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California capital punishment ban offers opportunity for Christians

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California court ruling

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Capital punishment in the State of California was ruled unconstitutional on Wednesday, July 16. Thursday, a Fox News piece on the ruling showed this was no typical political decision to appease the most liberal state in the nation.

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There are several compelling reasons (pictured with summaries) that this ruling by a George W. Bush-appointed judge should be lauded by more than just anti-capital punishment advocates among Californians or even just Catholics among Christians. In fact, it is narrow enough that even conservatives should approve of the ruling.

It does not indict the death penalty in principle, just California's management. An LA Times editorial Friday detailed the broken system that has resulted in just 13 executions since 1978—about 1.4 percent of prisoners sent to death row, requiring weekly executions for 14 years to clear.

Judge Cormac J. Carney stated in his ruling that not only did the exhaustive delays causing the felon to face their death multiple times constitute cruel and unusual punishment, but took any deterrent of executions away. (Statistics suggesting it is no deterrent at all fail to fully consider its effects as prosecutor leverage.) In fact, death row became more desirable than life without parole because of better accommodations since most prisoners would die of natural causes anyway.

Capital punishment is losing steam in states far more conservative than California. The lengthy appeals process and higher security for inmates with nothing to lose has always made death row more costly. Recent issues with lethal doses have halted executions around the nation.

Thus, it is unlikely California will see another execution. In a state with anti-capital punishment Attorney General Kamala Harris and a Democrat-controlled executive and legislative branch with 48 percent of the state saying they are willing to scrap the death penalty for life without parole (arguably worse punishment anyway), there is not likely to be the political or financial capital to fix a broken system so executions can start again.

Yet the larger issue for Christians should be capital punishment in general. Right now, Catholics are the only major Christian faith denouncing state-sanctioned executions.

Yes, the Bible says "an eye for an eye" in Leviticus 24:20. That was also an old covenant rule governing the maximum punishment for nomadic Israel to keep victims from escalating conflicts, not meant as a minimum requirement. There are scores of scriptures about the sanctity of life that was even more a focus in the new covenant of Jesus Christ.

Above all else, true Christianity is a pro-life faith that believes in redemption. We are called to try to convert everyone and that includes giving murderers until God takes them to repent.

This ruling offers Christians a chance to reach these lost souls. It also gives Christianity an opportunity to reach many others that see the compassion of Christ instead of the judgment of religion. The best evangelism might be standing against injustice.

For one thing, the death penalty is not applied equally. Not only are disproportionate percentages of crimes by minorities designated for capital punishment, but disproportionate percentages of those crimes were perpetrated on white victims.

Finally, Christians valuing life should recoil at the risk an innocent person being executed. This happens less frequently with better DNA science (something the pro-life but anti-science fringes of Christianity might want to remember), but still is a reality because death sentences do not require higher burdens of proof and often DNA evidence is not available in murder trials.

It is time for Christians to take charge on the death penalty across the world. At the very least, nobody willing to plead guilty and save the state a trial should be on death row, capital punishment must be applied fairly and the burden of proof needs to be much higher than for non-capital offenses to ensure no innocent person is executed.

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