Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. It's a day when we remember a great man who stood up for his beliefs and all of the people who sacrificed greatly to change the status quo in the United States. It's a day to remember their fight for justice and equality. As we all know, there's still a long way to go in our country, but at least some progress has been made.
My friend Jimmy is on my mind today. He's celebrating MLK Day from behind bars on death row in Alabama. He's an African-American man who made mistakes, but who likely got sent to death row because of false witness of someone who had a lot to lose himself.
Last week when a Georgia death row inmate was getting ready to be executed, I heard an official use the typical response to justify the execution. He quoted Leviticus 24:20 "eye for eye, tooth for tooth". There are some problems with this argument though, as I see it.
1) God did command the Israelites to put to death those who took the life of someone else. He also made a lot of other commandments in the laws set forth in the book of Leviticus. Have you read through the book of Leviticus lately? There are laws covering food, sex, health, farming... you name it. And Christians follow almost none of those rules. I grew up in a Judeo-Christian church and we followed the dietary laws of Leviticus. But even we didn't follow all of the other laws. Because they were laws given by God to a certain group of people in a certain time period.
Later in the book of Numbers, when the Israelites were living in cities, a new system was set up with cities of refuge for people to flee to if they had killed someone. These were set up to ensure that the person got a fair trial and the circumstances in which the death had occurred could be sure to get a trial before the assembly. This book even mentions that no one should be put to death based on the testimony of one witness.
And in the book of Matthew, Jesus pointed out that he did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. The old covenant, with its rules and regulations was fulfilled or completed with Jesus's death on the cross. We no longer live under that covenant.
2) When the death penalty was put forth in the old covenant law, the system consisted of God to Moses to the instruction being carried out by the people. In our current system, you have police and lawyers and juries and judges. You have people who have their jobs to defend by successfully arguing legal cases. You have people who are put on the stand to testify who may have ulterior motives for what they say.
Back when I was working as a toxicologist, I did a lot of work that was related to expert testimonies in legal cases. And I can tell you, our main goal was to prove our side of the story. The other side's job was to prove their side of the story. We didn't swap information and weigh the decision. We worked to prove our point and win. Same thing is true in criminal cases. Even if someone's life is on the line. The popularity of the recent podcast, Serial, has been a great example of that. A man was sentenced to life in prison (Maryland abolished the death penalty in 2013 and commuted the sentence of the 4 death row inmates at the end of 2014, so even if he had been sentenced to death, it would no longer apply). And now that a popular podcast has brought new information to light, there are doubts about his guilt. Because our justice system is terribly broken.
As Christians, we are called to love and serve one another. We are called to seek justice. When someone is put to death by their government, that's final. There's no chance for them to be witnessed to anymore. There's no chance for them to witness to others, if they have become Christians. It's final. There's no going back, even if new information comes to light later on and the sentence is found to have been a mistake. We're putting people to death who have mental issues while serial killers can admit guilt and plea bargain their way to a lesser sentence. This is not justice.