Self-evident Truths: A Reasonable Doubt?

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

United States of America Declaration of Independence

For the majority of American Evangelicals, the right to life for the unborn is without debate. In addition, most of us share a conviction that ending life for the sick and mentally challenged must be left in the hands of God. But, for me, there is one more issue under the “Right to Life” banner where I differ with many of my brethren: the area of capital punishment. I understand the position of those who believe that there is social value in taking the life of those who have committed some particularly heinous crime.  I know that there is some biblical basis for the practice.

I have known some absolutely evil people, in and out of prison.  When I see reports of child abusers or terrorists, I’m like most folks, I want blood. At one time, I was adamant that justice demanded an eye for an eye, and that society would be safer with the monsters put down. I felt that our legal system is painstaking in assuring that those who face this fate have ample opportunity for appeal. We are not capricious. Then I met some men who caused me to start re-thinking my attitude.

My first qualm came with a man I led to the Lord in the jail.  He had murdered his wife’s lover.  After we prayed, he began to cry.  He said, “I just realized I may have sent that guy to Hell.  I am so sorry.” No matter his crime, I just couldn’t see killing him.  At least I couldn’t do it, and I didn’t really want some agent of the state, acting on my behalf, to do it either. Another fella had killed a policeman.  After receiving Christ, he pleaded guilty.  For the last 25 years he has been preaching the Gospel to other men in the high security units where he abides. I’m glad he’s not dead.  I could go on.

In addition to these personal friendships with admitted murderers, I made the mistake of reading “In His Steps,” the classic book that gave us the whole WWJD (What Would Jesus Do?) movement. To be honest, it was the first time I had thought of the death penalty from that angle.  I just couldn’t picture Jesus pulling the switch on the chair, or pushing the plunger on the syringe.  What I could picture was Jesus stepping into the chair or climbing onto the stretcher, taking the hit for the guilty.  He already did it for me, why not for them?

Finally, somewhere in the early nineties, I began to read about the Innocence Project.  At first, I thought it was just another bunch of soft-headed do-gooders. Then I began to see the numbers.  With the advent of DNA evidence, a significant number of convictions were being overturned. Then came new neurological research indicating that eyewitness testimony is not particularly reliable – not because of dishonesty, but because of how we are wired to process information and store memories. Since 1989, 130 murder convictions have been overturned by DNA evidence. (Take a look at some of the numbers here.)

I know I’m swimming against the current.  You don’t have to agree.  For me, as long as there is even the slightest possibility that an innocent person may be dying, I have to say, “No!”  It’s not a chance I am willing to take. Our criminal justice system is a wonderful thing.  Unfortunately, it is run entirely by human beings, some of whom are probably just as flawed and fallible as I am. Death is final, at least for this life. Mistakes are non-refundable. In the end the question is the same as in any other situation: If we are going to take away the unalienable right to life, who decides?

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