The botched execution of Oklahoma inmate Clayton Lockett is forcing state and federal officials to reconsider the practice of the death penalty. On this grisly occasion, Christians should do so as well.
The lethal injection administered to Lockett April 29 did not go as planned. Lockett suffered a ruptured vein and then a heart attack 43 minutes later. Critics of the death penalty have pointed to this incident as further proof of the cruelty of the practice. Others are less sympathetic. One commentator asked why there is so much focus on the murderer and not on his victim, Stephanie Nieman. Those from Nieman’s hometown have echoed the sentiment. Another commentator asserted that an execution that ends up with a convicted murderer and rapist dead is not really a botched execution after all. Should we care that he suffered a painful last 43 minutes of his life? Hasn’t justice been served?
In response to these questions, Christians should remember that justice is not only about the end result, but also about the process. This can be seen by looking at an analogous issue where human life is at stake: just war theory.
Within just war theory, there are two broad categories for evaluating whether a war is just. The term jus ad bellum refers to considerations that help to determine whether it would be just or not. This includes criteria such as just cause and right intention for waging war. The term jus in bello refers to considerations that apply to how war is actually waged. This includes criteria such as discrimination - those waging war must discriminate between military targets and civilian targets. If a country uses weapons or tactics that do not properly discriminate in this way, the war is being waged unjustly.
If we treat murderers as though their blood is ours to do with whatever we like, we are not God’s instruments but His usurpers.
How does this relate to the death penalty? A war that meets the criteria for jus ad bellum can still be unjust if it is not waged according to the rules that recognize both innocent civilians and the human dignity of the enemy (as expressed, for example, in the Geneva Conventions). Similarly, an execution of someone who has been convicted and is truly guilty can still be unjust if carried out in a cruel or improper manner. The point is not simply that the murderer should be dead at the end. If the state claims to uphold justice, the process is equally as important as the end goal.
Although I think there is a strong Biblical case against the death penalty, Christians who do support it must do so in a consistent and coherent way. If all human blood belongs to the Giver of life and if a murderer is executed because he or she fails to respect God’s exclusive claim on life, then any execution of criminals must recognize that their blood also belongs to God. If we treat murderers as though their blood is ours to do with whatever we like, we are not God’s instruments but His usurpers.
So rather than using this botched execution as a chance to gloat in our self-righteousness about the evils of Clayton Lockett, it should remind Christians that we repeatedly commemorate an unjust execution. In drinking the blood of Christ, we remember both our sin and our redemption, our radical injustice and God’s radical, self-giving justice. We remember that the blood of Stephanie Nieman, Clayton Lockett and each one of us is not our own, but belongs to the One in whose image we are made. To violate that image in any way is not merely an affront to humanity, but to God.