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The Gospel calls us to speak out against upcoming federal executions

The lethal injection room at San Quentin State Prison in California is seen in this 2010 file photo.
The lethal injection room at San Quentin State Prison in California is seen in this 2010 file photo. | (Photo: California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation/Wikimedia Commons)

Our Father in Heaven has called me to do all kinds of work in all kinds of places. I’ve had the privilege of traveling the world in an effort to truly be the hands and feet of Jesus – to advocate for those who cannot advocate for themselves. At the end of the day, though, I want all that I do to point to the Imago Dei – the image of God that is present in each of us. We know that human life has limitless value because God himself gave us the breath in our lungs. He knit us together in our mother’s womb. These truths have been on my heart lately as I reflect on the five new federal execution dates that have been set for December and January.  The federal government has not executed anyone since 2003, so this is a definite change of pace. 

Followers of Christ should give great thought and consideration to issues of life and death. We ought to pause, pray, and earnestly search our hearts. I have come to the conclusion that the death penalty is wrong, and it is my Evangelical faith that compels me to stand up and speak out against the taking of human life in all forms. I believe in the sanctity of life, and I’ve been encouraged to see a growing number of Evangelical leaders call for a more consistent ethic of life. 

The Gospel calls on us as Evangelicals to be more like Christ, and it directs us to love all people, even people who have committed great harm. That requires us to go well beyond explicit deficiencies of the criminal justice system and consider the foundation of our Evangelical belief system. A steadfast belief in God’s gift of redemption is central to that calling. We believe in the power of grace, and we must believe in providing the help that is needed for sinners who seek it. If we truly believe in redemption, then we must not stand in the way of God’s ability to deliver grace. We must support people who want to pursue restoration and renewal, not treat them as hopeless.

As Christians, we need to take a long hard look at the way that the death penalty is functioning in our country. It doesn’t take long to discover that the entire system – including at the federal level – is defective and beyond repair. I have found that the more you know about capital punishment, the more you feel the urgency to fight for its end. 

More than ever, Evangelical Christians are paying attention to the role that race plays in the criminal justice system. We are deeply dismayed by the stereotyping and bigotry that are prevalent in so many cases, particularly capital cases where a life is on the line. The federal death penalty system reflects this deep-seated problem; with the federal death row comprised disproportionately of black and brown men just as we see in the states.

These injustices go against Christ’s message in the Gospels and violate everything that we believe. We must send an unequivocal message that it is unacceptable for race to play any role in the criminal justice system. Christ calls us to something much higher. 

We also know that the risk of executing an innocent person is real. The National Academy of Sciences released a report that estimates that 1 out of every 25 people currently on death row is innocent. This number is staggering and should burden the hearts of those of us who follow Christ. 

We must also consider what the system does – or more importantly, does not do – for the families of murder victims and other survivors of violence. In the wake of the most traumatic events of their lives, they need support to begin the healing process. But so many don’t have access to the help and resources they need to heal. States spend millions to prosecute a single death penalty case while services for victims are slashed. And when the families of victims oppose execution, the system ignores them. If we truly care about the needs of victims, we should put our money where our mouth is and stop dumping our financial resources into a broken death penalty system that reaps no benefit.

Instead of moving forward with these federal executions, we should be calling for an end to the death penalty altogether. It’s time for us to stand up for life from conception to natural death. It’s time for us to speak out against this blatantly racist and unjust system that has taken the lives of too many.

The Rev. Dr. Rodriguez is president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference. 

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