Earlier this week, a federal jury sentenced 22-year-old Dylann Roof to die for the June 2015 murders of nine black parishioners at a church in Charleston, S.C. The panel deliberated for only a few hours before recommending the death penalty, stating that life in prison would offer “no possibility of redemption” for the killer, who has so far demonstrated an unsettling lack of remorse for the racially motivated slayings. The victims’ families have continued to express forgiveness and a desire for Roof’s salvation, but the sentencing judge assured Roof that his hate, viciousness, and moral depravity “will not go unanswered” and that “justice will be done.”
I understand that many regard death as the only just punishment for such violence, and I respect that. Nevertheless, I lament this particular jury’s decision because the survivors aren’t asking for Roof’s death. Furthermore, it will take many years and a costly legal process to finalize it. The whole ordeal is more likely to steel Roof’s hatred and misguided martyr complex than it is to inspire contrition. Meanwhile, such a high-profile application of the death penalty may erode some of the progress the United States has made on this front since the turn of the century. Executions are at a 25-year low and public support for capital punishment has been steadily waning since the late 1990s—a reflection of our increased awareness of a flawed justice system, mounting concerns over how executions are carried out, and growing support for life sentences as punishment for capital offenses. People who believe justice entails minimizing rather than multiplying casualties see that as an encouraging trend, and we don’t want it to stop now.
Were it not for Jesus, I’d advocate for the death penalty as a merciful alternative to life without parole.
More importantly, the jury is wrong about the possibility of Roof’s redemption. Every day that he draws breath is an opportunity for him to call out to his Savior, and I dare not have any part in denying him that. That’s because when I look at Dylann Roof, smugly self-contented and insufferably self-deluded, I see my own tragic self apart from Christ. I remember how, but for God's wholly unconditional love and the Spirit's prevenient grace, I would never have escaped the congenital death sentence my godless depravity merited. And because God chose to forbear with me for the sake of his son, I’m prepared to do the same for others, to the glory of his name.
Those are more than lofty words for me, because I’ve tasted the cold misery of a prison cell and feel that the certain weight of an endless parade of lifeless days would be a punishment far more bitter than the anxiety of awaiting an execution date. Frankly, were it not for Jesus, I’d advocate for the death penalty as a merciful alternative to life without parole—which is what some lifers call death on the installment plan. I can wish such a punishment on Roof not only because his crime merits no less, but because I know that if he someday discovers his salvation, no prison cell will be able to contain his joy and no naysayer will ever silence his testimony.
We’re never more Christ-like than when we peer deeply into the unremorseful eyes of a murderer and refuse to be mastered by hate. We’re never closer to the heart of God than when we sacrificially lay aside our prerogative of vengeance in order to make room for the Spirit’s inscrutable, saving work. Let’s remember that God’s patience is for salvation, and ours can be, too.