Beyond the Reptilian

Two contradictory stories have come to my attention in recent days. The first came in an email from Diann Rust-Tierney of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, who wrote to the group’s supporters to share with us some good news. She reported that a recent poll by the Pew Research Center has found that support for capital punishment in the United States is at its lowest point in many years; it has, in fact, dropped below 50% of the American public. At the same time, opposition to the death penalty has risen to 42%. The numbers have been trending in these directions for much of the last decade, but this new research is the most encouraging evidence yet for those of us who want to put an end to state-sponsored killing in our country.

The other news item was a front-page story in Tuesday’s Columbus Dispatch reporting that the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (DRC) has settled on a new three-drug “cocktail” for use in lethal injections, and they plan to resume executions in January 2017. No executions have taken place in Ohio for nearly three years, after botched executions both here and in Oklahoma raised questions about the efficacy of the drug protocols being used, and many pharmaceutical companies began refusing to supply states with the deadly chemicals.

" Lethal Injection Table (11501354666) " by  Ken Piorkowski  is a Creative Commons image, licensed under  CC BY-SA 2.0

"Lethal Injection Table (11501354666)" by Ken Piorkowski is a Creative Commons image, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

As the rest of the nation has started moving away from capital punishment, the Buckeye State is heading in the opposite direction. Two cheers for Ohio.

There are many good reasons to oppose, or at least question, the practice of capital punishment. These include the exorbitant costs involved in putting someone to death, which far outweigh the costs of keeping a person in prison for life; the mounting evidence of racial and class bias in the implementation of the death penalty; the argument that capital punishment as it is currently exercised in the US violates both the Sixth Amendment, which guarantees an accused person a speedy and public trial, and the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishments; the growing list of former death row inmates exonerated by DNA evidence, and the virtual (and in some cases documented) certainty that innocent people have been put to death.

For me, however, the strongest arguments against capital punishment are grounded in Christian history, theology, and ethics. The primary symbol of our faith is an instrument of execution on which our founder was killed. It is a central tenet of Christianity that the one we hail as Lord of all, the one who came proclaiming the advent of God’s nonviolent reign, suffered a violent death at the hands of the state. Lest we think of Jesus’s death as a miscarriage of justice, we need to remember that he was duly tried and convicted in accordance with the laws of the most advanced legal system in the history of the world to that point. In a cosmic sense, applying God’s standards, it was the greatest miscarriage of justice of all time, but according to Roman law Jesus was guilty of the capital crime of sedition. I believe it would be ethically and theologically inconsistent to worship one guilty executed person while calling for the execution of other guilty persons.

Moreover, as a Christian I believe that Jesus represents the fullest disclosure of the nature and character of God available to us—to the extent that when we hear Jesus say something, we are actually hearing God say it, and that Jesus’s pronouncements nullify any contradictory statements elsewhere in the Bible purporting to be the words of God. So when the Torah says, “Eye for eye, tooth for tooth,” but Jesus says, “Do not resist an evildoer violently,” we have to go with Jesus. Other parts of the Bible may lead us to infer that hating one’s enemies is acceptable, but Jesus says, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Jesus’s message wins again. Jesus incarnates a God who is unequivocally on the side of life. Who are we to choose a different course?

I have also considered the various arguments in favor of capital punishment, and found most of them faulty or downright wrong. Statistics prove that the death penalty does not act as a deterrent to violent crime; it may in fact have the opposite effect. It is not less expensive than life imprisonment without parole; in fact, it is much more expensive, on account of the lengthy appeals process. And it rarely if ever brings closure to the victims’ families.

From what I can tell, it all boils down to revenge. Prosecutors and advocates like to talk about justice, but the vast majority of nations in the world have found ways to achieve a satisfactory level of justice without resorting to the state-sanctioned killing of their citizens. The death penalty is about revenge. It’s the public expression of the impulses of the amygdala, the most primitive part of our brains. Well, our brains have developed beyond that reptilian level—that fight-or-flight, if-they-hit-you-hit-them-back-harder approach to human relations—and it’s time to follow the dictates of the more highly evolved parts of our makeup. To listen to the “better angels of our nature,” as Abraham Lincoln put it.

I think that Ohio’s determination to acquire the lethal drugs that will allow the DRC to resume executions is just as myopic as the anti-LGBTQ legislation recently passed in North Carolina, Mississippi, and Mike Pence’s Indiana.

Unfortunately, it is not only myopic but also deadly.