taking a convicted murderer’s life is just, whether the death penalty is applied fairly across all races and economic classes and whether the common execution method of lethal injection is humane are among the issues under consideration. Some states have experienced difficulty obtaining lethal injection drugs because European manufacturers have refused to sell them based on moral objections to the death penalty.
A federal jury’s May 15 decision to sentence Tsarnaev to death for killing three people and injuring hundreds more in a 2013 terrorist attack at the Boston Marathon provoked a variety of responses among Southern Baptists.
“I certainly know many people who believe that in certain circumstances the death penalty, as a legal function of the state and as a deterrent to crime, is justified,” Neal Davidson, pastor of the Boston-area Hope Chapel in Sterling, Mass., told Baptist Press. “But I don’t believe there’s been any momentum in our state to try to reinstate the death penalty. It’s really quite interesting: you had a federal trial with the death penalty on the table taking place in a state that does not have the death penalty.”
Massachusetts is among the states that have abolished the death penalty for cases tried in state courts, according to deathpenaltyinfo.org. Individuals convicted of federal crimes in those states may still be sentenced to capital punishment.
On one side of the debate, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary’s (SEBTS) Daniel Heimbach told BP “it would violate the biblical ethic if our government did not apply the death penalty” in Tsarnaev’s case. On the other side, New Orleans pastor David Crosby said he would suspend capital punishment if he could and noted that death row inmates he ministered to said the term “capital punishment” derives from the fact that people with no capital receive the punishment more often than people of means who commit similar crimes.
Other evangelicals endorse the death penalty in a highly qualified manner or are undecided about it. Davidson told BP he is “not categorically opposed [to] or in favor” of capital punishment. He believes there is biblical warrant for employing it as a means of just punishment and a deterrent to crime. But he worries about the possibility of human error in death penalty cases and wants to “err on the side of grace.”
A 2000 Southern Baptist Convention resolution supported “the fair and equitable use of capital punishment by civil magistrates as a legitimate form of punishment for those guilty of murder or treasonous acts that result in death.”
Other Christian groups that have affirmed capital punishment include the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and the National Association of Evangelicals. The Assemblies of God has posted on its website a defense of capital punishment that acknowledges disagreement among members of Assemblies of God churches. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the National Council of Churches, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops all have opposed the death penalty.
A 2014 Gallup poll found that 61 percent of Americans believe the death penalty is morally acceptable. Support has dropped below 60 percent only once in the past 13 years, according to a ReligionLink report. Most other developed nations have abolished the death penalty.
Whether lethal injection is humane has been one focus of debate during the past year, with four allegedly botched lethal injections in the U.S. in 2014, according to National Public Radio. In Oklahoma, convicted murderer Clayton Lockett appeared to twist on the gurney after death chamber staff failed to place his intravenous line properly, Reuters reported.
In Arizona, convicted double murderer Joseph Wood took nearly two hours to die and had to be administered 15 doses of the lethal drug, according to USA Today. The Supreme Court is expected to rule by the end of the current term on a case challenging Oklahoma’s method of lethal injection as a breach of the Constitution’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.
Heimbach, senior professor of Christian ethics at SEBTS, offered two reasons for “believing the Bible requires government to execute persons proven guilty of premeditated murder,” though he noted there are additional reasons.
“The first is because in Genesis 9:5 the Creator says that anyone guilty of murder forfeits his own life by doing so,” Heimbach said in written comments. “And, since the sanctity of life ethic comes from God, and derives from the Creator-creature relationship, this is a very strong argument. The second comes from the last part of Ezekiel 13:19 where God says sparing the lives of murderers is a moral lie contrary to the sanctity of life ethic He requires.”
Heimbach cautioned that governments should “never rush to judgment,” “never place retribution in the hands of private citizens” and “never demand killing anyone based on feeling self-righteous anger, hate or fear.” As with all humans, the debt murderers owe “can be truly satisfied only by the death penalty Jesus paid,” he said.
The Boston Marathon bomber’s trial illustrates how love and justice should both be considered during sentencing in a murder case, Heimbach said.
“Biblical love never lessens what biblical justice requires, and it is love for those whose lives were lost that demands the bomber forfeit his. Taking the bomber’s life cannot possibly pay for what he stole and should not be taken this way. But what it can do, and should do, is tell the world and God that the people the bomber murdered were deeply and truly loved, and that what he did was irretrievably wrong,” Heimbach said.
For Crosby, pastor of First Baptist Church in New Orleans, La., ministering to death row inmates in Texas helped solidify a developing conviction that the U.S. should abolish capital punishment. As a pastor in Texas, he led a weekly Bible study for death row inmates for six years at the Mountain View Unit in Gatesville. Among the inmates he baptized and discipled was Karla Faye Tucker, a convicted double murderer whose highly publicized conversion to faith in Christ occurred just before she met Crosby.
Tucker’s 1998 execution by lethal injection marked the first time a woman in the U.S. had been executed since 1984.
“I remember the moment that I knew she was dead, but I did not witness the execution,” said Crosby, who discipled Tucker four years and moved to New Orleans shortly before her execution.
Crosby told First Baptist the following Sunday, “I am a citizen of this republic. This is participatory government – government of the people, by the people and for the people. And here’s one of the people who doesn’t want to kill these other people anymore.”
The death penalty, Crosby told BP, too often is unjustly administered and does not serve as a deterrent to crime.
“It’s pretty evident that given the same charges [and] the same conviction, poor people are more likely to be executed than wealthy people,” Crosby said. “Black people are more likely to be executed than white people. That’s just true statistically. It’s undeniable.”
The death penalty may be just in individual cases, Crosby said, but the racial and economic disparities of the system should provoke objections among believers.
During his doctoral studies at Baylor University, Crosby researched the death penalty as a deterrent to crime and found lower murder rates in jurisdictions without capital punishment. He also told BP it costs considerably less by most accounts to imprison a person for life than it does to fund extended court proceedings and the execution itself.
Though Scripture allows capital punishment, it is unclear how often it was administered in the Old Testament, and we no longer employ it, as Israelites were permitted to do, for offenses like adultery and rebellion against parents, Crosby said. Additionally, God’s decision to spare Cain’s life demonstrates that murder does not require the death penalty, he said.
Crosby cited the unjust executions of Jesus and Stephen in the New Testament as illustrations that systems of government can fail in the process of administering capital punishment.
The gospel on death row
Regardless of their stances on the death penalty, Southern Baptists agree on the necessity of sharing the gospel with death row inmates – an emphasis highlighted by the 2000 resolution. New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary’s program in the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s (SWBTS) extension program in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s Darrington Unit carry out such a ministry.
Ben Phillips, director of SWBTS’s Darrington extension, told BP two recent graduates with bachelor’s degrees in biblical studies were on death row before having their sentences reduced to life in prison. Though Phillips believes the death penalty is a just punishment for willfully taking an innocent, defenseless life, he says Christians should love mercy and take the gospel to prisoners sentenced to death.
One SWBTS graduate who used to be on death row hopes to return to minister to inmates there, Phillips said.
“Rather than celebrate the application of the death penalty in general or any particular case,” Phillips said, “we need to love mercy and not only in a general sense hope that ‘those people’ will come to Christ, but actively work to share the gospel with them in a way that speaks to them.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention's news service.)