In the six months from July 2020 to January 2021, the U.S. government executed 14 people—more than in the previous 56 years combined. Those people were likely responsible for the deaths of 31 others. Each of the deaths is horrifying and heart-breaking . . . and some are also controversial. Now President Joe Biden may end the federal death penalty altogether.
The coronavirus pandemic and election coverage dominated the news last year. But many Americans noticed another tragedy. Some were dismayed by the number and the seeming haste to carry out federal executions under President Donald Trump. The July-to-January run of deaths were the first federal executions since 2003.
Beliefs and emotions surrounding the death penalty, also known as capital punishment, are strong. They should be! God made humans in His own image. (Genesis 1:27) That makes taking life a serious matter—whether in hatred, in war, or as a penalty.
The Old Testament addresses death as a penalty for certain crimes under certain conditions. God in His mercy places limits on exacting just punishments: an eye for an eye, a life for a life—no more. Some would also argue, no less. (Genesis 9:6) Because human life is so very valuable, taking that life by murder is a sin of tremendous weight, deserving comparable punishment—punishment that only God's grace can overrule. The New Testament accepts the presence of the death penalty (Romans 13:4) but doesn’t command its use. In many situations, only God can know with absolute certainty the nature and details of a death and whether the "life for life" principle should apply. But even as He does see clearly, He also exhibits mercy, choosing at times to spare lives (consider Cain in Genesis 4 and Barabbas in Matthew 27) and interceding with the life of His own Son.
Many opponents of the death penalty make the argument that human justice is prone to error—that human jurors and judges make too many mistakes about guilt or innocence. They also point to the failures of the U.S. legal system. And fail it has. Since 1976, at least 170 people who landed on death row were later found innocent. The most horrible judicial fiascos are times when justice is wrongly applied for reasons of money, power, or ethnicity. Such actions fall far short of true justice before the Judge of all the Earth.
All Christians should expect and demand a system that dispenses justice properly. (John 7:24) However, one thing is certain throughout scripture: No believer should ever take pleasure in the death of another person made in God’s image.
President Biden is the first sitting U.S. president to openly oppose the death penalty. Now civil rights and advocacy organizations are pressuring him to act on the much-debated matter.
As a presidential candidate, with the joebiden.com website reading, “Because we cannot . . . get death penalty cases right every time,” then-candidate Biden promised to move to abolish the federal death penalty. He also pledged to “incentivize [provide motivation for] states to follow the federal government’s example.” He recommended “life sentences without probation or parole.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki has fielded questions about President Biden’s plans regarding the death penalty. So far, the official spokesperson is not making any statements on the issue. But some anonymous officials say the President may instruct the Department of Justice to stop scheduling new executions.
Freezing the schedule of new executions could take some of the pressure off President Biden from those who want to end capital punishment. After all, if no such cases are on the docket, no one will be executed. But such an order would not prevent a future president—one who supports capital punishment—from restarting them.
Opponents want the current President to go much further. They’re hoping he will order the demolishing of the federal death chamber in Terre Haute, Indiana—and strike the death penalty from U.S. lawbooks entirely.
Former President Barack Obama (for whom current President Biden served as vice president) placed an informal halt on federal executions when he was president. He also ordered a review of execution methods.
But Mr. Obama never took steps toward ending federal executions for good. That left the door open for the next president, Donald Trump, to resume them. Death penalty critics want President Biden to slam that door shut.
As I live, declares the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live. — Ezekiel 33:11