Capital Punishment at Eastertide


On 21 April, jurors in Boston will decide the fate of Dzhokhar Tzarnaev, who has been convicted in his role in the Boston Marathon bombing two years ago. He is subject to the death penalty, and, a bit over a week ago, on the Comedy Central series “The Nightly Show,” host Larry Wilmore spoke of how, while he is normally opposed to capital punishment, in this case, he thought Tzarnaev should be killed.

And that, I realize, is why I am sure we shouldn’t do it.

Wilmore spoke of how there was no doubt that Tzarnaev did this: there are piles of evidence, including CCTV camera images showing him planting the bomb, with children playing nearby. This isn’t one of those cases where there is any serious possibility that we have the right person, that, after the execution, we will find that we got the wrong guy, and we won’t be able to take it back. And no, I am not prepared to say “nothing is impossible” over that.

But I am still sure we shouldn’t do it.

I am also deeply aware that I am doubly guilty of sticking my nose where it doesn’t belong, first by imposing my Christian values in the secular arena (which is considered a no-no in the U.S.), then by imposing them upon the people of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, who are the ones responsible for this decision, when I am not one of them.

In addition, because this is a Reformed blog, I will admit to the fact that Calvin accepted capital punishment as part of the rights and responsibilities of the state.

Add to that the fact—which has crossed my mind more than once—that Kathleen and I have several friends, some of whom we have known for most of our lives, who live and work in and around Boston. The early news reports filled us with fear and worry; I hadn’t felt that kind of fear since 2001, after we all watched the towers fall, when I was wondering if my father had been in the PATH train station underneath the Trade Center that morning—he hadn’t. Therefore, despite the fact that I really don’t believe the sensationalist commentators who suggest that Tzarnaev’s crime is somehow the worst, the most heinous in history, I empathize with that desire for revenge upon the only perpetrator available.

Yet, oddly enough, that is why I am sure we shouldn’t do it. And, yes, I am sure that, in a very real, very profound sense, we are all implicated in this verdict. Indeed, we are, as a society, implicated every time our society executes someone, and that is even true for those of us who live in states that have managed to reject capital punishment—even as we replace it with other civil vices.

I am sure we shouldn’t kill Dzhokhar Tzarnaev because this act will diminish us. This is a choice driven entirely by the lust for vengeance. We know that, because of all the appeals, checks, and balances required by our desire to avoid what we define as cruel and unusual punishment, it is actually more expensive to execute a prisoner in the United States than it is to pay for life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. We also know, from clinical histories and long experience, that executions and the like do not bring about the closure we often tell ourselves the victims—or those of us who pruriently watch from the sidelines—are looking for in all of this. A terrible violence has been done, and there is a gaping wound in many of our souls that cannot be easily closed by any event, even another death. Despite all of that, the need for revenge, deeply wired into the most primitive parts of our brains, pushes on us to kill the enemy who has so frightened us. Then, even though the death will not do away with our pain, each time we give in to that desire, it is a little easier to give in again. Each time that happens, we sink a bit more into this less-evolved, primitive nature; we become less human, less fully who God created and called us to be. We are diminished.

Paul reminded the Romans that “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord (Romans 12:19, NRSV).” We often look at this as a rule, a limit upon us, an insistence that we not play God. I remember using the concept to get off the hook, however. It was during my ordination exams. We had gotten into a discussion of baptismal regeneration, and the question came from the floor: “So does that mean that Stalin (who was baptized) is saved?” I replied that I was ever grateful that God is the judge, and I didn’t have to make those decisions. The answer worked, and I silently patted myself on the back for my ingenuity. I had gotten off the hook.

On reflection, I realize that God lets all of us off the hook by claiming vengeance as a Divine prerogative. If we listen, we don’t have to be the ones deciding on this punishment. We don’t have to diminish ourselves. In taking that choice away from those of us who listen—and then not using it; God turned the vengeance upon God’s Son, a once-for-all and perfect sacrifice—God gives us a way not to devolve, if we will just take it.

Soon, Dzhokhar Tzarnaev’s fate will be decided. No matter what is decided, the world will go on spinning: there will be protests, either way, and perhaps more legal maneuvering. Either way, there will be pundits in the media telling us we should, or shouldn’t, be angered and hurt. Either way, the God who went to death for us will still show us—all of us—resurrection.

I still hope and pray that we choose life, not because he deserves to live, but because we need the chance to be just a little bit more than we have been.


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