Would Jesus support the death penalty?

Many forget that Jesus once served as a one-man jury on a death-penalty case. In a famous New Testament story, an adulterous woman was dragged to Jesus’ feet. The woman was guilty of a capital offense and had been caught in the act by at least one witness. The law mandated her death but Jesus prescribed a different response: “Let whoever is without sin cast the first stone.” He was teaching that only a perfect being—only God—should have power over death and life.

With Jesus’s stark words and example, no wonder early Christians opposed military service and the government-sanctioned killing of anyone for at least 300 years. “Our warfare is to make the dead to live, not to make the living dead,” St. John Chrysostom said.

There’s no reason to believe that Jesus or these early Christian leaders would feel any different about the matter today with our broken justice system. The most reliable predictor of whether someone will be sentenced to death is not the amount of evidence, but the race of the victim. Geography is also an important factor, which is why a handful of counties are responsible for most of the executions in the United States. And then of course wealth is a factor, as almost all death-row inmates could not afford their own attorney. Though Americans often boast about a system that provides equal justice for all, the reality is that factors outside of the case’s merits often determine its outcome. It’s hard to imagine that a Jesus who aligned himself with the poor and powerless, marginalized and maligned would support the broken system we often call “justice” in America.