Why this Conservative Evangelical Stopped Supporting the Death Penalty


    I used to support the death penalty.  After all, that’s what good Christians did, right?  Murderers received what they had measured out to others.  The death penalty was in the Bible and that was good enough for me.  But as the years went by, I began to wrestle with facts and ideas that didn’t fit.  It took time, years, even decades before I realized that I was changing my mind.  Even then, as a member in, and then as a pastor of, conservative congregations, I didn’t talk much about it. 

    I was troubled as I wondered how grace and mercy were served by the death penalty.  I was also troubled as I heard more about the costs of a death penalty conviction.  I suppose the last straw was when I first heard about the number of convictions being thrown out as DNA testing was first being used in the legal system.  Over the years, the evidence piled up until I had to surrender a notion that I once thought was reasonable.  I am not any different than I used to be.  My political and religious leanings are not significantly different than they ever were but I now believe that it is both logical and reasonable to oppose the death penalty from both a practical and a religious point of view.  Here’s why…
The Death Penalty is Not a Deterrent–Crime statistics in places where there is a death penalty are not statistically different from places where there is not.
Cost – It costs more to incarcerate a death row inmate.  Prisoners convicted under a death penalty statute are granted mandatory appeals and that process is expensive.  Estimates are that a death penalty inmate costs 2 to 5 times more over his or her lifetime than one who is incarcerated for life.
Fairness and Justice – The scriptural standard of evidence, particularly for murder, was from the beginning (Deuteronomy 17), two eyewitnesses.  In our modern world, having two witnesses is rare.  Mistaken identity is now one of the leading causes of error in our legal system.   Add a host of other errors, and suddenly a lot of people find themselves wrongly convicted.  For the last decade or so, an average of 18 death row residents per year were cleared by DNA evidence.  It’s so bad, that nationwide, a Columbia University study found serious errors in 68% of all death penalty cases and 2 out of 3 death penalty cases were overturned on appeal.  Of those overturned, 82% were retried on lesser charges.  Granted, no system is foolproof, but when ours is so messed up that we get it wrong 2 out of 3 times, its time to try something else.
Consistency – The church is usually among those who proclaim the sanctity of all life and declare to the world how God loves all people.  If we really believe that, then why is the life of a murderer not just as sacred?  Does God love murderers less? 
Grace, Forgiveness and Redemption – If we believe (and I do) that the Gospel message is all about grace, forgiveness and redemption, how do we justify the state sponsored killing of incarcerated criminals?  Where’s the grace and forgiveness in that?  How can God do a work of redemption in someone’s life when they’re already dead?  If we believe that God can change the hearts of human beings, then why are we so quick to assume that these men and women are unredeemable?
    As I wrestled with these questions, I realized that I didn’t have any answers that could make my continued support of the death penalty make any logical or spiritual sense.  That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a part of me that thinks the perpetrators of particularly horrible crimes shouldn’t die in some particularly painful way.   
What it means, I think, is that I’m beginning to understand the difference between retribution and justice.

Why the Russian Adoption Ban is a Disaster in Slow Motion

    By now most of you have heard about the adoption ban put into law in Russia.  It all began with an attempt by our United States government to rein in human rights violations in Russia.  President Obama signed the Magnitsky Act, which provides sanctions against Russian citizens deemed by the US to have violated human rights.  Prior to this, the Russian government was concerned about the abuse some Russian children have received at the hands of their adoptive parents in the United States but had only recently, in November, 2012, signed a new treaty designed to provide greater access for Russian officials who desired to review the treatment of adopted children.  This new agreement was only in place for eight weeks before the adoption ban was signed by President Putin.

    The Russian government claims that the adoption ban was necessary because they were not getting access to the documents that the new treaty was supposed to give them and the American government claims that the whole thing is just retaliation for passing the Magnitsky Act.  Whichever is true, it is neither the American nor the Russian government that is the big loser.  The big losers remain the children who will remain in Russian orphanages instead of in loving homes.
    I know something about this.  Our family includes two children who were adopted from a Russian orphanage.  The trauma that they suffered in their first year of life has been a real education.  Before we witnessed it firsthand, I never would have believed that children could be so damaged in their first year of life.  We were always told that “Love heals all wounds,” and “Love conquers all,” and things like that.  We genuinely believed it when people told us that all we had to do was take them home and love them.  But sometimes love isn’t enough.  Thankfully, the problems that our children have, though not insignificant, are not nearly what other parents, whom we’ve met, live with every day.  Some of the neurological, emotional and psychological problems that grow out of living in an orphanage, even for a few months, are frightening. 
 
    While I could not ever condone abuse, I have seen enough to understand how parents of some of these children could reach a point where they simply don’t know what else to do.  Many parents do not abuse these damaged children but recognize that they cannot cope with the behaviors of their children and choose to dissolve or disrupt the adoption.  That means what it sounds like; they go in front of a judge and declare that they are no longer the parents.  This frees them, but makes the children orphans yet again and turns their care over to the state in which they live, or to yet another set of adoptive parent and cause still more emotional and psychological damage.
    Children from former Eastern bloc countries (primarily Russia and Ukraine) bear a higher risk for behavioral problems and eventual adoption disruption.  We don’t completely know why, but although similar problems are seen in children from other nations, these children see higher rates of disruption than any others.  I cannot quote any particular sources but I have heard estimates as high as 10-20 percent.  That means that even with the resources of wealthier American parents, even with parents who love them, even with access to modern medical and psychological care, between one in ten and one in five of these kids have real, serious problems.   Do the Russians have a right to be concerned about what is happening to their children?  Certainly.  But what happens if they don’t come here, don’t have parents, and don’t have access to care?  Russia does not have a history of adoption.  Adoption is not a part of their culture.  While adoption does happen, fewer Russian children are adopted by Russians than by Americans, and we are just one country among many who has, until now, been able to adopt from Russia.  Children who remain in Russian orphanages are likely to stay there until they “age out,” until they are old enough that the Russian government turns them loose on the streets with no support whatsoever.  The majority of children who age out of Russian orphanages will end up dead or in prison within two years.
    Yes, these children can be scarred and damaged by even a few months in an orphanage.  Yes, we should strive with all that is within us to do a better job than we are doing.  No.  No child should suffer abuse at the hands of their parents regardless of their behavior.  But the Russian government needs to look in the mirror as well.  Our system may not be perfect, but an adoption ban that prohibits these children from coming home to loving parents doesn’t fix the problem and in reality only makes it worse.

As usual, when grown-ups fight, the ones who lose… are the children.