The report of last week's execution of a convicted killer in Ohio, which took an unprecedented 25 minutes, made me recoil in horror as I read it. The state authorities experimented with a combination of lethal drugs for the first time without knowing what the outcome would be.
While heinous crimes need to be dealt with, this type of punishment is anathema in a Christian society where redemption, forgiveness, love and compassion form the basis of its teachings. Furthermore, in condoning or accepting what appears to be a barbaric act are we not in danger of rendering ourselves collectively as no different? This does not negate the terrible nature of the crime but, as Christians, how we respond to such issues, either publicly or privately, says much about us.
The Old Testament is clear on issues of judgement and retribution:-
'Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed' (Genesis 9:6)
In the New Testament, however, everything changes. Forgiveness, compassion and the redemptive power of God's love are just three fundamental tenets of faith. The law is one of love. Jesus himself urges us to 'love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you' (Matt 5:44) and Paul instructs us 'Do not repay evil with evil' (Romans 12:17).
William P Young's controversial Christian novel, The Shack demonstrates the dilemma of a father attempting to judge the abductor and murderer of his young daughter – a task which challenges the bitterness and hatred he has nurtured quite understandably, for so long. Whatever our views toward this book, it raises some pertinent issues. What would we do in a similar situation?
I do not take this topic lightly. I speak as someone who suffered the loss of a brother aged 20, killed by another young man racing his car in a suburban street who ploughed along the pavement, taking my brother with him. While it cannot, in any circumstances, be classed as murder, the driver's actions demonstrated a lack of concern for human life.
It is only the grace of God that has enabled me to forgive and yes, feel compassion towards the 'perpetrator', but it was a prolonged and painful journey.
Judgement and forgiveness, I have come to realise, are two opposing sides of a very difficult coin and transform who we are in disparate ways.
My question is this; if I'm determined to seek retribution to extremes, what it will change? It will certainly not change what has happened, nor will it ameliorate my personal sadness and grief. Only Jesus can do that. If I am not careful, it will serve only to transform me into the type of person I believe I am judging and I will still have to account to God for my actions – and this applies to all of us.
In Galatians, Paul makes it clear that the 'acts of the flesh' will prevent us from inheriting the Kingdom of God, one of these acts being 'hatred' (Gal 5:20). In contrast to that of course are the fruits of the spirit, 'love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control' (Gal :5-22-23).
Christians can often be divided on such sensitive topics but for society as a whole, a humane, dignified response is the only way to prevent us from straying away from what God wants of us – that we become more like his son.
It is a challenging concept to absorb and an even harder one to live out but 'he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world' (1 John 4:4) and we must continue to pray and work for a world that reflects that.