Yesterday the Nebraska state legislature passed a landmark bill (LB268) to abolish the death penalty in Nebraska. It’s been a long time coming in our conservative state and its passing didn’t come without fire from both sides.
It’s a hot issue and, as one might expect, there are strong convictions on both sides. That said, as a pastor and someone with a small platform, I feel the need to at least share why I can’t get on board with the death penalty as a Christian.
I wish I could say that I am so full of godly love and peace at all times that I simply can’t fathom how one could justify the taking of a human life. But I can’t. The truth is every time I see that another innocent little girl has been raped and killed at the hands of some sociopath I feel about as Christian as a switch blade. As a dad to two little girls of my own, I want vengeance (ahem, I mean “justice”). Shoot, depending on the day, I may even volunteer to pull the switch. But that’s my flesh talking, not the Spirit of God.
If I base my beliefs on what I feel is just, I can get on board with the death penalty most days. But when I set aside my own thoughts for a moment and open up the scriptures to consider what God thinks on the issue, things start to get a little uncomfortable. I find myself confronted once again with the possibility that perhaps God is very unlike me.
Now I can flip to various passages in the Old Testament to try to make me feel better. I can pull from Leviticus or other places to justify any blood that I want spilled. I may even to venture to call it God’s will, as some have been known to do. And as long as I don’t turn the page from Malachi to Matthew, I’m generally okay. But the moment I fix my gaze on The One in whom the law was fulfilled, this Jesus in whom we see God as He truly is, all of my arguments and thoughts on the matter fall painfully short.
Jesus is the great redeemer; the one who came to make all things new. He is the way, the truth, and the life. He is the defeater of sin and death. He is the king of a kingdom in which one day there will be no more tears or pain, where God’s justice will reign and death will be no more. He is the one who modeled the way of that kingdom for us in both his life and death, as he willingly marched to the cross and gave up his life, praying for His executioners as they killed Him.
So how can we as Christians insist on doing what God in Jesus refused to? How can we insist on choosing who is worthy to go on living and who is not? How can we take life, refuse forgiveness, withhold grace, or be selectively merciful? Is this really what we see in the life of Jesus?
Can we really so willingly support a system that is so far from perfect, where innocent men and women continue to be unfairly locked up and killed? Is that justice? Is it okay as long as we bat a certain percentage, snuffing out the image of God in only a limited number of his children?
And what about the kingdom of God? If we are a kingdom people, and in the fullness of God’s kingdom there is no death, only endless mercy and abundant life, and if we are both inheritors of that kingdom and participants in seeing that kingdom realized, partners with God in the reconciliation of all things, then how in the world do we justify choosing who is worthy of life and who is not?
For my own part, I just can’t.
In Jesus I see a God who hates sin and the death that comes with it; and who was willing to pay the ultimate price so that neither would have the last word. In Jesus I see a God who has a visceral reaction to the death of his friends. In Jesus I see a God who breaks up executions and offers life to the guilty. In Jesus I see a God fully committed to redemption. In Jesus I see a God of second chances and third chances and four hundred and fifty-sixth chances.
In Jesus I see a God who values human life in a way I so often fail to.