01 November 2003

Capital punishment and atonement for sin

Several years ago I wrote a column for Christian Courier in which I argued against reviving the death penalty in this country. This was in the wake of the case revolving around Carla Faye Tucker, who had been convicted of murder in Texas, but had converted to faith in Christ while in prison. Then-Governor George W. Bush refused to intervene to commute her sentence, despite their apparent shared membership in the Body of Christ, and she went to her death, confident she would soon be in the presence of her Redeemer.

In my column I did not dispute the justice of the death penalty, which is almost perfectly just if imposed on one who has wrongly taken another life. Instead, I argued that it would be unwise to maintain it for two reasons. First, given that our criminal justice systems are prone to make errors, as evidenced most famously in the cases of David Milgard, Donald Marshall and Guy Paul Morin here in Canada, it would be unwise -- and unjust -- to impose a punishment so obviously irreversible. Second, thinking of Tucker again, prematurely ending a life cuts short the possibility of a genuine repentance that might come further down the road during a sentence of life imprisonment.

I cannot exactly say I have second thoughts about this. Nevertheless, more recently I have found myself wondering whether a refusal to face even the possibility of capital punishment might tend to erode a sense of the seriousness of sin and redemption, and thus of justice itself. There is, after all, something that makes sense about offering a life for a life. Central to Christianity is the belief that "the wages of sin is death" (Romans 6:23) and that the shed blood of Jesus Christ, uniquely God and man, pays for our sins. Short of this payment, we ourselves must die. Is it possible that a society that has lost sight of the intrinsic justice of "life for life" will tend to reduce justice to a mere spineless sentimentality that refuses to make necessary judgements for fear of causing offence? Will it further find it increasingly difficult to understand why the death of God's Son was made necessary by our sins?

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