Blessed are the Merciful: Thinking about the Death Penalty

I am troubled by the death penalty.  As a Christian, I believe that the teachings of Jesus stand in opposition to capital punishment.  I believe that Jesus meant it when he said, “Blessed are the merciful.” (Matthew 5:7).  As the follower of a crucified Savior, I believe that we are called to stand against the deliberate taking of life.

In the Gospel of Matthew Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also..You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get?”  The entire concept of grace rests on the foundation of forgiveness and love when justice calls for condemnation and death.

Over the past few weeks American Christians have been forced to reckon with the death penalty as the State of Arkansas attempts to conduct eight executions in a matter of days.  Beyond the theological questions, substantial ethical questions have emerged about how the State of Arkansas obtained the lethal injection drugs and the assembly line nature of the state sanctioned killing.  

Cases like that of Ledell Lee highlight how the death penalty disproportionately targets minorities and the poor.   Sister Helen Prejean, of Dead Man Walking fame, detailed details about the representation Lee received:

  • Ledell’s first appellate lawyer showed up to court drunk, slurred his speech, and ended sentences with “and blah, blah, blah…”
  • Ledell’s second set of appellate lawyers missed appeal filing deadlines and ignored Ledell’s phone calls and letters.
  • Ledell’s federal lawyer represented him for 10 years but had no files. By the time she left the case, she hadn’t talked to Ledell for years.
  • Ledell’s next federal lawyer had his law license suspended “to prevent possible harm to clients” due to a diagnosis of bipolar disorder.
  • In addition to these issue of representation, requests for DNA testing.

We must also consider the risk of executing the innocent.  Groups like the Innocence Project have successfully exonerated numerous individuals slated for execution.  We should all lose sleep knowing that, as long as the death penalty exists,  innocent people have and will be wrongly executed.

We cannot eradicate murder with murder.  We cannot bring about peace through violence.  We cannot walk the path of Christ and the path that leads to the execution chamber.

Let us pray for the victims of violence.  Let us pray for the perpetrators of violence.  Let us pray.

Kyrie eleison.  


Post Script: As I wrote this post the Supreme Court lifted the stay of execution for Ledell Lee.  The State of Arkansas proceeded with its first execution in over a decade.  With the denial of DNA testing, there remains the possibility that the state executed an innocent man.

2 thoughts on “Blessed are the Merciful: Thinking about the Death Penalty

  1. I am 100% opposed 5o the death penalty. My home state, NJ, is repealing it today and the thirteen prisoners on death row whose appeal time will run out will have their sentences changed to life imprisonment without parole.

    That’s a harsh enough sentence for anyone, I should think.

    I believe firmly in the possibility of redemption. If we kill someone, we rob them of that option.


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