"Holy" Executions

I’d like to clarify something in my post yesterday regarding the “holy obedience” that occurs when the State executes someone. I said that execution might be (or, I’d argue, might not be)obedient, but that I couldn’t call it “holy.” A correspondent asks why not; surely all obedience is a holy thing, right?

I don’t think so. My objection to using Romans 13 as a basis for capital punishment is a hermeneutical one. If “bearing the sword” actually does mean “injecting the drugs, releasing the gallows trapdoor, or pulling the switch,” it would seem that the text demands that of all crimes committed by “evildoers.” Reconstructionists might like to go there, but I won’t; there are those who would execute people according to Mosaic Law, which means that murderers, homosexuals, and defiant teenagers would face death. The injustice of capital punishment as it now exists renders it automatically a violation of God’s command in my eyes. Further extending it only compounds the injustice, inviting more of the Holy One’s wrath.

That said, there are myriad reasons for my opposition to capital punishment, reasons I believe to be entirely Biblical and evocative of the example set by Christ Jesus. I don’t see any execution as a “righteous” thing, but even if it were demanded by Scripture, the result, while obedient, cannot be holy. It’s a tragedy of loss all around: A person created in the image of God, a person whose sins were atoned for at the cross, someone who was at some point in their lives the delight of another living being, carries the weight of enormous guilt along with the despair and hate that led them to kill. They may, like Karla Fae Tucker, die redeemed and forgiven, or they may, as did Timothy McVeigh, die in defiance and condemnation. The same goes for their victims, and for the little deaths that accompany every nightmare still lived by survivors. Horror is never exterminated when the one who caused it is. I believe that the LORD who desires the salvation of all, not wanting anyone to perish (2 Peter 3:9), grieves at the depth of loss a State’s “obedient” execution symbolizes.

I was in Mexico right around the time McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber who seemingly faced his execution with stony defiance (his reportedly claimed “invictus,” Latin for “unconquered,” at his death), was executed. I asked Lupita and Rut what they thought of the situation. With tears in their eyes, they pointed to a photograph in the newspaper of people partying it up when McVeigh was pronounced dead — people gathered in lawn chairs around a bonfire, laughing and whooping it up Super Bowl-style. Some had signs, one of which read “vengeance is mine, saith the Lord!” How could the death of a human being, someone apparently lost for eternity, someone who injected horrors unimaginable into the lives of thousands of people, be celebrated — if that death was the result of sin and darkness most of us cannot comprehend? “The LORD wanted to save him,” Lupita said gravely. “How can they be happy?”

I know my Calvinist readers would retort that it appears the LORD actually didn’t want to save him; remember that no true Calvinist can confidently say to another person, “Jesus loves you and died for your sins.” He might, actually, according to Calvin, have chosen that person for eternal damnation “for His own good pleasure.” But my Wesleyan hosts had it right, I think. The only response to McVeigh’s and any other execution can be a sober examination of what we, the presumably non-executable, can do to plant seeds of hope, lovingkindness, mercy and justice wherever we go.

That sounds like a good sentiment on which to build a Christian walk. How tragic, though, that a faith journey whose foundation is mercy in the name of Christ is so readily mocked and so easily dismissed.

“Holy”? No. It’s a holy thing to lament the loss of promise, the death of hope, the emptiness of justice and the spiritual void that marks the death of the murderer, but I cannot call his execution holy. There is holiness to God’s justice, but the result of it grieves the One who faced execution that all might live.

2 Responses to “"Holy" Executions”

  1. Gracehoper says:

    Nice response to the “holy” obedience idea. I agree, anyone who thinks there is anything holy about executions is confused to say the least.

    Thanks for giving Delaney a ride home today!

  2. I’m guessing that you must be Delaney’s mom, and if that’s so, please let me congratulate you on having raised a wonderful, thoughtful, bright, young woman. I enjoyed talking with her and hope to meet you soon.


Leave a Reply