Evangelical Shift on Death Penalty an Encouraging Step

Antipas Harris
Dr. Antipas Harris serves as Associate Professor of Practical Theology at Regent University as well as Director of the university's Youth & Urban Renewal Center.

Only a few weeks ago the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), which represents nearly 40 denominations and over 45,000 congregations, stepped back from its pro-death penalty stance of over 40 years.

On the one hand, it is embarrassing to admit that this news comes so late. On the other hand, as the old adage puts it, "a bad wind never changes."

Thankfully, on the issue of capital punishment, a new day in Evangelical religious history is on the horizon. Since 1973, the NAE has claimed that Christians should support the death penalty. The NAE's new position shows growing concerns with the death penalty among a constituency that historically has been among its strongest supporters.

The new resolution recognizes theological and public policy reasons for why it proves difficult to reconcile the death penalty with Christian teachings. Importantly, the death penalty in the United States comes nowhere close to meeting the high standards for capital punishment outlined in the Old Testament.

Exodus 23:7 states unequivocally: "[D]o not put an innocent or honest person to death."

Yet, as the NAE statements points out, "In the first decade of the 21st century, 258 wrongfully convicted people have been exonerated due to the introduction of DNA evidence. Twenty of those were serving time on death row." It goes on to add that the "contemporary American system is unlikely to reach [biblical] standards of evidence, and given the utter seriousness of capital crimes, the alarming frequency of post-conviction exonerations leads to calls for radical reform."

Wrongful convictions caution humility, forcing us realize that the criminal justice is far from foolproof and therefore an irrevocable punishment like the death penalty may have no place in it.

In its new resolution, the NAE stops short of calling for an end to the death penalty, since its membership remains split on the issue. I would have preferred a stronger resolution — more than ever, we need prophetic voices not afraid to name entrenched injustices in society — but I also recognize that the perfect should not be the enemy of the good. As the NAE and Christians continue to engage in dialogue on the death penalty, a close analysis of the subject inevitably leads to a call for its complete repeal.

There are three main reasons, from my perspective, for why that's the case.

First, a commitment to racial justice and reconciliation demands an end to the death penalty.

Throughout its history, stark racial disparities have plagued the death penalty's application in the U.S.: slaves faced the death penalty for a wider variety of crimes; execution for the crime of rape was reserved almost exclusively for black defendants accused of raping white women; people of color are more likely to be wrongfully sentenced to death; and murder cases are more likely to lead to an execution when victims are white, implying that some victims' lives have more value than others.

Bryan Stevenson, Founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, offers a penetrating analysis on why the continued use of America's death penalty is so unjust. He points out that, if Germany still had the death penalty and used it disproportionately against Jewish citizens, it would shock our conscience. Yet an analogous situation continues in the U.S.

In "the states of the Old South," notes Stevenson, "we execute people — where you're 11 times more likely to get the death penalty if the victim is white than if the victim is black, 22 times more likely to get it if the defendant is black and the victim is white — in the very states where … people … were lynched."

The death penalty's persistence as a symbol of racial injustice sends the pernicious message that black lives don't matter.

Second, the death penalty is fundamentally incompatible with the Gospel tenet that no one is beyond redemption.

Notably, the NAE's resolution ends with the hopeful call that criminal justice reform needs to "rehabilitate and restore offenders."

It is hard to imagine how a punishment that ends life can play any meaningful role in rehabilitation. Any execution sends the message — which Christians should reject — that certain lives are beyond redemption and can be discarded.

Third, advocacy for the death penalty defies the redemptive work of the Holy Spirit.

It is quite surprising that Pentecostals, namely the Assemblies of God, who are the largest group of the NAE would sustain mixed opinions. As stated, most people who support the death penalty base their opinions on Old Testament teachings. Incidentally, a deeper look at the death penalty of the Old Testament reveals that more than murder victims were condemned to death in ancient Hebrew history. Biblical theology as a whole (including the New Testament) both condemns murder of any form and offers grace through Jesus Christ and redemption by the power of the Holy Spirit for all of humankind.

I am particularly grateful that Christians are making important progress on the death penalty, and I am hopeful that there will be even further progress in the coming years.

Dr. Antipas Harris holds advanced degrees from Boston University, Yale University and Emory University. He serves as Associate Professor of Practical Theology at Regent University as well as Director of the university's Youth & Urban Renewal Center. His wife is an assistant principal in the Virginia Beach public school system.

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