Evangelicals: A House Divided on Capital Punishment

Officially, the National Association of Evangelicals, an organization that represents Evangelical Christians of many different denominations, always stood in support of capital punishment.  Christianity Today reports:

Since the early 1970s, the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) has stood in favor of the death penalty. It reasoned that capital punishment was an ethical stance for Christians because it works as a deterrent and lends appropriate gravitas to heinous crimes.

“If no crime is considered serious enough to warrant capital punishment, then the gravity of the most atrocious crime is diminished accordingly,” reads the NAE’s 1973 resolution. “We call upon Congress and state legislatures to enact legislation which will direct the death penalty for such horrendous crimes as premeditated murder, the killing of a police officer or guard, murder in connection with any other crime, hijacking, skyjacking, or kidnapping where persons are physically harmed in the process.”

The organization has reconsidered its position, and has decided that opposing the death penalty is an equally valid biblical position for Christians to hold.  Here’s what Leith Anderson, leader of the NAE said last week after the group’s board met:

“A growing number of evangelicals call for government resources to be shifted away from the death penalty.  Our statement allows for their advocacy, and for the advocacy of those of goodwill who support capital punishment in limited circumstances as a valid exercise of the state and as a deterrent to crime.” 

(See full NAE Resolution on Capital Punishment, here.)

Most Christians who support the death penalty would not deny that the United States justice system has made mistakes over the decades in capital cases.  No one wants an innocent person to be executed.  That coupled with the fact that there seems to be a multi-tiered system of legal justice regarding socioeconomic conditions of the accused.  People of means who are accused of crimes are able to hire the best lawyers, while the poor are stuck with lawyers who may not be as knowledgeable or experienced to handle their cases.  In capital cases, this sort of imbalance in the system is especially heinous, and knowing this can and does happen makes it easier to understand why some Christians oppose the death penalty.

For those who do oppose capital punishment, the new statement from the NAE is welcomed.  Consider these examples cited in Christianity Today:

Evangelicals have been prominent in public debates over the issue this summer, including the US Supreme Court’s ruling that Oklahoma’s method of lethal injection isn’t cruel and unusual and the banning of capital punishment in Nebraska. (The state became the 19th to abolish the death penalty.)

“As Christ taught throughout his ministry, no one is ever beyond redemption,” wrote a group of eight evangelicals, mostly pastors, who asked Nebraska to end the death penalty. “Yet the death penalty risks cutting short the process of redemption in the lives of those imprisoned.”

Christians may be divided on the capital punishment issue, but they are united in their desire to see justice served and for all who are caught in crime to come to repentance.