The federal government reinstated the death penalty in 1988. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, 60 prisoners are currently on federal death row. Three individuals received the death penalty since its reintroduction in 1988.
On July 25, 2019, the Department of Justice issued a new federal execution protocol and set a December execution date for five currently on death row.
In announcing the new protocol, Attorney General Barr said, “The Justice Department upholds the rule of law—and we owe it to the victims and families to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system.”
I can’t agree with Mr. Barr’s claim that “we owe it to the victims and families.” Executing a murderer in hopes that an “eye for an eye” will balance the scales minimizes the horror of the crime. The scales cannot be balanced. It is dishonest and deceptive to tell the family of a victim that death of the murderer will right a wrong. It won’t, it can’t, it never will. When the state, on our behalf, executes a murderer, we are likened to the murderer. The Bible is clear: “See that none of you repays evil for evil” (1st Thessalonians 5:15).
Genesis 37 tells of Joseph thrown into a pit, beaten, sold and betrayed by his brothers. He did not retaliate, instead when decades later his brothers came to him begging for food, he said, “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good”… I myself will provide for you and your little ones.” Joseph spoke kindly to the brothers who had harmed him.
Proponents of the death penalty claim it to be a deterrent, but in a 2009 study by Michael L. Radelet and Traci L. Lacock, this question is asked: “Do executions lower homicide rates?” The study concluded that the “death penalty does not add deterrent effects to those already achieved by long imprisonment.” These words of Albert Camus introduced the study’s results: “For centuries the death penalty, often accompanied by barbarous refinements, has been trying to hold crime in check; yet crime persists. Why? Because the instincts that are warring in man are not, as the law claims, constant forces in a state of equilibrium” (Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology, Northwestern University, School of Law).
The ELCA meeting in assembly in Orlando, Florida in August 1991 issued a social statement stating opposition to the death penalty. The statement reads, “Lutheran Christians have called for an assault on the root causes of violent crime, an assault for which executions are no substitute. The ongoing controversy surrounding the death penalty shows the weaknesses of its justifications. We would be a better society by joining the many nations that have already abolished capital punishment.”
The death penalty distracts us from seeking more effective ways to address situations that result in murder. Capital punishment is “a simplistic and counter-productive reaction to horrible crimes” (Professor Savitri Goonesekere).
Surrendering our need for payback continues the cycle of violence. We must listen to our better angels.
Empathy is a good antidote to evil and empathy evolves from connections with others, from friendships.
The horrors leading to behavior that calls for the death penalty will decrease as we make “an assault on the root causes of violent crime” and nurture friendships, connections and healthy relationships. The church is an excellent antidote for isolation, insisting we are family, we are community, we belong to God and to one another. We are to care for each other with the discipline of getting out of bed every Sunday morning and making our way to church so we stay connected and maintain our friendships with one another and with our Lord.