On Good Friday, Christians around the world remember the day a government punished a convicted criminal with the death penalty. For many Christians — including some Baptists — Jesus’ death inspires them to oppose the death penalty for others.
While a law professor at Baylor University, Mark Osler wrote “Jesus on Death Row: The Trial of Jesus and American Capital Punishment.” A former federal prosecutor who won a case in the U.S. Supreme Court, he used his book to draw parallels between Jesus’ conviction and the U.S. justice system. Osler played the prosecutor in a theatrical version of the book performed in 11 states.
Osler, who now teaches at the University of St. Thomas School of Law, describes in his forthcoming book, “Memoirs of Christ’s Prosecutor,” how he connected opposition to the death penalty to his faith while taking communion at Seventh and James Baptist Church in Waco, Texas. Earlier, he had read a newspaper account of an execution.
“[The bread] in my hand represented the last meal of a man who knew he was about to be executed,” he explains in the book’s introduction.
“There is something deeply ironic about the enthusiasm many Christians have for the death penalty,” he adds in the book. “The central narrative of Christianity, after all, is about an unjust execution, and Christians proudly wear the execution device as a symbol of their faith.”
Osler grounded his opposition to the death penalty in biblical narratives. “The power of John 8, where Jesus stops a legal execution not by questioning the charge or the punishment, but the moral authority of the executioners,” Osler noted by email.
He also pointed to biblical narratives in the Sermon on Mount in which Jesus gives “a direct rejection of the ‘eye for an eye’ argument.”
“Finally, when Jesus teaches that if we visit those in prison, we visit him, he is expressly equating himself to those we wish to execute,” Osler added.
“Doesn’t that mitigate against killing?”
On the Tuesday of Holy Week this year, nearly 400 Christian leaders, theologians and pastors issued a public statement calling for the abolition of capital punishment in the United States.
“Torture and execution is always a profound evil, made even more abhorrent when sanctioned by the government in the name of justice when other means of protecting society are available,” the authors wrote.
“All who reverence the sanctity of human life, created in the image of God, must never remain silent when firing squads, lethal injections, electric chairs and other instruments of death are viewed as morally acceptable.”
Nearly two dozen Baptists signed the Holy Week statement, including author Tony Campolo; Jonathan Davis at Urbanna Baptist Church in Urbanna, Va.; David Gushee at Mercer University; James Lamkin at Northside Drive Baptist Church in Atlanta, Ga.; Suzii Paynter, executive coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship; Julie Pennington-Russell at First Baptist Church of Decatur, Ga.; Stephen Stacks at Greenwood Forest Baptist Church in Cary, N.C.; Raphael Warnock at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Ga.; and author Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove at St. Johns Baptist Church in Durham, N.C.
The pastor of the church Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal attends, William Coates at First Baptist Church of Gainesville, Ga., added his name to the statement. Coates and other Baptists earlier this year urged Deal to stay the execution of Kelly Gissendaner, who completed a prison-based seminary program created by the McAfee School of Theology at Mercer University and other seminaries.
Winter weather prevented Gissendaner’s February execution and concerns about lethal injection drugs stopped her rescheduled March execution. A new date has not yet been set.
Justin Thornburgh, pastor of Emerson Avenue Baptist Church in Indianapolis, Ind., and affiliated with American Baptist Churches USA, also signed the Holy Week statement. Thornburgh says he focuses his comments on Jesus when talking with Christians who believe the Bible authorizes the death penalty.
“What did Jesus preach? What is the essence of the gospel?” he asked. “My reading of it is that the essence of the gospel is redemption. Christ was killed by capital punishment, and what we have is that God triumphed over that with the resurrection.
“I believe the message of Christ is a message of redemption and reconciliation as opposed to revenge,” he stated. “The ethos of Christ is love, and Christ saw everyone as worthy of redemption.”
American Baptist Churches USA has officially condemned capital punishment on several occasions, passing resolutions calling for the abolition of the death penalty in 1958, 1966, 1980, 1982, 1992 and 2000.
The resolutions highlight “the sacredness of life,” “the fallibility of human agencies and legal justice,” financial and racial inequality, and “the hope and possibility of all to come under the redeeming and transforming action of God.”
The resolutions also urge American Baptists to advocate for legal changes and to work to stop executions.
A 2000 resolution passed by the Southern Baptist Convention supported capital punishment, and top Southern Baptist leaders have reiterated that position.
Last year, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Al Mohler wrote a CNN.com piece supporting capital punishment. He attacked the “moral insanity” of death penalty critics who “have successfully diverted attention from a murderer’s heinous crimes and instead put the death penalty on trial.”
“I believe that Christians should hope, pray and strive for a society in which the death penalty, rightly and rarely applied, would make moral sense,” he added.
Although Mohler cited some Scripture in his column, author and anti-death penalty activist Shane Claiborne noted in a blog post that Mohler never mentioned Jesus.
“If it weren’t for Jesus, I might be pro-death too,” Claiborne wrote.
Brian Kaylor is a freelance writer and author based in Jefferson City, Mo.