Gatekeepers of Redemption: Conservative Evangelicals on the Death Penalty (1 Corinthians 9:16-23)
By Shanell T. Smith
"But it was an accident! ... He said it was a black-skinned boy who sort of looked like my son."
"It's all based on circumstantial evidence. It's not fair!"
"We didn't have money for a defense attorney!""
All of these assertions are regularly heard in court rooms across the country as the fate of yet another person's life is determined in a death penalty case. "Gatekeepers of Redemption" - that is what I call them - the decision makers in capital punishment. Yet as I think about the death penalty movement and the shift that seems to be occurring within it, I am beginning to see an inkling of hope.
Years ago, it would not have been far-fetched to state that the main supporters of capital punishment were political conservatives and evangelical Christians. These groups, generally stereotyped as white men and women of the middle to upper class, are more often than not, the same persons with decision-making power with regard to capital punishment, and thus also less likely to fall victim to it. Nevertheless, times seem to be a-changing and generalizations may soon no longer apply.
Heather Beaudoin is an evangelical Christian and an advocate for fighting against the death penalty. A seeming oxymoron, but her identity is an indication of a shift in perspective regarding capital punishment. Ms. Beaudoin works with organizations such as Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty and Equal Justice USA. These groups critique and question the American capital punishment system, its inadequacies, inefficiencies, and the discrimination that pervades it. They also seek to inform others about this imperfect system, and suggest ways to get involved to abolish it.
I was captivated by the interview between Ms. Beaudoin and Odyssey Networks (see this week's video). Speaking rather candidly, she succinctly captures the shift in terms of death penalty support from conservatives. She states, "So we're finding folks who are coming to the issue who are saying I do support the death penalty as a philosophy. Morally I'm okay with the taking of a person's life if they've killed someone. But given the cost of the death penalty, given the imperfections in our system and the fact that innocent people can be convicted, I'm okay with the alternative of something like life without parole. That's alright with me. I'm willing to say let's set the death penalty aside. It's completely broken, it's just not working and we haven't found a way to fix it."
Cost, imperfections, and the loss of innocent lives: these three factors have compelled some conservatives and evangelicals to change their minds and go against the death penalty. "The death penalty costs more and diverts resources from genuine crime control." We have witnessed botched executions, while inmates "next-in-line" beg the court to intervene. And we have heard stories of death-row inmates, many who maintain their innocence until death, and only a few who have been exonerated of their crimes.
The concept of redemption, Ms. Beaudoin states, is also what is fueling this shift in addition to the above factors. "[I]f we really believe in redemption as evangelicals, we cannot support the death penalty because we say that there is room, no matter what you've done, no matter who you are, the god [sic] can reach you and he [sic] can transform you. And so if we believe that, the death penalty cuts that opportunity short."
The Apostle Paul felt the same way about the Gentiles and his mission to bring them into the way of Christ; there is room. In 1 Corinthians 9, he speaks about proclaiming the gospel as his obligation (vs. 16), and he describes how he became "all things to all people, that [he] might by all means save some" (vs. 22). Paul - once a prolific persecutor of Christians (1 Cor. 15:9) - changed perspectives; instead of persecuting them, he sought to bring more into the fold. Scripture attributes this change to Paul's encounter with God on the road to Damascus (Acts 9). The cost of Paul's mission was his own freedom: "For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them" (1 Cor. 9:19).
Paul knew that everyone had imperfections; he had his own (as noted above). I would venture to say that no one would be considered innocent in terms of sin according to Paul; however, this is also what would make everyone a candidate for redemption. For Paul, belief in Christ is an alternative to the death penalty - eternal death, that is. Another welcomed and progressively changing prospective, however, is that it is not the only one.
Paul, like the evangelical conservatives mentioned above, functioned as earthly gatekeepers of redemption. They had a change in perspective, which had positive implications for those who might otherwise be regarded as unworthy and thus, expendable. Although Paul and these groups may receive critique for their alternative views, what remains significant for me is the underlying notion of morality mixed with faith. When these two concepts collide, the definitive demarcations of right and wrong become so much clearer - not so much in the acts performed, but in the decision of who gets to determine another person's right to live. I believe it is God's decision. Nevertheless, the society in which we live prompts me to ask: Are you the gatekeeper of someone else's redemption? Or better yet, who is yours?
Heather Beaudoin, at Equal Justice USA, discusses abolishing the death penalty by engaging with Evangelicals.
Bible Study Questions
What is your stance on redemption, and how does it affect the way you view capital punishment?
Would you be an advocate for the death penalty if someone close to you were on death row (and innocent)?
Who do you think are - or should be - the "Gatekeepers of Redemption?"
For Further Reading
Boykin Sanders, "1 Corinthians," in True to Our Native Land: An African American New Testament Commentary, eds. Brian K. Blount, Cain Hope Felder, Clarice J. Martin, and Emerson B. Powery (Minneapolis: MN: Fortress Press, 2007), pp. 276-306.
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