The abolition of death penalty in Virginia reopens the ethical debate among Christians
Some US evangelicals “hope Virginia will have a domino effect on their neighbors”. They see “a growing number of Christian leaders and denominations speaking out against the death penalty”.
Protestante Digital · 15 MARCH 2021 · 10:17 CET
Virginia has become the 23rd state in US history to abolish the death penalty.
The law was passed by a majority in the Democratic-controlled House of Delegates and Senate and it will replace death penalty with life imprisonment without parole.
Since the penalty was first applied in 1608, when it was a still colonised territory, 1,400 people have been executed in the state according to the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC).
From 1977 to the present alone, 113 death sentences have been carried out in Virginia, making it the second deadliest death row territory in the United States today, after Texas. Death penalty was last applied in Virginia in 2017, when two people were executed.
“Virginia has had the death penalty longer and has executed more people than any other state. We are prepared to end capital punishment in our jurisdiction once and for all”, said Virginia Governor Ralph Northam.
First Southern state to repeal death penalty
Virginia is the first state to eliminate the death penalty in the South, where others such as Oklahoma, Georgia, Florida and Texas, continue to allow this practice.
“We hope it will have a domino effect on their neighbors”, points out the evangelical Christian and national director of the group Conservatives Concerned about the Death Penalty, Hannah Cox.
“Virginia's actions are historic and its geographical location and past show the momentum for death penalty repeal has picked up even more traction in the country”, Cox tells Spanish news website Protestante Digital.
More than 80 NGOs and human rights groups sent an open letter to the US president Joe Biden, calling for an end to executions by the federal government, which, according to the the DPIC, have been 16 since 1977.
Meanwhile, in Wyoming, Republican Senator Brian Boner has just introduced a draft law to abolish capital punishment, which will be voted on 2 April.
“States are very competitive with other states on their borders as they want to attract more people to live and work there. The death penalty wastes millions of dollars a year and is an opportunity cost that leads to less safe communities. If Virginia's neighbors want to attract people to their borders, they will have to get with the times”, says Cox.
“The debate has never really died”
Since the federal government allowed the death penalty to be abolished in 1973, some states, such as Texas has executed 570 people since 1977, while others have stopped using it but have not recognised the change in their legislation, like Wyoming, where no executions have been carried out since 1992.
“The debate has never really died, and it's one that opponents of the death penalty have been winning over the past two decades. The vast majority of the country has turned away from this outdated system and adopted smarter approached to preventing, solving, and treating violence”, underlines Cox.
With 17 executions in 2020, ten of them for convictions issued by the federal government, and three so far in 2021, death penalty remains one of the complex quirks of American society.
Popular support for the death penalty has grown again, after some years of decline, with 54% of Americans in favour and 39% opposed, according to the latest data from Pew Research.
Evangelical pastor and expert on Christian ethics, Emmanuel Buch, says: “In the US as well as in other places, there is an unfocused biblical hermeneutic. The whole Bible is God's Word, but our essential hermeneutic criterion is Jesus and from Jesus; from Him we read and interpret backwards and forward”.
The 'unavailability of life' and its impact on Christian ethics
“We see a growing number of Christian leaders and denominations speaking out against the death penalty. These are important voices in the fight for a reform”, says Cox.
She also explains that Conservatives Concerned about the Death Penalty has been working with evangelical churches for years and “many have changed their stance on the death penalty or worked alongside us to see it repealed”.
Although “the rejection of the death penalty may well be justified by the lack of deterrent effect it has in the countries where it is applied, there is a Christian principle that illuminates this issue: the inviolability of human life, a creation of God, sustained by God and belonging to God alone”, Buch points out.
“This truth, so evident throughout Scripture, helps to understand the rejection of both the death penalty and every form of attack on life. We can call this principle the 'unavailability of life'. We cannot dispose of the life of the unborn, nor of the sick person who is dying, nor of the human being who behaves inhumanely, nor of life itself, as in the case of suicide, because human life is not a commodity, a 'freely disposable' good, but a treasure 'lent' by God”, adds Buch.
According to Cox, “anyone who professes a consistent human life ethic, religious or not, must reckon with the death penalty and its inability to logically fit into such a worldview”.
“A human life does not lose value because a person does something wrong, if that were the case we would all deserve the death penalty. Rather we see Christians profess that all sin is equal and leads to hell if not for the gift of Jesus' salvation. There are no exceptions to that gift, Jesus' resurrection was great enough to cover all sin”.
Cox stresses that “a belief in the possibility of redemption necessarily extends to those whose sins are great or small, and anyone who professes such faith should actively support the change and salvation in a person's life. The death penalty removes such possibility”.
According to Buch, “the justification of the death penalty still has a lot to do with the claim of the sacredness of the law of retaliation, which appears in the Bible, but as Christians we have to consider it from the perspective offered to us by Jesus, who gives the true and full meaning to the law”.
“The principle of the 'unavailability of life' should inspire the position of Christians in the vindication of absolute respect for human life in all its stages and circumstances; and of human conditions for all lives in the face of all forms of exploitation, humiliation or discrimination”, concludes the pastor.
The death row in the USA
According to the Death Penalty Information Center, as of 1 October 2020, there were 2,553 people awaiting execution in US prisons.
California, with 711 prisoners, is the state with the most 'populated' death row, followed by Florida (347), Texas (210) and Pennsylvania (142).
By the end of 2019, according to Amnesty International, 106 countries worldwide had abolished the death penalty for all crimes and 142 had done so officially, by changing their jurisdiction, or de facto.