I write this entry mere minutes after a federal jury sentenced convicted Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to death for his role in that terrorist attack. Some years ago I would have applauded that decision, but then when I was taking classes for my criminal justice degree I learned that the death penalty really doesn’t really deter anyone from committing future violent crime. That should be obvious considering the amount of violent crime committed in the United States, where both the federal government and most states use capital punishment. I learned that there is a growing number of criminal justice professionals, including many of my professors, that had grave concerns about the use of the death penalty.
However in recent years, I’ve found a new reason to stand solidly against such action. That came when I really decided I was going to take the teaching of Jesus seriously. In Matthew chapter 5, during the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus dispenses with “an eye for an eye” (5: 38-42) and hatred for your enemies (5: 43-48). Instead of revenge upon those who inflict pain on us, Jesus calls us to nonviolent subversion of the cultural idea of retaliation and redemptive violence. Instead of hating our enemies, Christ tells us that we are to attempt to be their friend, to actually LOVE them.
Now, both of those things sound like a tall order, right? I mean it’s one thing to “turn the other cheek” when your neighbor’s kid hits a baseball through your window, but isn’t it something different when you have a situation where someone is trying to actively hurt you? I mean, let’s be real right?
Well, I’ve thought about this. I’ve thought about it a lot. During my time working with a local crime scene unit I was exposed to some pretty horrible crimes. I’ve seen the consequences of domestic violence, child abuse, and murder up close. Let me assure you that this is a topic that I take quite seriously all the time.
But what if Jesus really means what he says in these verses? So many people in the United States think that we should interpret every bit of the Bible as absolute, literal truth. Yet when we arrive at these verses, straight from the mouth of Christ himself, people start hemming and hawing and saying things like: “Well that’s not what he really meant.” “You see, the meaning here is much more nuanced.” “Well that might have been ok back then, but not today.”
Funny how that works huh?
Should we also note that Christ himself did not resist when put to death? I think we should. If you’re a Christian, chances are that you believe Christ was God incarnate, with the power of the entire universe at his disposal. Do you not think he could have come down off that cross and kicked some first century butt?
But he didn’t.
Look, the crime that this young man and his deceased older brother committed in Boston is absolutely horrific. There’s no denying that. I could never fault someone for having the belief that he deserves to die for what he did. That anger, that desire for revenge is only human.
But there is much more at stake here. Let’s consider a few things.
1. Will putting this young man to death stop him from committing future acts of violence? Yes, but so would keeping him in prison.
2. Will putting him to death deter others from committing these kind of acts? Absolutely not.
3. Will putting him to death encourage others to commit these kind of acts? Probably. In all likelihood we are just creating another martyr whose death will inspire others to continue the cause in his name
4. Will putting this young man to death do ANYTHING to attempt to break the cycle of violence? Not a chance. Given a chance to show even the slightest hint of mercy we again choose the path of revenge, which is really all we’re left with. That path has never given us a way out of the cycle, and it never will.
I firmly believe, as a practicing Christian, that Christ calls us to try and rise above the usual human condition and live as a part of something called “The Kingdom of God” right here and now. Does it mean that I’ll never get angry or desire revenge? Of course not, but recognizing that there is a different path to walk was the first step toward overcoming these things, and it’s journey that I’ll probably never complete. That being said, there is a joy in the journey. There is truth and life in the experience, something that Jesus describes as “life to the fullest” (John 10:10).
So where do I go from here? I’ll pray.
For the victims of the Boston Bombing and of terrorism, war, and violence around the world.
For young Tsarnaev, that in his life going forward he can find a changed heart, a heart that would be against these acts.
For our country and our leaders, that we can someday make even the smallest effort to move beyond “an eye for an eye.”
I’ll also keep writing here and talking to anyone who will listen as I try my best to live, and advocate for, this path that Christ has called me to walk with him.
May God have mercy on this man, and on me, and on all of us.