Beyond the Reptilian
October 7, 2016
Two contradictory stories have come to my attention in recent days. The first came in an
email from Diann Rust-Tierney of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty,
who wrote to the group’s supporters to share with us some good news. She reported
that a recent poll by the Pew Research Center has found that support for capital
punishment in the United States is at its lowest point in many years; it has, in fact,
dropped below 50% of the American public. At the same time, opposition to the death
penalty has risen to 42%. The numbers have been trending in these directions for much
of the last decade, but this new research is the most encouraging evidence yet for those
of us who want to put an end to state-sponsored killing in our country.
The other news item was a front-page story in Tuesday’s Columbus Dispatch reporting
that the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (DRC) has settled on a new
three-drug “cocktail” for use in lethal injections, and they plan to resume executions in
January 2017. No executions have taken place in Ohio for nearly three years, after
botched executions both here and in Oklahoma raised questions about the efficacy of
the drug protocols being used, and many pharmaceutical companies began refusing to
supply states with the deadly chemicals.
As the rest of the nation has started moving away from capital punishment, the Buckeye
State is heading in the opposite direction. Two cheers for Ohio.
There are many good reasons to oppose, or at least question, the practice of capital
punishment. These include the exorbitant costs involved in putting someone to death,
which far outweigh the costs of keeping a person in prison for life; the mounting
evidence of racial and class bias in the implementation of the death penalty; the
argument that capital punishment as it is currently exercised in the US violates both the
Sixth Amendment, which guarantees an accused person a speedy and public trial, and
the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishments; the growing list
of former death row inmates exonerated by DNA evidence, and the virtual (and in some
cases documented) certainty that innocent people have been put to death.
For me, however, the strongest arguments against capital punishment are grounded in
Christian history, theology, and ethics. The primary symbol of our faith is an instrument
of execution on which our founder was killed. It is a central tenet of Christianity that the
one we hail as Lord of all, the one who came proclaiming the advent of God’s nonviolent
reign, suffered a violent death at the hands of the state. Lest we think of Jesus’s death
as a miscarriage of justice, we need to remember that he was duly tried and convicted
in accordance with the laws of the most advanced legal system in the history of the
world to that point. In a cosmic sense, applying God’s standards, it was the greatest
miscarriage of justice of all time, but according to Roman law Jesus was guilty of the
capital crime of sedition. I believe it would be ethically and theologically inconsistent to
worship one guilty executed person while calling for the execution of other guilty
Moreover, as a Christian I believe that Jesus represents the fullest disclosure of the
nature and character of God available to us—to the extent that when we hear Jesus say
something, we are actually hearing God say it, and that Jesus’s pronouncements nullify
any contradictory statements elsewhere in the Bible purporting to be the words of God.
So when the Torah says, “Eye for eye, tooth for tooth,” but Jesus says, “Do not resist an
evildoer violently,” we have to go with Jesus. Other parts of the Bible may lead us to
infer that hating one’s enemies is acceptable, but Jesus says, “Love your enemies and
pray for those who persecute you.” Jesus’s message wins again. Jesus incarnates a
God who is unequivocally on the side of life. Who are we to choose a different course?
I have also considered the various arguments in favor of capital punishment, and found
most of them faulty or downright wrong. Statistics prove that the death penalty does not
act as a deterrent to violent crime; it may in fact have the opposite effect. It is not less
expensive than life imprisonment without parole; in fact, it is much more expensive, on
account of the lengthy appeals process. And it rarely if ever brings closure to the victims’
From what I can tell, it all boils down to revenge. Prosecutors and advocates like to talk
about justice, but the vast majority of nations in the world have found ways to achieve a
satisfactory level of justice without resorting to the state-sanctioned killing of their
citizens. The death penalty is about revenge. It’s the public expression of the impulses
of the amygdala, the most primitive part of our brains. Well, our brains have developed
beyond that reptilian level—that fight-or-flight, if-they-hit-you-hit-them-back-harder
approach to human relations—and it’s time to follow the dictates of the more highly
evolved parts of our makeup. To listen to the “better angels of our nature,” as Abraham
Lincoln put it.
I think that Ohio’s determination to acquire the lethal drugs that will allow the DRC to
resume executions is just as myopic as the anti-LGBTQ legislation recently passed in
North Carolina, Mississippi, and Mike Pence’s Indiana.
Unfortunately, it is not only myopic but also deadly.