Evangelicals and the Death Penalty
I was raised in a politically conservative, evangelical Christian home, and my parents supported the death penalty, so I did too. While in college, I worked for the Nebraska Republican Party and argued in favor of capital punishment in debates on campus. Then a girl I had mentored for two years from my hometown went missing. Soon afterwards, while driving my car one day, I learned that her body had been found. I pulled to the side of the road because I could no longer see through the tears. I had been holding out hope that they would find her alive. My grief gave way to rage as an acquaintance from my high school years turned himself in and confessed to her murder. I wanted him dead!
Her killer was sentenced to death. At the time, someone mentioned to me that it was unlikely that he would ever be executed. That’s when my learning process about America’s death penalty system began. Still, the teachings of my faith started running through my brain. Vengeance is not mine. Forgive as I’ve been forgiven. Love my enemies. I was confused.
I believe that evangelical Christians coming to terms with capital punishment based on their faith, as well as the facts, could make all the difference when they vote on this issue again.
Armed with a broken heart and a political science degree, I dove into research to answer my questions about our system of capital punishment. I also needed help to resolve my struggle with what Jesus taught us about forgiving people. I ended up reading more than two dozen books about the death penalty in the United States, including many from a biblical perspective.
The Bible challenged my notions of justice, and I discovered that the theoretical type of capital punishment it articulates is different from the practical application of the death penalty in this country. I believe my faith calls on me to work for justice for the poor. I reflected on everything that I had learned about how the death penalty works in the United States for all who come into contact with it: the condemned, the families of both victims and offenders, and many others. My research and my faith began my journey to work towards ending the death penalty in Nebraska.
Today, as executive director of Nebraskans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, I speak with evangelicals daily about the failures of the system. I understand how they can look at Romans 13 and believe God intends to use the government as an instrument of wrath against people who commit murder. But I have also seen them register surprise and disgust when I tell them about the many problems that plague the system of capital punishment in this country: the risk of executing innocent people, the racial and economic disparities between who gets the death sentence and who does not, the added fiscal impacts compared to life without parole, and the repeated trauma for victims’ families caused by years of uncertainty and endless appeals.
During the 2013 legislative session, for the first time ever in Nebraska, an evangelical pastor testified in support of a bill to repeal the state’s death penalty. “Throughout the Old Testament,” Bill Thornton told members of the Judiciary Committee, “we find various laws that God established to ensure that the poor would not be unjustly treated in courts, that those innocent would never be executed, and that there would be fair application of the law and fair application of the death penalty. Evangelicals are … becoming increasingly aware of the massive injustices carried out in the death penalty system,” he said.
The Judiciary Committee ended up voting unanimously to send the death penalty repeal bill to the full legislature for a vote, and there’s no doubt that Pastor Thornton’s testimony had an impact. A majority of Nebraska legislators supported repeal this year, a huge increase from 2009 when only 13 senators voted in favor of ending capital punishment. Regrettably there were not enough votes to stop a filibuster, and the bill died.
But it’s abundantly clear that Nebraska legislators are beginning to understand the weight of what they’re voting on and that many are referring back to their faith in the process. Evangelical lawmakers I am speaking with are increasingly seeing this as a justice issue precisely because of their religious beliefs. They are viewing new information about the death penalty system, from innocence to costs, through the precepts of their faith, and it’s causing them to reevaluate.
They are also being influenced by voters. More faith communities are inviting me to make presentations about the death penalty and then contacting their legislators and telling them why they too should be against executions. I believe that evangelical Christians coming to terms with capital punishment based on their faith, as well as the facts, could make all the difference when they vote on this issue again.
I was a captive to feelings of hate and retribution about my friend’s murder, and was set free only by living as Jesus taught. Not surprisingly, my friend’s murderer still sits on Nebraska’s death row as the appeals keep grinding on, with no end in sight. So, my message to evangelicals is this: Go back, study the issue, and get all of the facts. Once you learn about the death penalty system in America, it will become clear that ending it is the only option left to us.
Stacy Anderson is executive director of Nebraskans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, which has worked to end the death penalty in Nebraska since 1981.