Recent statistics show that the vast majority of 2022’s executions have or will take place in the Bible Belt, a fact in keeping with broader historical trends. White evangelicals are the strongest supporters of capital punishment in the United States, often drawing on biblical concepts like “an eye for an eye” to justify their position.
In fact, those carrying out the executions sometimes understand themselves as doing God’s work and draw on Christian ideas accordingly. One former prison warden (now the head of Mississippi’s’ corrections system) has regularly spoken of his ministry in offering to pray with prisoners while overseeing their lethal injections.
But as the recent death penalty case of Ramiro Gonzales reminds us, some men and women on death row embrace faith in Christ during their time in prison. More broadly, there are thousands of Christian believers behind bars—many of whom bear the brunt of punitive policies and sentiments that are promoted, in no small part, by some of their fellow American Christians.
And so, while some Christians may see prison primarily as a place where unregenerate souls need saving alongside their harsh punishment, my encounters with incarcerated people have ultimately challenged that perception.
A few years ago, I began volunteering for a North Carolina prison ministry and saw firsthand how God is at work in our nation’s prisons. In fact, the longer I served, the more I realized how much of the incarcerated population already includes our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ.
Such men and women should be seen not solely as those in need of our ministry focus but as ministers themselves—doing gospel work and offering examples of faithfulness that Christians on the outside can learn from. Their presence is, to use theologian Jason Sexton’s phrase, the ecclesia incarcerate—the church’s tangible existence in a space of confinement.
My work in prison ministry has forced me to acknowledge the theological implications of Christian fellowship across the bars—especially when it comes to the issue of capital punishment.
To put it bluntly, I believe we should oppose the death penalty because it involves the retributive killing of our siblings in Christ. This argument, while not new, is often overlooked.
When I was in divinity school, my ethics professor Stanley Hauerwas had a poster on his door that read, in bold letters, A modest proposal for peace: Let the Christians of the world agree that they will not kill each other.
I soon came to realize that this poster’s modest proposal for peace rings true—not only for situations of war and international conflict but also when it comes to the death penalty. To crib the poster’s phrasing, I believe we the Christians of America should agree not to kill each other, even in the context of our criminal justice system.
There are many other worthy reasons to oppose capital punishment, and Christians should certainly be concerned about the inherent racial and socioeconomic disparities and the problem of wrongful convictions. But there is also a long tradition of Christian thinking about criminal justice that is grounded in the recognition of God’s redemptive work of grace in the lives of all people—even those who have committed violent crimes.
As theologian Roger Olson puts it, to take a life unnecessarily through capital punishment is to “usurp God’s prerogative,” for “every individual human being might be someone chosen by God for his salvation and for his service.”
Take, for example, the case of Kelly Gissendaner, who was convicted of helping plan the murder of her husband and was sentenced to death in Georgia in 1997.
There was no doubt that she was guilty. And yet, during her time in prison, Gissendaner showcased responsibility for her actions and embraced the vocation of Christian ministry. She earned a theology degree and became both a trusted resource for those incarcerated with her and an inspiration to numerous Christians on the outside (including theologian Jürgen Moltmann, with whom she regularly corresponded).
Christians inside and outside the prison testified of the power of her ministry and the work of the Holy Spirit in her life. And yet she was still executed in 2015, after her petition for mercy was rejected by a Board of Pardons and Paroles—all self-identified Christians—who insisted in explicitly biblical terms that her life deserved to end.
As theologian Jennifer McBride has written, “Kelly’s story illustrates that the death penalty amounts to a wastefulness of life, a mechanism through which society discards the good creation God made and continues to remake.”
More recently, I was struck by the case of Gonzales, on death row for kidnapping, rape, and murder in Texas. Gonzales has taken responsibility for his crimes, embraced a life of faith and prayer, earned a Bible college degree, and been widely praised for his generous spirit.
Blessedly, Gonzales’ execution was recently halted. As a result, Gonzales can more fully live into his Christian vocation, including the possible donation of one of his kidneys to someone in need. As Gonzales’ spiritual adviser put it, “Ramiro makes peoples’ lives better.”
I expect that this “modest proposal” will frustrate at least two camps of believers.
First, pro–death penalty Christians will contend this perspective confuses Jerusalem with Athens, overlooking God’s ordination of the governing authorities and the punishing sword itself in Romans 13 (although other faithful readings of this and other texts come to different conclusions on capital punishment). This is an important objection, one that should push Christians to think about our obligations to the earthly cities beyond our own churchyards.
And yet, as Christians, our identity is fundamentally grounded in the person of Jesus Christ. We learn how to work out the political implications of this identity in fellowship with other Christians in the church. Politics or “real life” is not somewhere beyond the church. Instead, the church offers a vision of what common life can truly be. To allow our brothers and sisters to be killed by the state is to cut off the possibility of this life together.
A focus on life together also foregrounds the church’s obligations to victims and their families who, despite continual calls for “victim’s rights,” are often forgotten or neglected.
Rev. Stacy Rector, the executive director of Tennesseans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, told me, “As Christians, we should be more attentive to the emotional, financial, mental, spiritual needs of these families in the wake of the murder and not so focused on how we were going to punish the perpetrator. If we were, then we would see less desire for the death penalty.”
In this sense, death-penalty abolition is not simply about the loss of a particular form of state violence. It is fundamentally about a different kind of presence, as well as the creative ways beyond a simple retributive calculus in which Christians can minister to those who have been harmed.
Second, many anti–death penalty advocates may be sympathetic with my abolitionist aims but frustrated by my parochialism. Shouldn’t we be against all uses of the death penalty, not just instances of Christians executing Christians?
To be sure, we should hope for the day when no one is executed. And Christians might oppose capital punishment for incarcerated individuals—even in cases where spiritual transformation or a reckoning for horrific crimes is lacking—by simply considering the possibility of their redemption and future fellowship as believers.
In his book exploring Christian opposition to capital punishment, Shane Claiborne writes that “Death closes the door to any possibility for redemption. Grace opens up that door.” We can indeed have faith in God’s work in lives and spaces that seem beyond hope.
But ultimately in reply, I simply offer Hauerwas’s own words when faced with this complaint about his poster: This is a modest proposal—we’ve got to begin somewhere.
Finally, in making this claim, I also want to resist the temptation to see capital punishment as a redemptive blessing in its motivating of Christian conversion. This notion—that capital punishment is valid because it induces rehabilitation and spiritual change—has a long history, from colonial era sermons at hangings to more recent evangelical justifications for executions.
As one evangelical leader put it in 1976, “A man is much more apt to think seriously if he knows he’s going to die next Tuesday than if he merely expects to die sometime in the future.”
This may be compelling as a description of human psychology, but it is a poor rendering of the Christian mission. We should not threaten and institute death to encourage conversion—for we place our faith not in death but in the living God. We hope for spiritual transformation because it is God’s command and we long for communion with our fellow image bearers.
A recurring theme in conversations I’ve had on criminal justice is the heightened sensitivity to problems in our justice system that emerge once a person has an incarcerated family member. When this happens, prisons and punishment are no longer abstract issues, and the person often comes to understand how our nation’s justice systems can be ineffective, cruel, and harmful. Such individuals know that their loved ones should be held accountable for their actions, but they also can see firsthand how our penal institutions prevent true accountability, transformation, and restoration.
I hope Christians can cultivate this same recognition—one that is borne not out of a blood relation to prisoners but out of a spiritual connection with incarcerated people as fellow members of God’s family. Knowing people as brothers or sisters in Christ helps us see beyond the worst things they have ever done, as Bryan Stevenson puts it.
Life in the family of God means justice, but it also means restoration and hope. A healthy family can hold one another accountable for wrongs committed and seek one another’s well-being.
It’s my own modest hope that evangelicals can support the abolitionist cause because we are willing to embrace every brother and sister who end up on the other side of the prison bars—to see the gift of their lives and the potential of their futures.
Aaron Griffith is an assistant professor of history at Whitworth University and the author of God’s Law and Order: The Politics of Punishment in Evangelical America.
Speaking Out is Christianity Today’s guest opinion column and (unlike an editorial) does not necessarily represent the opinion of the publication.