Tookie Williams was executed in December of 2005 after being convicted for four murders in two separate robberies in 1979. His execution generated much public dialogue about whether or not capital punishment is an appropriate tool of justice. Celebrities and death penalty opponents clamored for clemency.
Yet our system of jurisprudence here in America is built upon the Judeo-Christian tradition, and it is clear in this tradition that capital punishment is an appropriate penalty for murder.
These are the words of God as recorded in Genesis 9:5-6:
5] “For your lifeblood I will require a reckoning…from his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man.
6] Whoever sheds the blood of man,
By man shall his blood be shed,
For God made man in his own image.”
God is here on record that capital punishment is morally necessary and right. He requires that it be carried out, because murder involves destroying what God has made in his own image and likeness. It is clear also that he has delegated authority to man to carry out capital punishment – “by man shall his blood be shed.”
THOU SHALT NOT KILL?
Some will cite the sixth commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” as if it prohibited killing of all kinds. But this command is better translated “You shall not murder,” as all modern translations and our Jewish friends do. Neither killing in war nor capital punishment is barred here. The commandment is a prohibition only against murder, against the taking of human life without just cause.
In fact, the great lawgiver Moses, whose command “Thou shalt not kill,” is found in Exodus 20, also prescribed the death penalty for five different crimes in the very next chapter of the Bible, including murder. It becomes clear then that the sixth commandment was never intended to prohibit the appropriate use of capital punishment.
Referring to civil authority in the Christian Scriptures, the apostle Paul says, “If you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer" (Romans 13:4). The sword was a lethal weapon, an instrument of capital punishment, and a proper tool of justice in the hands of civil authority. Thus capital punishment is supported both by the Old and New Testaments.
“BLOODSHED POLLUTES THE LAND”
As Israel was prepared to enter the land of promise, Moses warned them, “Bloodshed pollutes that land, and atonement cannot be made for the land on which blood has been shed, except by the blood of the one who shed it." (Numbers 35:33)
There is a kind of moral corrosion that is released into a society by murder, a corruption whose spread will in time poison an entire people if swift and sure justice is not carried out. When the death of the innocent goes unpunished, it gives a foothold in any culture to a spirit of violence and bloodshed . The spread of that toxin can only be stopped through capital punishment.
CAPITAL PUNISHMENT A DETERRENT?
The writer of Ecclesiastes points out that the death penalty is an effective deterrent, but only if it is carried out swiftly. “When the sentence for a crime is not quickly carried out, the hearts of the people are filled with schemes to do wrong." (Eccl. 8:11)
Unfortunately, in our current judicial system the guilty often can stave off execution for years and years through repeated appeals. The death penalty loses its deterrent effect because too much time passes between crime and punishment Mr. Williams, for instance, was on death row for 24 years. Since the murders were committed in 1979, the families of his victims were forced to wait 27 long years for justice.
Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in April of 1865. By August of that year, those who had conspired together to murder him had been apprehended, tried, convicted, and hanged. The assassin who murdered the president in 1901 was apprehended, tried, convicted, and hanged within six weeks of the crime. It is certainly time to consider shortening the appeals process to hasten the day of justice.
CONVICTING THE INNOCENT?
There is still no evidence that an innocent man has ever been executed in the U.S. But one of the reasons we occasionally find the innocent convicted of other crimes is that we have abandoned biblical standards of evidence. In Israel’s civil code, no one could be executed based on circumstantial evidence, or on the evidence of just one witness.
“On the testimony of two or three witnesses a man shall be put to death, but no one shall be put to death on the testimony of only one witness" (Deuteronomy 17:6). Ignoring this standard of evidence is how innocent people wind up convicted for crimes they did not commit. It goes without saying that capital cases should require that the highest standards of evidence be met.
WHAT ABOUT THE COST?
Death penalty opponents often cite the expense of the death penalty as a reason to abandon it. Yet the excessive cost is due only to the lengthy and excessive appeals process, which can postpone carrying out a death sentence for decades. If the appeals process is trimmed to a more reasonable length, there is no reason why carrying out a death sentence would be any more expensive than carrying out any other form of justice.
In fact, in the end it would be a far less costly form of punishment to American taxpayers, who would not be forced to provide food, shelter, and clothing for convicted murderers for the rest of their natural lives.
THE ULTIMATE PRO-LIFE POSITION
Although there are differences of opinion even in the faith community over a proper understanding of the death penalty (for instance, my friends in the Roman Catholic tradition take a different position), it is my view that capital punishment represents the ultimate pro-life view. When we use the death penalty, we are saying that this culture values human life so much that if a man takes a life without just cause, he must forfeit his own life in consequence. To fail to exact the death penalty for murder cheapens the value we place on life.