I am deeply grateful to live in a country where this debate is no longer necessary and hopefully will never again need to become a real topic for discussion. Our neighbours to the south are not so fortunate and so in the US capital punishment continues to be a deeply contentious issue.

Whatever one may think about capital punishment, the Christian response to the current debate over the practice of executing people offers a salutary lesson to those who use the Bible to back-up their position on any controversial issue of social policy.

Reporting on the use of the Bible by Christians in determining a “Christian” response to capital punishment, The Harvard Gazette points out that

R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, has argued that “the Bible clearly calls for capital punishment in the case of intentional murder.” But Christian activist and author Shane Claiborne has countered that the teachings of Jesus provide no support for the death penalty.

http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2014/06/the-death-penalty-and-christianity/

Mohler and Clairborne are presumably both committed Christian gentlemen who seek to live their faith with integrity and authenticity. I expect they both consider themselves to be faithful followers of Jesus who seek to guide their lives by Jesus’ teaching.

They read the same Bible. I imagine they both honour the Bible as sacred text containing deep wisdom and profound revelation about the nature of God, the purpose of human existence, and the way to live in human community and in relationship to God.

Yet Mohler believes, on the basis of the Bible, the state can, and at times should, kill people who have done terrible things. Clairborne, using the same Bible, finds no support in the teachings of Jesus for the practice of capital punishment.

This disagreement is deep and profound. In fact, for the 39 people executed in the US in 2013 it was a question of life and death.

Like many arguments, it is unlikely that the score will ever be finally and decisively settled by trading Bible verses back and forth in an effort to convince one’s opponent of the error of their convictions.

Is there an alternative to  simply hurling biblical texts across the great divide of disagreement?

At some point two things need to happen in any discussion of such a profoundly important social, moral, and ethical issue.

1. A decision of this magnitude cannot be made with integrity by simply by trading Bible texts. Particularly, the person whose decision is likely to result in death, needs to meet the person whose life their choice is going to take.  Legislators whose decision perpetuates capital punishment can only make their decision with integrity when they have sat and heard the life story of the person whose life is going to be taken. Whenever we are participating in making decisions that deeply affect certain people we need to be informed by the human face of those most affected.

2. Both advocates and opponents on any decision that has significant impact on a group of people, need to be challenged to look deeply into their hearts and to ask themselves honestly, “What is the most loving and compassionate course of action in this situation?” This may sound hopelessly romantic and wooly-headed. But, there is a deep well of wisdom that resides in the human spirit. This wisdom is characterized by gentleness, kindness, compassion, and love. Not until this voice has clearly been consulted, is it legitimate to even hazard venturing a decision on any contentious moral and social issue.

So, we will make better decisions when we are willing to ask:

1. Who will this decision impact?

2. What does it mean for me to love this person?

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this story includes a video of a powerful conversation with Susan Sarandon and Sister Helen Prejean on CNN: http://www.cnn.com/2014/08/06/us/executions-dead-man-walking-nun/