January 17, 2017 marked the 40th anniversary of the first execution since the U.S. Supreme Court reaffirmed the use of the death penalty in Gregg v. Georgia. In that forty years, 1,443 individuals have been put to death in the U.S. To bear witness to that injustice, the Abolitionist Action Committee gathers every five years for a nonviolent protest on the steps of the Supreme Court building. This year, my eight-year-old son and I joined the group of protesters who stand on the sidewalk, in support of another group of protesters who mount the marble steps to unfurl a banner in an act of civil disobedience.
There are a lot of good reasons to protest the death penalty. It clearly does not act as a deterrent. Wrongful convictions are real and all-too-common. The justice system isn’t blind or fair and the most vulnerable pay the price. The death penalty doesn’t serve victim’s families, who are dragged along through decades of appeals and uncertainty. And it’s far more costly to pursue capital punishment than imprisonment.
Christians have another compelling reason to demand an end to capital punishment: yeah, it’s Jesus.
Jesus condemned retributive violence.
You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you. – Matthew 5:38-42
Jesus saved a woman from being put to death.
The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, they said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.” – John 8:3-11
Jesus told us to love our enemies. And that probably means not to kill them.
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. – Matthew 5:43-48
So, compelled by my commitment both to sound public policy and faithful discipleship, I drove my eight-year-old to Washington, D.C. so we could be a visible, vocal witness in opposition to capital punishment and in support of our friends who were willing to be arrested to raise the profile of this pro-life issue. My son is often anxious, so I was a little worried about how he’d respond to seeing people being taken away from the protest in handcuffs. We talked about what to expect, what would happen to the men and women who were arrested, and why they were willing to be taken to jail. We talked about why each protester had left two roses on the steps of the Court: one for murder victims and one for the executed. I explained why some people walked and others were dragged and the difference between resisting arrest and going limp.
I was a little worried about how he’d respond to seeing people being taken away from the protest in handcuffs. We talked about what to expect, what would happen to the men and women who were arrested, and why they were willing to be taken to jail.
I wanted him to know that civil disobedience in the service of Jesus and justice is a right and good expression of our faith. I wanted him to know that laws aren’t always righteous and that sometimes, as Christians, we will need to bear the consequences of standing against evil at all levels of our society. And I wanted him to know that if the day came when he felt called to put his body on the line for justice, even if that meant getting arrested, that I would not only be there for him, I would be proud of his courage and conviction.
We watched together as, one by one, our friends were taken away. Some were Christ-followers, like us. One man’s brother had been put to death by firing squad. One man was a death row exoneree, who “never thought I’d be getting arrested again.” Three men and women were family members of murder victims. Pastors. Parents. Advocates. Heroes. And at the end of the hour, when the men and women had all been removed from the steps, the same officers who arrested our friends gathered the roses they had left behind.
Sarah Withrow King is the co-director of CreatureKind, and the author of two books, Animals Are Not Ours (No Really, They’re Not): An Evangelical Animal Liberation Theology (Wipf & Stock) and Vegangelical: How Caring for Animals Can Shape Your Faith (Zondervan).