“On the death penalty, do what you think Jesus would have you do.”
These were the words my friend and anti-death-penalty activist Shane Claiborne told Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam in a chance encounter outside the Nashville War Memorial last week. Heavily populated by Christians, Tennessee is also on the verge of a death-penalty revival. State officials approved a new lethal-injection drug during Holy Week—the week Christians reflect on Jesus’s execution—legislators passed a bill to reinstate the electric chair.*
Claiborne’s advice to Haslam was not original. He was riffing on the late Mother Teresa, who at the behest of Father John Dear urged California Governor George Deukmejian in 1990 to grant clemency to an inmate waiting for execution on San Quentin’s death row. “Do what Jesus would do,” she advised him.
A judge issued a stay a few days later. But a new governor, Pete Wilson, took office two years later and set a new execution date. Mother Teresa phoned the state again and repeated her message. But like another government official two millennia earlier, Wilson washed his hands of the matter. Robert Harris was executed.
Are Claiborne and Mother Teresa right? Would Jesus Christ oppose the death penalty if he were present today? According to a recent Barna poll, most Americans think so. Only five percent of Americans believe Jesus would support the government’s ability to execute the worst criminals. This includes 2 percent of Catholics, 8 percent of Protestants, and 10 percent of all practicing Christians. Christian leaders, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, have also been some of the most outspoken opponents of executions. But overall, a majority of Americans back the death penalty.