And Arkansas consistently ranks at the top of the most religious states in America, sitting comfortably in the middle of “the Bible Belt.” Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson often speaks of his faith, and on Sundays he often posts some of his favorite Bible verses on Twitter.
Eight executions in 10 days …
Beginning the day after Easter …
At the heart of Christianity is a savior executed by the state. How we understand what happened on the cross 2,000 years ago shapes how we understand capital punishment today.
Over the past three decades, 86 percent of executions have taken place in the Bible Belt (perhaps we should rename it “the death belt”?), according to author Dale Recinella. White Christians are the most supportive of the death penalty: Clear majorities of white evangelical Protestants, white mainline Protestants and white Catholics favor the death penalty, according to a 2015 Pew Research survey. By contrast, 58 percent of black Protestants oppose the death penalty.
What Jesus did on the cross was make a spectacle of death. He exposed the violence of the state and the violence of the human heart, not to celebrate death, but to triumph over it. He died with grace on his lips, forgiving the very people who were killing him, and all of us whose sins helped land him there.
Jesus’ death broke the cycle of violence.
As theologian James Cone put it, “The cross was God’s critique of power … snatching victory out of defeat.” He countered the power of death with the power of grace. In the face of unimaginable evil, grace gets the last word.
Jesus was the sacrifice to end all sacrifices. He stole the show with love.
Beyond bunnies, egg hunts and chocolate, Easter is about how Jesus died to save us from death. While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. In his own words, Christ came “not for the healthy but for the sick” (Mark 2:17). We have a God who promises that mercy triumphs over judgment (James 2:1) and a God who says, “I desire mercy not sacrifice” (Hosea 6:6).
And what about those people facing death row? The Bible promises, “Where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more” (Romans 5:20). The Bible is filled with murderers who were given a second chance including Moses, David and Saul of Tarsus. The Bible — a love story with the climax of Easter — would be much shorter without grace.
Arkansas, as religious as it may be, will miss the point of Easter if it does not stop the executions.
God gave us grace when we didn’t deserve grace, and we disgrace the cross every time we call for the execution of another person. We undermine the redemptive work of Jesus on the cross and rob our fellow sinners of the possibilities of redemption. How can we, who have been extended grace, now call for the death of another person?
Death is the disease, not the cure. When we kill those who kill to show that killing is wrong, we legitimize the very evil we hope to rid the world of, the evil that sent Jesus to the cross.
Organizers are planning prayer vigils and worship services outside the governor’s mansion next week, culminating with a Good Friday vigil at the state capitol. And I’ve heard from pastors around the country who will be celebrating what Jesus did on the cross, as well as calling for an end to the death penalty, in the name of the executed and risen Christ.
I pray Hutchison will be moved deep in his heart with compassion and mercy — the stuff Easter is made of — and stand on the side of life. As I scrolled through the governor’s Twitter feed, I read verse after verse from the Old Testament and some from the New Testament Epistles, but didn’t see one quote from the Gospels. It was Jesus who halted an execution centuries ago, telling the armed men ready to stone a woman: “Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone.”
Any pro-death-penalty Christian has the nagging problem of Jesus to deal with, and I pray Jesus will keep the governor up at night. Perhaps he’ll consider posting this tweet on Easter Sunday: “Blessed are the merciful for they will be shown mercy” (Matthew 5:7)”.
That would truly be Easter in Arkansas.