When the sentence for a crime is not quickly carried out, the hearts of the people are filled with schemes to do wrong. Ecclesiastes 8, verse 11.
I’m against capital punishment; let’s just get that out there now. I don’t trust our government to get it right when it comes to carrying out the ultimate punishment for a crime. Statistically, compared to the number of people actually incarcerated, DNA testing absolves an almost insignificant percentage of prisoners. But it does absolve some and that’s where my lack of faith in the system comes into play.
It isn’t some “if we can just save one person” ideology (though that thinking is true). What about the many cases where the trial simply got it wrong? I don’t believe the system is rigged or that it tries to target some groups for death and others get off easy. My belief isn’t really, fully Biblical; I won’t try to twist Scripture to justify it. Indeed, especially throughout the Old Testament, there are numerous examples of God commanding that people be put to death as justice. And my belief isn’t self-righteous. This isn’t about me. I simply think it is more punishing for someone to remain in prison and ‘rot’ for their crime versus being executed for it. More importantly, such a sentence gives even the most hardened heart an opportunity to repent. We’re all worthy of death for our sins. Thanks be to God that He gives us a way to repent.
One thing I do see as justification for my belief is how the American system of capital punishment is so greatly delayed. Often, it takes years for a convict to make it through the appeals process and all the way to the death chamber. That in itself seems excessive, maybe even cruel for both the criminal and the people he affected. By my read of today’s verse, that’s discouraging. Long trials followed by years-long appeals seem to drain the justice out of the process. Does it make sure that the ultimate sentence is not meted out cavalierly? Possibly. I think that, more to the point, it simply drags it out.
That’s never a good idea. If you’re a parent, you quickly learn that punishment for an infraction needs to be swift and appropriate. Instilling discipline is an act of love, not an act of retribution. For it to be effective, it needs to be close to the infraction. If you’re a manager, you quickly learn that, to preserve team cohesiveness and focus, punishment or reaction needs to be swift and appropriate. The team needs to understand consequences for substandard performance or misbehavior. If you’re in the military, you quickly learn that punishment needs to be swift and appropriate to the crime, and that the Uniform Code of Military Justice is designed for just this kind of action.
You can see the common chord. Re-read the verse and I think you see that ‘swift and appropriate’ is not only Godly: it’s simple common sense. The longer you let a problem fester, generally the worse it gets. It’s much easier and far preferable to ‘pony up’ to irresponsibility and take the punishment than to duck for cover and hope to avoid bad press. It’s far better to own up to your actions and endure swift justice versus flying below the radar and live in fear of getting caught. I think that’s why God said what He did in this verse. Don’t drag out punishment. Get it done and do it Godly so that we can return to Him once more.
Better yet is to not sin in the first place. But when we do, punishment should be swift and appropriate. It always is. Unless you are a sociopath or without conscience, I find that when I do wrong I’m usually quickly aware of it. I feel guilty if I knowingly say or do something wrong or in sin. That guilt, that stinging conscience, is a gift of swift and appropriate justice. God gives it to me to let me realize when I’ve done wrong, giving me an opportunity to turn from it and follow Him to do better. Regardless of any other temporal punishment that ensues, this personal awareness of my sin is a cloud with a silver lining.
Perhaps if someone close to me were murdered I would come to feel differently about the death penalty; that’s possible. I would hope it would not be for reasons of vengeance. When I read about truly heinous criminals, or terrorist masterminds who coldly plot the murder of thousands, or when I read stories like the one I read yesterday of the father who deliberately tied his stepson to a tree and then burned him alive (except that the child hung on and died years later, still in agony, of cancer), my blood boils like anyone else’s. An eye for an eye. I don’t believe in capital punishment, but I understand it and for some truly evil crimes, that understanding gets very close to endorsement. And yet, when I think of God being executed for something He didn’t do, yet He took it anyway, I think to myself ‘there must be a better way.’ So I’ll pray for the victims, and even pray for the men on death row, and pray that God’s justice would be done no matter how the end is resolved.