(Note: Below is another editorial I wrote for the Tennessean. It was originally published November 27, 2015.)
I was pleasantly surprised and greatly encouraged by the recent statement adopted by the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) concerning the death penalty.
I am a conservative evangelical pastor. I used to support the death penalty, but now I believe the time has come for its complete repeal.
I am glad to know there are other like-minded evangelicals and that their numbers are growing. Earlier this year the 3,000-member National Latino Evangelical Coalition voted to support the repeal of the death penalty, becoming the first evangelical association to take this position. Now the NAE has shifted its position as well.
The NAE represents more than 45,000 churches from nearly 40 denominations. The organization has always been in favor of the death penalty.
In 1973 it adopted the following resolution: “We call upon Congress and state legislatures to enact legislation which will direct the death penalty for such horrendous crimes as premeditated murder, the killing of a police officer or guard, murder in connection with any other crime, hijacking, skyjacking, or kidnapping where persons are physically harmed in the process.”
While the new resolution does not completely eradicate the 1973 resolution, it does take a significant step forward by acknowledging there is a legitimate, biblical difference of opinion among evangelicals on the death penalty.
In part, the new resolution, adopted in October, reads: “Evangelical Christians differ in their beliefs about capital punishment, often citing strong biblical and theological reasons either for the just character of the death penalty in extreme cases or for the sacredness of all life, including the lives of those who perpetrate serious crimes and yet have the potential for repentance and reformation. … We affirm the conscientious commitment of both streams of Christian ethical thought.”
I have come to believe that while one could argue from Scripture the death penalty is just in some cases, we are incapable of doing it justly so we should not do it all — especially if there is another sentence (life in prison) that would be just and allow for redemption and reconciliation.
The new NAE resolution makes the same point, stating that all human systems are fallible.
Nonpartisan studies of the death penalty have identified systemic problems in the United States.
These include eyewitness error, coerced confessions, prosecutorial misconduct, racial disparities, incompetent counsel, inadequate instruction to juries, judges who override juries that do not vote for the death penalty, and improper sentencing of those who lack the mental capacity to understand their crime.
The time has come for the Tennessee legislature to take another look at the death penalty in light of all of these concerns and determine if this is a policy that is actually serving the cause of justice or the citizens of Tennessee.