An Appeal to the Better Angels of Our Nature

Rev. Dr. Neal R. Jones

Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Columbia

New Jersey recently became the first state in 40 years to abolish the death penalty. South Carolina and the other 35 states that still use the death penalty should follow suit for at least four reasons:

Capital punishment does not deter murder. States with capital punishment do not have lower murder rates than states without it. In fact, the highest murder rates occur in capital punishment states, like Texas, which accounted for 60% of the executions in this country last year.

Capital punishment is discriminatory, unfair, and arbitrary. Most convicted murderers spend their lives in prison. Only a small percentage are executed, and among these, the deciding factors are gender, race, geography, and poverty. Capital punishment is just that – those without the capital get the punishment.

Capital punishment is expensive. On average, life imprisonment costs taxpayers $750,000 per inmate. The cost of a capital murder trial, the appeals process, and the execution itself runs an average of $2.3 million.

Capital punishment makes mistakes. Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, 126 of the inmates on death row have been exonerated, more recently because of DNA testing. With an error rate that high, it is beyond debate that we have executed innocent people. Isn't the death of one innocent person one too many?

With so many practical, financial, and moral reasons to outlaw capital punishment, why do we still have it? Because this is not about reason. It's about emotion, the emotion of revenge. We want the murderer to experience what the victim experienced. Capital punishment appeals to the primal, baser elements of our nature.

I am not a vindictive person, but there have been a few times in my life when I have indulged the impulse for revenge. Whenever I have, I have felt vindicated and powerful for a moment, but the satisfaction has always been short-lived. In the end, I have always felt disgusted with myself that I allowed myself to stoop to such a level. Capital punishment causes us as a society to stoop to the level of a murderer.

I am, quite frankly, disappointed in my Christian brothers and sisters who still support the death penalty, typically invoking a wrathful, vengeful God and quoting the Old Testament: “An eye for an eye.” They forget to quote the Ten Commandments: “Thou shall not kill.” They forget the story of Cain and Abel, a story of how God dealt with murder. He did not execute Cain for murdering his brother but banished him from the community. They forget that Jesus advocated a higher morality: “You have heard that it was said, 'An eye or an eye.' But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” They forget that Jesus himself was an innocent victim of capital punishment, and they forget his words from the cross: “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

If someone murdered a friend or someone I love, I most probably would want that person to be executed. But laws should not be based on passions, least of all on vindictiveness. Laws should be based on reason and moral principle. They should appeal, to use Lincoln's words, to the better angels of our nature. When all is said and done, it just doesn't make sense to kill people who kill people to show that killing people is wrong.