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The Christian case for ending the death penalty

The Wyoming legislature is considering a bill that would end capital punishment in the state.

In this photo taken on Tuesday, Dec. 29, 2015, the fingers of Martin Navarette reach out of his cell on death row at San Quentin State Prison in San Quentin, Calif. Last month, Virginia became the 23rd state to end capital punishment. A similar bill is being considered by the Wyoming legislature.
Ben Margot, Associated Press

As he neared the end of his life, the prophet Moses instructed the Israelites, “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.”

Last month, Virginia lawmakers chose life. Both chambers passed bills that will, upon the governor’s promised signature, make Virginia the 23rd state to end capital punishment. A similar bill is expected to make its way through the Wyoming legislature. Indeed, the movement to abolish the death penalty is picking up steam nationwide, notably here in the West. New Mexico, Washington and Colorado have already ended capital punishment; California and Oregon have imposed moratoria on executions. No state west of Texas has had an execution in more than five years, and here in Utah, we have not had one since 2010.

Ending capital punishment has emerged as one of the few issues upon which lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have found agreement, if for different reasons. Some cite the inordinately high cost of executing a prisoner rather than sentencing them to life in prison, while others point to the well-documented racial disparities in death sentences and executions. Especially troubling are the significant numbers of innocent people who have been wrongfully convicted.

What about victims’ families? Of course they deserve our deepest sympathy. They also deserve a well-functioning system that can offer healing and can effectively and efficiently render justice. But a death sentence only initiates a lengthy process that reopens old traumas with every new — and necessary — appeal. The enormous resources currently dedicated to the prosecution of capital cases could be redirected to specialized counseling, financial assistance and other forms of ongoing support that would actually focus on healing in the wake of unspeakable loss.

From liberals to libertarians, people across the political spectrum are coming to the consensus that capital punishment is an unnecessary and gruesome display of state power. Since it is both cheaper and easier to imprison someone for life, execution is the ultimate example of the state killing people simply because it can.

For many people, capital punishment is not only a political and ethical question but a religious one as well. This is certainly true for me as a committed Latter-day Saint whose moral life is deeply guided by the scriptures and prophetic teachings of my church.

Ancient scriptures such as the Old Testament and Book of Mormon give ample provision for inflicting capital punishment — though I know of no one today who goes along with all 36(!) of the Hebrew Bible’s capital crimes, including blasphemy, adultery, Sabbath breaking, and cursing one’s parent. But Latter-day Saints are among the billions of Christians who believe that Jesus “fulfilled” the law of Moses, particularly its legal and ritualistic dimensions. The Old Testament’s provisions about capital punishment are therefore no more binding on modern Christians than are its archaic stipulations regarding menstruating women. Significantly, the New Testament and Book of Mormon, from Jesus’ visit onward, give no express approval for capital punishment.

In an important 1831 revelation to Joseph Smith, God affirmed the commandment “thou shalt not kill,” then added the provision, “he that killeth shall die.” While this latter phrase has often been interpreted to support capital punishment, a careful reading of the surrounding verses suggests that the stipulated punishments attached to various sins (including stealing, lying and adultery) are spiritual in nature, not criminal. The same revelation instructs the church to turn murderers over to civil authorities so they are dealt with “according to the laws of the land.”

In other words, Latter-day Saint scriptures do not bind believers to accept capital punishment as necessary or good. Latter-day Saint citizens and lawmakers have no religious obligation to support capital punishment. On the contrary, there is a stronger religious argument, from the teachings and example of Jesus onward, for people to combine their religious sensibilities with their political and ethical concerns to consistently and courageously choose life.

Today, as in Moses’ day, we have life and death set before us in myriad ways. Life is a gift that becomes a choice when there are other options available to us. Even when others opt for the way of death, we can choose life.

Patrick Q. Mason is the Leonard J. Arrington Chair of Mormon History and Culture at Utah State University and author of the new book “Restoration: God’s Call to the 21st-Century World.”