It was just another day, when a man making a routine trip to a nearby city was attacked, robbed, beaten and left for dead. Multiple people passed by the man, bloodied and unconscious on the side of the road and kept going their way without even stopping to check his pulse. Finally, someone saw the man and felt compassion. He helped the victim to a safe place where he could receive medical treatment and recover and even paid for the man’s care.
The parable of the Good Samaritan is one of the most widely known and well-loved pieces of Scripture in all of history. Often times when we hear it, our mind gravitates toward the hero of the story, the Good Samaritan. We spend less time thinking about the catalyst of the story, the man who was left to die.
We don’t know much about the nameless man who was robbed and beaten, other than that there was something about him that deemed him unworthy of compassion by the priest and Levite who first passed by him. To them, he was invisible.
Next month, the state of Arkansas will execute eight men over a period of 10 days, according to an announcement from Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s office. The state, which has not performed an execution in 11 years, intends to execute the men in pairs between April 17 and April 27, an unprecedented rate in state-sanctioned executions.
Attorneys for the eight men argue that the state’s method of execution, lethal injection, will result in torturous pain, qualifying as cruel and unusual punishment and a violation of the eighth amendment. Their efforts to block the executions, along with reports of recent executions gone wrong in other states, have renewed a national debate on the ethics of capital punishment as it exists.
In the meantime, eight men wait to be seen, and wait on their fate. The titles they wear as “convicted criminal” and “death row inmate” most certainly make it easier for much of society to pass them by without looking their way.
But should they go unseen by the Church? Many Christians adhere to a pro-life ethic, advocating for the lives of the unborn. According to Scripture, our compassion cannot stop there.
Jesus plainly called our attention to prisoners as an expression of loving Him, “”I was in prison and you came to visit me … I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:36, 40) Hebrews 13:3 urges believers to, “Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body.”
A biblically consistent pro-life ethic undeniably includes convicts, prisoners and even, perhaps especially, death row inmates.
Consider the words of one man found guilty of both murder and adultery, “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made … all of my days were ordained in your book, before one of them came to be.” (Psalm 139:13-14,16)
Based on his actions, King David was deserving of capital punishment, yet this professed murderer praised God for His goodness and grace in crafting his humanity and ordering his days. The Apostle Paul killed and persecuted an unknown number of early Christians before writing most of the New Testament from prison, ultimately taking the very place of those he persecuted. His life and ministry was a testament to God’s mercy on the guilty, and grace for the sinner.
These are uncomfortable, Gospel realities for Christians who seek and desire justice. After all, isn’t it just for a man to receive the legal penalty for his crime? Particularly, if that penalty is a state-sanctioned response to an illegal action.
When Jesus halted the stoning of the woman found in the midst of an adulterous act, He intervened in a situation that was legally acceptable. The penalty for the woman’s crime was, according to the law, death. Yet, Christ stepped in and responded, “Let him who is without sin among you, be the first to cast a stone at her.” (John 8:7)
Regardless of one’s stance on capital punishment for the guilty, it’s also crucial to take into account the serious problems raised with the death penalty in recent history. DNA evidence has exonerated those who were falsely convicted, and even more tragically, innocent but executed. The rates of those in prison who are mentally ill, who lacked legal resources because of their youth or economic disadvantages and the reality of racial prejudice in conviction and sentencing.
Additionally, there are alarming questions being raised regarding the effectiveness and humanity of lethal injections as a method of capital punishment. These issues present very real evidence to stop us in our tracks, and at minimum consider the ethics of the death penalty in practice.
For believers, there is a higher calling to be considered. To follow Christ is to see those who are invisible to the rest of society. It is to reach out to the one who was left to die and extend compassion, not because it has been earned, but simply because of our shared humanity. A biblical pro-life stance recognizes the dignity of human life from beginning to end, and the mandate to love our neighbor as ourselves.
What’s happening in Arkansas matters for the pro-life movement, and for the Church at large. When Christ was done telling the parable of the Good Samaritan, He asked his audience, “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”