The Christian tradition has typically opposed the death penalty for a number of compelling reasons. Our savior was an innocent victim of it. Our awareness of human sin means that establishing someone’s guilt beyond doubt is always fraught with error, intentional or not. Our belief in God’s sovereignty precludes us from taking life.
Of all these perspectives, one that I find particularly compelling- and one that has also elicited evangelical sympathies- is the argument that capital punishment eliminates a prisoner’s ability to seek redemption for his or her crimes. The electric chair ‘ends’ their story before they’re able to seek a better ending to their story.
This religious ‘right’ is usually put in opposition to the rights and stories of the victims and their families so that, not just in the act of murder itself but even after, the stories of victim and victimizer are held in opposition forever, making healing and forgiveness a near impossibility.
What’s got me thinking about this is the conclusion to the murder trial of Behring Breivik in Norway. No doubt you’ll remember he’s the man who ignited a bomb in Oslo last summer, killing 8, and then shot 69 at a youth camp on a nearby island.
What’s distinguished the trial is how the court has taken as its goal not only justice (proper defense of the accused and punishment for the crime) but healing.
How have they done this?
The court, damn the costs and the time, has made it a point to hear the story of every single victim. Even before the trial began, the court appointed and paid for 174 lawyers to see to the rights, privacy and needs of the victims family. The court took the time to compassionately listen to 77 autopsy reports, each of which was followed by a photograph and detailed biography of the victim. After the closing arguments, the victims’ families were allowed to speak, often eloquently about their loved ones and their experience of grief. The court did all this without sacrificing the defendant’s rights to a fair trial; Breivik was allowed to have the final word, spouting his rants without any one censoring him.
As an op-ed in the NY Times puts it: By affirming the humanity of each victim, the court tried to satisfy a traumatized society’s thirst for truth and justice without denying the defendant’s right to a fair hearing.
We give a lot of shallow lip service to ours being Christian nation but we seldom flesh that out. Meanwhile here’s a perfect example of Christian justice in action (ironically in a mostly secular nation). For Christians- just as there’s no cross without easter- healing must always be a component of any notion of justice.