Tsarnaev & the Death Penalty: Some Christian Considerations

tsarnaev-boston-court-580On Wednesday, a jury found Dzhokhar Tsarnaev guilty of all 30 counts against him in regards to the Boston Marathon bombing of 2013. This verdict was not entirely surprising. Many experts say that the real question is whether or not Tsarnaev can be saved from the death penalty. Although he’s being represented by the infamous Judy Clark, seventeen of the counts for which Tsarnaev has been convicted qualify him for the death penalty.

The Boston Marathon bombings were a horrific atrocity. Four people were brutally killed, one of them was a child of eight. In total, 264 civilians were harmed in the event. To say nothing of the lockdown of an entire city and killing of an MIT Police Officer several days later.

I was not in Boston on the day of the attacks. And it was not my child, spouse, sister or friend who was heartlessly murdered that day. As Christians, our primary concern must be for the victims in this situation. And immense support and love has been extended to them. We must not stop loving them.

But -again, speaking as Christians– we are called to show the same love to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Jesus was very clear that we are to “love our enemies” (Matthew 5:44). Such a notion seems offensive at a time like this. Understandably so. But we would do well to remember that it was equally offensive for Christ to tell a group of Jews to love the Roman soldiers. Romans were brutal rulers. One emperor responded to a Jewish insurgence by crucifying so many civilians that they actually ran out of wood.

And Jesus told the parents, relatives, townspeople and fellow countrymen of those victims to love the Romans.

But does that mean Christians ought to oppose the death penalty for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev? Is it not possible that, in this case, love means we do not protect Tsarnaev from the consequences of his actions? Did not God establish a standard of justice, which has been entrusted to human governments, so that divine justice is accomplished?

Jesus said “he who lives by the sword, shall die by the sword” (Matthew 26:52). This seems to apply to the current situation. Tsarnaev killed and, thus, he should also be killed.

But we must examine the context of this verse. Jesus was not calling down condemnation and judgement. Nor was he granting permission to judge and execute to any human institute. Rather, Christ told Peter to put away his sword. Christ then appealed to a prophetic reality: those who live in violence, perish in violence. Such is the way of the world.

By contrast, Christ was submitting himself to violence. Jesus notes that at his command legions of angels could save him. Yet Christ refused to use his power, refused to use violence. He gave himself over to death and injustice. In doing so Christ conquered death. He overcame violence, evil and the grave. And it began with submission to its injustice.

In the eyes of the United States judicial system, justice may require that Tsarnaev be put to death. But in the eyes of the Christian, justice looks very different from what the world expects. Justice looks like Christ- not executing God’s wrath- but submitting in non-violence. As a result, Jesus beats death at it’s own game.

But such standards look like injustice. Christ’s death leads to our salvation. Our faith hinges on the belief that God executed his judgement on his perfect Son, which is- by retributive standards- horribly unjust. Sinners live, a perfect Savior died. There’s nothing more unjust in the world.

And the word we use to describe this injustice is “grace.”

I am not a juror in this case. Nor am I judge. Nor am I the executioner or warden who will one day literally have power over Tsarnaev’s life.

But I am a Christian.

And, as a Christian, I live in the injustice of grace. I live in the reality that Christ suffered so that I might not. I live in the reality that Christ defeated death so that I might not submit to it’s power over me. This means that I do not need to use death as a weapon against injustice, because mercy is more powerful.

Christians are called to pray for the victims of the Boston Marathon bombings. And they are called to pray for the healing, for the families left behind, for the souls of the departed.

But we are also called to love and pray for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. And we are called to testify to truth we do not desire death as retribution, because we ourselves have not received it. We are called to live lives reflecting the reality that death is not our weapon, but grace is. And grace nullifies executions, it nullifies death itself.

Such is the cross. Such is a life of grace. Such is the calling of a Christian. That we follow in the steps of Christ to the perplexity of the world. For we seek not power, money, security, justification or even personal freedom. And we seek not death, not for anyone.

We only seek Christ.

For in him we all shall live.

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