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Can You Be Pro-Life and Pro-Death Penalty?

Examining the tension between defending life and condoning death.

Earlier this month, the Texas legislature approved a loudly-debated package of restrictions on abortions in the Lone Star State; among other things, requiring abortion clinics to bring their facilities in line with surgical standards and banning abortions after 20 weeks.

Days later, Texas State Rep. Harold Dutton, Jr., introduced a bill would keep those restrictions from taking effect until the state also outlaws the death penalty.

But Dutton isn’t the first to link abortion and the death penalty, to suggest being pro-life includes all lives, not just those of the unborn. (In fact, bills similar to House Bill 45 reportedly have failed in previous sessions of the Texas legislature.)

“What it really comes down to is, is there a respect for the sacredness of life in all cases in all places at all times?” —Danielle Vermeer


To many who have grown up in the Catholic church, like Danielle L. Vermeer, that’s part of the church’s “consistent ethic of life,” going back to the American-Catholic dialogue written in 1983 by Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, archbishop of Chicago. That document, upheld several years later by Pope John Paul II’s “Evangelium Vitae,” mapped for the first time the Church’s teachings on social justice issues.

“What it really comes down to is, is there a respect for the sacredness of life in all cases in all places at all times?” Vermeer said.

Vermeer lives in the Chicago suburbs and blogs about the intersections of faith and feminism and, increasingly, social justice issues on her blog, From Two to One. She said to her, the sacredness of life is more clear cut in the case of capital punishment than even abortion, complicated in its layers of health and choice and when life begins.

She doesn’t believe a person’s innocence or guilt justifies the state intervening to take that person’s life. “I don’t think as Christians that’s what we’re called to do.” Not when we believe all are guilty of sin. Not when we believe God’s grace is sufficient to pardon that sin.

Rev. Sarah Ross, pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Pleasant Hill outside Kansas City, Mo., pointed to Jesus’ concern for the poor and oppressed, those statistically most likely to have abortions or be sentenced to death.

The facts back up Ross' concern. Three-fourths of women who have abortions say they cannot afford a child (40 percent are at the federal poverty line), and half do not want to be a single parent or are having problems with their husband or partner, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

When it comes to the death penalty, 310 people convicted of crimes in the U.S. have been exonerated by DNA evidence since 1989, according to The Innocence Project. Of those, 18 had served time on death row, it said.

Those exonerated disproportionately have been black: 193, compared to 93 people who are white or 22 who are Hispanic.

The Texas Moratorium Network puts the number of innocent people who have walked off death row “in the modern era” at 142. Some of the individuals had spent up to 33 years condemned to death. And in Texas, 70.7 percent of all people on death row are non-white.

“The issues of race and class prejudice (as well as possible innocence) are more than enough reason to oppose the death penalty as it exists today in America, whether or not one opposes it on a fundamental level,” Ross said.

Still, many other Christians, such as Joy Wegener, a pastor’s wife and mother of four in North Dakota, draw both anti-abortion and pro-capital punishment arguments directly from the Old Testament.

There are passages in which God calls for the death penalty, including Genesis 9:6, Exodus 21:12-14, Numbers 35:30 and Deuteronomy 17:6, Wegener said. Perhaps most famous is His command in Exodus 21:23-25: “If there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.”

There also are those in which he condemns the murder of children, such as Leviticus 18:21 and 20:2-5, and Deuteronomy12:29-31, Wegener said.

“So, because I order my beliefs on the Bible, I am pro-life—I am for protecting the innocent—and I am also for capital punishment,” she said.

Vermeer said she “completely understands” the “eye for an eye” argument.

Many Christians draw both anti-abortion and pro-capital punishment arguments directly from the Old Testament.


But she also pointed to the way Jesus responded to that command in Matthew 5:38-40: “Turn the other cheek."

“I don’t want to say necessarily that nothing applies, but understanding Christ as a person and His very real experience of dying through capital punishment should give us a little bit more pause and reflection to think, what does it mean in the totality of the Gospel? When Jesus says, ‘It is finished,’ what is He talking about?” she said.

That’s important, she said, “Especially in light of the resurrection, which should change everything—not to say that it’s all washed away, but that Jesus fulfilled all these commandments and laws.”

Vermeer said she thinks Dutton’s bill “probably never will go anywhere,” but that’s probably not the point.

It’s less about implementing policy than it is drawing attention to life and death issues that can be more complicated than bills and bans may suggest, she said. It’s about causing people to “understand and think more empathetically and holistically about these issues that are not so cut and dry, and from that perspective, maybe we can have a conversation that does lead to better policies,” she said.

“I’m glad there is a framework in place for a conversation to get started.”

36 Comments

Brian Jennings

2

Brian Jennings commented…

Yes, we do need to have a gentle conversation about this and many issues.

I'd add that Jesus' Sermon on the Mount was not intended to be a blueprint for a government. If it were, arresting a thief or fining an unethical company would be immoral.

I track towards a position that is in between two rigid thoughts: One being that the SOM clearly condemns capital punishment (which lacks sensible interpretation). And the second being that capital punishment is a good idea in a justice system that seems all-too-often flawed.

Emily, thanks for adding gracious thoughts to this important conversation.

Stefan Stackhouse

68

Stefan Stackhouse commented…

I'm pro-protect-the-innocent. I think this is the position most consistent with Jesus's teaching. Yes, he did tell us to turn the other cheek when it is our own cheek being struck. He didn't tell us to look the other way when it is someone else that is under attack. While we are to love all our neighbors, we are also clearly to have a special concern for the poor, the outcast, the downtrodden, and those that are being set upon by violent people (all often one and the same people).

While I try to be forgiving rather than hateful toward murderers, my first concern is to protect any future potential victims from being harmed. The unfortunate truth is that the hardest murder to commit is the first one, and that each subsequent killing becomes easier and easier. We must make sure that a person who has killed innocent people has absolutely no opportunity to do so again. If there is a way to make a truly escape-proof jail and assure that such people, properly found in a competent court of law to be guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, cannot and will not be let out, then I am fine with that. However, it must be said that for most of human history death was the only truly escape-proof prison that existed, and it is still not completely certain that our prisons have gotten that good.

At the same time, it must be said that a judicial murder of an innocent person is just as bad as a murder of an innocent person by a common criminal. I have zero tolerance for mistakes when someone's life is at stake, and so should everyone else. If we are going to have capital punishment (and as I indicated above, it is by no means clear that we still must), then this is something that we have to get absolutely right with no chance whatsoever of mistakes. This is something for which there is no second chance if we get it wrong. I find the argument of some capital punishment supporters that an occasional wrongful execution is just the price that must be paid in order to execute the guilty to be abhorrent in the extreme.

The problem, of course, is that we humans are not perfect, and our police and judicial systems are all the more so. Too many mistakes have been made, too many innocent people have been wrongly convicted, for me to have any confidence in the system's perfection. This, to me, is the best practical argument against capital punishment. We've got to leave the door open to correcting any mistake, and we can't do that if the mistake leaves a dead body.

As for abortion, we have two people about whom we have to be concerned: the child and the mother. I have trouble seeing the justification for being exclusively concerned about one and not the other. If we Christians are to love all people, then we need to be loving both. That means that we should want to be progressing toward a society - as far as we can help make it so - where pregnant women never want and only rarely truly need (like for an ectopic pregancy, for example) an abortion. At the same time, we should want to come alongside pregnant women to help them with the challenges and difficulties that come with pregnancy and motherhood, so that they do not have to suffer alone and find the temptation to end their pregnancy too attractive to resist. This balanced approach really has nothing to do with laws, and everything to do with changing the hearts and minds both of childbearing-aged women and everyone else - a change that is not really possible without the work of the Holy Spirit in a massive way.

Daniel Cobb

2

Daniel Cobb commented…

I don't believe that there is a "tension." I believe that to be a false premise.

First, the death penalty is not an institution of the Mosaic Law, it preceded the law and clearly continues on after the Law in Romans.

The Pro-life movement is about protecting INNOCENT children, whose only crime is being conceived by their parents. The Death Penalty is for guilty people. Ever since the beginning of time, "if man sheds blood, by man shall his blood be shed." That is justice.

These are two very different issues, to try to link them together and point out some "inconsistency" within the evangelical movement is a fallacy.

Steve Pierzchala

10

Steve Pierzchala replied to Daniel Cobb's comment

"The Death Penalty is for guilty people." This is the crux of the problem, people not guilty of the crime for which they were convicted have been and continue to be put to death. In fact, in the U.S. possible innocence of the crime isn't reason enough to get a hearing of the new facts. That is solely the discretion of a judge. Review the case of Davis in Georgia who was recently executed with serious doubt about the conviction.

Steve Pierzchala

10

Steve Pierzchala commented…

Anyone who wants to argue that the Old Testament provides for the death penalty needs to explain why the conditions set up for it in the Old Testament are not followed, nor even considered.

Joseph Dear

30

Joseph Dear commented…

I'm still waiting for the answer to the question "Can You Be Pro-Life and Pro-Death Penalty?"

All we got here was mostly-extrabiblical reasons why the death penalty is bad (namely, that too many innocent people get executed). That a is a valid concern, and certainly something worth bringing up when deciding whether or not to have the death penalty. However, that doesn't address the question at hand.

I will say, though my feelings about the death penalty are mixed at best, you absolutely can be pro-life and pro-death penalty (unless we define "pro-life" so literally as to mean never kill anyone, in which case God wouldn't even be pro-life since almost 100% of all people who will ever live will die).

The debate about how Jesus' death affects the new covenant and all that is irrelevant to the question "Can You Be Pro-Life and Pro-Death Penalty?" Even if we say that in light of what Jesus did, and the fact that we aren't Israel so the civil laws that God put in place do not necessarily apply to our secular governments (an assertion which I agree with 100%), that doesn't change the fact that God did at one time command the death penalty. Even if we aren't required to use it now, and even if there are good reasons not to, God did command its use in Israel under the Mosaic Law (and even before that). The same God who knows people in the womb and created them, the same God who saved us through via the cross, that same God also COMMANDED the death penalty in various instances. Whether we are to use it today is a red herring; it is not inherently unjust, because if it were, God would not have allowed (let alone commanded) its use at any point in history.

Whether or not the death penalty should be in use today, you absolutely can be pro-life and pro-death penalty.

Dan Martin

5

Dan Martin replied to Joseph Dear's comment

With due respect, you have not properly differentiated between "pro-life" and "anti-abortion." The fact that abortion opponents have labeled themselves "pro-life" does not mean that this is a legitimate label, and their frequent support for capital punishment is only one example ... another being the degree to which they support and defend wars in which many innocent people are killed.

And the defense that God commanded the death penalty does not take into account progressive revelation. Jesus' only encounters with the death penalty involved him either stopping it or being the subject of it.

Darryl Willis

20

Darryl Willis replied to Dan Martin's comment

You mention that "'abortion opponents' support and defend wars in which many innocent people are killed..." Care to back that up with some relevant stats? I fear you are relying on anecdotal evidence and personal experience. I know of several pro-life people who did not support the last two conflicts. Perhaps you are right about abortion opponents supporting wars, but there again, you might be wrong. Unless you have the statistics, let's not paint with a brush too broad.

Joseph Dear

30

Joseph Dear replied to Darryl Willis's comment

How Jesus approached it is certainly relevant to the question of what we are to do now in today's society.

But progressive revelation doesn't undo what was said and done before. Unless we are to say that the Bible was wrong when it says God had commanded the death penalty for Israel in the Old Testament, or that the Bible was correct but God was wrong to have commanded it, it doesn't change the fact that at some point, in some circumstance, the death penalty was the right thing. And so unless we are to say that nobody who followed God's command under the Mosaic Law was pro-life, then you can't say that the death penalty by definition makes one no longer "pro-life."

That's a different issue from whether we are to support the death penalty today in our modern countries ruled by Godless governments.

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