The Miraculous Abolition of the Death Penalty in Virginia

A monumental, even miraculous thing happened in the Commonwealth of Virginia this week. Our state legislature voted to abolish the death penalty! Can you believe it? That means a bipartisan majority of legislators (barely bipartisan, but notably so!) has voted that our state will no longer kill criminals.

My mom texted me the news, “Virginia ended the death penalty… this is so huge in my heart.” My mom is a pastor whose ministry has taken her to places no one in their right mind would choose to go. She has stories. There is a depth of painful experience behind why she had to reach out and text someone this profoundly moving news.

When it comes to the death penalty, Virginia has the dubious record of having carried out the highest number of legally-sanctioned executions in this country’s history. This week we, the chief of sinners, have been converted to a different, more excellent way. 

You may or may not agree with this legislation but you happen to be reading the writing of a United Methodist. The often mealy-mouthed United Methodist Church happens to have been uncharacteristically clear on our rejection of the death penalty through the years, never on the grounds that this penalty is un-deserved. On the contrary, our position is that the death penalty is deserved by far more than we ever bring to trial!

No, the grounds on which the church has historically rejected the death penalty are not primarily moral but theological. We believe that the cross of Christ is the last necessary human death carried out by human hands.

Because of Christ, his cross and resurrection, no one, even the most deserving of death must be put to death in order for justice to prevail. The cross is God’s justice. In Christ sin itself has been put to death and in Christ’s resurrection all human life has been promised justice, redemption, and resurrection by another means: the means of grace. 

That’s not my Sunday sermon, but I will be mentioning it on Sunday because, like my mother, I have to say something. We serve a God who has chosen to reveal himself by experiencing the death penalty. That is where he has put an end to the penalty of Death! So when human commonwealths manage to legislate their way to this conclusion, we United Methodists especially have reason to rejoice and be glad.

In this legislation something that was lost has been found and many who were (even deservingly) as good as dead, are now alive. Even in Lent, we must say, Alleluia.

Top: Wooden sculpture of Christ in His tomb; Chiesa di San Zaccaria, Venice, Italy
Bottom: Lethal Injection Bed, Penitentiary of New Mexico

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