Skip to site content

Re-examining Capital Punishment

The current race for governor in Virginia has prompted prayerful questions again about our use of capital punishment. Having been a chaplain in two penal institutions and having served as a pastor for over 26 years to families of victims of homicide, and having been a pastoral counselor dealing with issues of grief after violent death, here are some comments:

Observation No. 1: We continue to believe that putting a person to death is the worst punishment we can inflict upon them. Unfortunately, the dysfunctional mind of many violent criminals doesn’t think that way: There are troubled people who wish for death, and are relieved, not punished, by execution. We reward them when we kill them. <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
 
Observation No. 2: There are people who seek fame or notoriety by doing harm. We continue to reward them by giving them attention they don’t deserve.
 
Observation No. 3: It costs us more money to execute a criminal in this country than to keep him or her alive for a lifetime. We spend about $17,000 a year on each incarcerated person in the <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />U.S. We spend roughly six times as much killing them. This is “reverse” car-tax relief—and poor stewardship.
 
Observation No. 4: Capital punishment has been shown in study after study not to reduce or deter violent crime. A quick look at the states and countries which have no death penalty makes the case clear: Their violent crime rates are often better than ours. Capital punishment doesn’t reduce crime, because people who commit irrational violent acts do so “in the heat of passion,” not prompted by any fear of a “death sentence.”
 
Observation No. 5: Executions give no “closure” to grief and loss. Anyone who has cared for the families of victims (I was a pastor in Waco, Texas, during that tragedy) knows that irreplaceable loss is not “healed” by execution. Family members never recover what they lost.
 
Observation No. 6: Our investigative system is flawed enough that about one in six executed persons is later discovered to have been innocent. We are improving on this statistic with the recent use of DNA evidence—which has remarkably cleared a few people waiting for execution. But we still kill innocent people. It’s irreversible.
 
Observation No. 7: Although recent federal studies have confirmed that federal process does not discriminate racially against minorities on capital punishment, state statistics show that we have used capital punishment more against minorities than anyone else.
 
Final observation: Capital punishment was advocated in the Old Testament (Hebrew Scriptures) not as a means to reduce crime but as a way of reducing the revenge that families at the time employed (the “blood vengeance,” an act of retaliation for a death). Even the Old Testament law was an attempt to curb violent death, not sanction it. To use the Old Testament as a justification for capital punishment requires consistency: We must also stone our adulterers and fornicators (Exodus 21: 12-25; Leviticus 20:10).
 
My challenge: I am inviting Christians who understand capital punishment as a useless, wasteful and destructive procedure to join me in imagining and implementing a better system of justice and stewardship than our current system in Virginia. I would like for us to pray about a redemptive approach to violent crime that would keep irresponsible people behind bars but find more creative ways to deal with their life than simply killing them—or rewarding them. Can we not as Christians in an advanced society come up with a better way to manage wrong?
 
Daniel Bagby is professor of pastoral care at Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. This column appeared previously in Religious Herald and is used with permission.