Debate over the death penalty continues to play out in Christian circles, as many faith leaders grapple with the difficult question of whether it’s biblical to embrace capital punishment.
While R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, has confidently said that he believes the Bible allows for the death penalty in certain circumstances, other Christian leaders aren’t so sure.
Among them is the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, who recently told TheBlaze that he hasn’t quite landed on his position, though he’s hoping that both sides of the debate will be open to discussing the issue.
“I am personally having a conversation. I’m providing space for a conversation and I am analyzing my life committment in reconiciling it with the ‘Imago Dei’ [Image of God],” Rodriguez told TheBlaze. “I have not come to a definitive conclusion, because of the Scott Petersons in the world.”
The 44-year-old preacher repeatedly noted that he believes “every single human being carries the image of God” and that he’s hoping to challenge Christians to explore whether their stance on the issue fully recognizes the Lord’s image in the criminals being put to death.
Rodriguez said that a recent failed execution in Oklahoma has reignited his personal exploration of the matter — one that he wrote about in a recent Time Magazine op-ed titled, “Botched Oklahoma Execution Should Prompt Moral Outcry Among Evangelicals.”
“The botched execution sort of exacerbated this entire narrative — here is the government and the state doing to this individual what this individual did to his victim and it’s wrong on both ends of the scale,” he told TheBlaze. “I wanted to create some space [for discussion] among evangelicals.”
Rodriguez said that his challenge for Christians to reconsider their stance isn’t “left evangelicalism” and that it is simply a call for people to consider how God would view the issue.
The preacher, who is staunchly pro-life, also said that the legal system is flawed, that the majority of death row inmates are of ethnic and minority communities and that many come from low economic strata.
Regardless of where he eventually lands on the issue, Rodriguez said that young people are united on it.
“I am convinced if you survey born-again Christians between the ages of 15 and 30 … the writing’s on the wall,” he continued. “This is more of a pro-life generation than even my generation — that life is not just in the womb — poverty, issues of sex trafficking.”
Rodriguez continued, “If I’m staunchly pro-life there’s going to be some continuity in my conviction here.”
He believes young people will eventually say with a resounding voice that they are “pro-life from the womb to the tomb,” rejecting the current acceptance of capital punishment.
The preacher admitted that he was fully supportive of the death penalty in his 20s and 30s, but that his views have softened on the issue over the years.
“I find it to be an easier way out if we terminate life rather than have them stay in [prison] until they are 85 or 95 years old and I think that … living until you are 90 years old confined in a limited space without the luxuries of freedom — I think that may be a greater punishment,” Rodriguez said.
The faith leader is well aware of the divide that exists over the death penalty between him and Mohler.
While Rodriguez said that the Bible could be contextualized to offer corroboration to either side of the issue, Mohler recently outlined in detail his belief that the holy book endorses the death penalty in specific situations.
“I have great respect for Albert Mohler and we would align on probably 90 percent on issues,” Rodriguez said. “On that issue I think it’s debatable … we can contextualize Old and New Testaments in such a way that we can argue either case.”
Polls show that at least half of the country supports the death penalty for convicted murderers, though the proportions have changed over the past few decades.
In the mid-1990s, Gallup found that 80 percent of the general public favored the death penalty for those convicted of murder, while only 16 percent opposed it. The latest polling data shows that 60 percent currently support it, while 35 percent do not.
In the past, TheBlaze has also explored in-depth where Christians stand on the issue. In analyzing recent data from the Barna Group, a research firm that assesses issues pertaining to faith, Religion News Services’ Jonathan Merritt noted that there is a big generational difference among Christians on the issue.
When asked if “the government should have the option to execute the worst criminals,” only 32 percent of self-identified Christian millennials — individuals born between 1980 and 2000 — answered affirmatively, compared to 42 percent of self-identified Christian baby boomers born between 1946 and 1964.
In sum, around 40 percent of Christians were found to support capital punishment.
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