Rob Buckingham's Blog

Why the Death Penalty is Wrong

It is no secret that Christie and I, (and many others), have been advocating for many years against the death penalty that was passed down on Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran.  In the light of this, it was no surprise that last week a friend of mine sent me a link to a conservative Christian blog that agreed with the death penalty being carried out on these two men. According to the blog writer to disagree with his viewpoint was to be guilty of “kneejerk reactions, emotional outpourings … fuzzy thinking, unbiblical thinking, and downright anti-biblical thinking.”  He goes on “to state once more a few basic biblical principles which we must not lose sight of as we think about such cases.”  He then proceeded to give a predictable list of “cherry-picked” Bible verses to support his harsh view, starting with Genesis 9:6: “Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made mankind.”

This was a command, under the Noahic Covenant, to a fledging community of eight people as they began to repopulate the earth.  Human life is precious and should not be taken by another human. This is a clear authorisation of the death penalty in cases of premeditated murder.  But just because something is permissible does not mean it is beneficial or constructive (1 Corinthians 10:23).  Consider the first murder recorded in the Bible – that of Abel by his brother Cain.  God Himself did not see it as beneficial to take Cain’s life (Genesis 4:10-16).  He punished him by banishment from the community (like prison), but also protected him from others who would wish to kill him.

Those who attempt to justify the use of the death penalty by using selected Bible texts need to deal with the plethora of verses that endorse capital punishment for reasons that we find abhorrent.  For example, stubborn and rebellious children who would not receive correction could be stoned to death (Deuteronomy 21:18ff), the man who has sexual relations with his wife during her monthly period also has to die for such a sin, as does the person who breaks the Sabbath (Ex 31:14, Numbers 15:32-36).  If we still enacted such laws most of the human race would have to die!

There is no explicit command in the New Testament scriptures for the use of the death penalty, just a reference to the fact that the Roman Empire used capital punishment in certain cases, and so the Christian would do well to obey the law of the land, But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason” (see Romans 13:1-4; Acts 25:11; 1 Peter 2:13-14; John 19:10-11).  This does not mean we can’t challenge and question the law of the land.

The New Testament views capital punishment in much the same way as it does slavery – it doesn’t endorse it, it merely gives instruction because of its existence.

There are many reasons why the death penalty is wrong:

  • Capital punishment carries the risk of executing someone who is innocent, and once they are executed nothing can be done to make amends.
  • Some criminals cannot be reformed because they are mentally ill, brain damaged or mentally retarded.  Is it right to take their life because of a handicap?
  • The death penalty does not act as a deterrent – it is incorrect to think that those who commit heinous crimes rationally think through their actions before committing them.  The death penalty is actually a deterrent to rehabilitation. Why should an offender change their life if they’re going to die anyway?
  • Capital punishment is not a more cost-effective option than prison.  In fact in western countries like the USA it is cheaper to keep someone in jail for the rest of their life than to have them executed.
  • The death penalty doesn’t just punish the offender.  It’s been heartbreaking to watch the threat of the death penalty punish the Chan and Sukumaran families and their friends – innocent people!

The blog I refer to above concludes with this statement: Those Christians who bitterly oppose capital punishment must deal with God about this, and not me. This was God’s idea, and we have to deal with what God has revealed to us in his word about such matters. Yet sadly I find so many Christians ignoring God and his word on this, and just making things up as they go along.”

There is so much pride in this assertion, “I’m right and if you disagree with me and my interpretation of the Bible you’ll have to deal with God!”  Jesus constantly came up against this picky, proud, religious attitude and dealt with it head on: Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices – mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law – justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel” (Matt 23:23-24).

Here was a group of religious people who cherry-picked their brand of truth but neglected the most important themes expressed in Scripture: justice, mercy and faithfulness.  In this context justice means, “being fair and even-handed in judgment.” Mercy refers to “being compassionate and kind in action,” and faithfulness (or trust) means, “being loyal to God and His Word”.  Jesus applied these concepts in confronting the Pharisees because they had reached a tragically wrong conclusion regarding the intent of God’s laws.  The Pharisees had corrupted the intent of God’s Law by making it harsher than it was ever intended to be.

Now don’t get me wrong.  I believe in tough justice for those who break the law.  I believe that Australia needs tougher sentencing including life sentences that mean life without the possibility of parole.  Our judicial system is often far too soft on hard criminals, and the media are guilty of glorifying them as seen on the Underbelly TV series and the more recent media glorification of Carl Williams and other gangland characters.  There are times when it is right to lock someone up and throw away the key, but Jesus made it very clear that “Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth” was a law that belonged to another era and not to the age of grace.

Regarding Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran what is being requested of the Indonesian Government is that they would use their sovereign power to grant clemency to two reformed and rehabilitated men (and others on death row in Indonesia) and commute their death sentence to life imprisonment. Yes these men did do the wrong thing ten years ago; they trafficked drugs, they were foolish young men; they’ve “done the crime” and would like to “do the time” – they are just asking not to be executed.  Andrew and Myuran are doing an amazing job inside Kerobokan prison of helping to rehabilitate hundreds of prisoners who will one day get out of jail. Why not let them continue this work?  Shouldn’t rehabilitation be the ultimate goal of any good system of justice?


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