In a context of confusion and flashy journalism, rigour becomes a precious value.
“We have the opportunity now to play a key role in ending an institution that for too long has failed to live up to core Christian principles”, thinks Heather Beaudoin.
Are evangelical Christians in the US changing their views on death penalty? Is there a Biblical alternative which would bring more justice into a system that does not seem to work?
Evangelical Focus talked to Heather Beaudoin, an experienced campaigner. She leads the Evangelical Outreach for Equal Justice and believes that “it is time for us to let the death penalty go.”
“No human system is 100% accurate, yet that’s what the capital punishment demands – perfection”, she argues.
Are there theological arguments for this shift? “The Bible most definitely talks about redemption, and death penalty takes away Christ’s power to transform the lives of the people we are executing”, Beaudoin says.
Influential evangelical leaders like Samuel Rodríguez (NHCLC) have already clearly stated that a fairer justice system is needed. Even the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) changed its pro-death penalty position recently.
Evangelical Focus asked Heather Beaudoin about the changes happening across the US in the following interview.
Question. Is there a growing number of evangelical Christians who stand up against death penalty in the US? What evidences do you see for that in the churches?
Answer. I have certainly witnessed a shift away from the death penalty in the evangelical community. Individuals in the evangelical community have shown that they know the facts about our broken death penalty system. Regardless of whether or not we support it philosophically, we see that we cannot stand by a system that sentences innocent people to death, displays such rampant racial and economic disparities, puts murder victims’ families through years of uncertainty, and drains local resources.
When I travel to evangelical gatherings all across the country, I find so many people who feel the way that I do – that the death penalty just isn’t worth it. As evidence for this point, more evangelical organizations are addressing this issue. Just this year, the National Association of Evangelicals stepped away from their pro-death penalty position of over 40 years and adopted a new one making room for those who oppose the death penalty. Also, the National Latino Evangelical Coalition took a unanimous position against the death penalty altogether. The tide is turning.
Q. Do you think US seculars and society in general have been a step ahead of evangelicals in this topic?
A. I think that evangelicals and the secular society have come to the issue for different reasons. Evangelicals have the Bible to deal with. I sometimes hear evangelicals say that they support the death penalty because it is Biblical. In my experience, this is the main reason given by evangelicals who continue to back capital punishment. We are able to find common ground when we look at the Biblical death penalty and compare it to the system we have in place in America. They look nothing alike. The death penalty in the Bible has many mandates – including the fact that there must be two eyewitnesses in order to apply the death penalty, and that you cannot execute someone solely on the basis of circumstantial evidence. There are over 40 mandates that the Bible lays out that the American death penalty disregards. For this reason, we are able to discuss how the death penalty is currently functioning – the ways in which it is broken beyond repair.
Q. What arguments do you see in the Bible to support a view against death penalty?
A. The Bible most definitely talks about redemption, and death penalty takes away Christ’s power to transform the lives of the people we are executing. Ezekiel 33:11 says: “As surely as I live declares the sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they would turn from their ways and live.” Throughout the Bible, God redeems some of the worst people, and even calls them to do great things. Take for instance Cain, Moses, David, and Paul.
The Bible certainly has many references to forgiveness, like Romans 12:17-19: “Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord.”
The Bible also forbids the execution of the innocent, which is a real risk with the death penalty today, given all the wrongful convictions that have come to light. Specifically, Exodus 23:7 says: “Have nothing to do with a false charge and do not put an innocent or honest person to death, for I will not acquit the guilty.” As Christians, we also cannot forget that at the heart of our faith is the wrongful execution of an innocent man.
Q. Are there Christian leaders with clear theological convictions about this issue?
A. There are many evangelical leaders who have spoken out against the death penalty for theological reasons. For example, Jay Sekulow, Chief Counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, says, “I’m opposed to the death penalty not because I think it’s unconstitutional per se – although I think it’s been applied in ways that are unconstitutional – but it really is a moral view, and that is that the taking of life is not the way to handle even the most significant of crimes…. Who amongst anyone is not above redemption? I think we have to be careful in executing final judgment. The one thing my faith teaches me – I don’t get to play God. I think you are short-cutting the whole process of redemption…. I don’t want to be the person that stops that process from taking place.”
Also, Reverend Samuel Rodriguez, Leader of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, says, “Because of my strong, staunch life commitment, my commitment to life in and out of the womb.… I believe that we need to re-evaluate our staunch support of the death penalty.”
Q. An overwhelming majority of Christians in Europe sees death penalty as an outdated measure which clashes with the Biblical teachings about life and redemption. Why are there still so many sincere believers in the US that would support this system?
A. I often hear from death penalty supporters that “there are just some people who deserve to die.” The sentiment here is that because there are evil people in the world who commit terrible acts, we must keep the death penalty on the books. The problem here is that you cannot have a death penalty that only gets the “worst of the worst” and does not get people like my friend Randy Steidl, who is a death row exoneree from Illinois.
You simply cannot have a death penalty that is 100% accurate. No human system is, yet that’s what the capital punishment demands – perfection. Fortunately, we can keep society safe by putting those who commit violent crimes in prison, without needing to resort to an irrevocable punishment like the death penalty. It’s time for us to let the death penalty go.
Q. Is there anything else you would like to add?
A. The growing support for ending the death penalty among evangelicals and conservatives – which especially was on display when the red state of Nebraska repealed the death penalty earlier this year – shows how diverse and strong the movement against the death penalty is becoming.
We as evangelicals have the opportunity now to play a key role in ending an institution that for too long has failed to live up to core Christian principles – recognizing that no one is beyond redemption, valuing life, and protecting the innocent.
ABOUT HEATHER BEAUDOIN
Heather Beaudoin is the Director of Evangelical Outreach for Equal Justice USA - a national, grassroots organization “working to build a criminal justice system that is fair, effective, and responsive to everyone impacted by crime.”
She is also one of the national coordinators for Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty - a group of political and social conservatives who question the alignment of capital punishment with conservative principles and values.
Heather previously worked for the Montana Abolition Coalition to end the death penalty where she was responsible for outreach efforts to Evangelicals, Conservatives and Law Enforcement. She also worked for the Helena Pregnancy Resource Center, the National Republican Congressional Committee in Washington DC, and the Michigan Republican Senate Majority Leader, Ken Sikkema.
Heather graduated from Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan with a degree in Political Science, and she currently resides in Three Rivers, Michigan with her husband Matt and their daughter Grace.