For the better part of a decade, I lived in Mansfield, Ohio. As a rust belt city, Mansfield had to reinvent its economy following its deindustrialization. The town of old factories pinned its hopes of revitalization on tourism.
The crown jewel of Mansfield’s tourist economy is the old Ohio State Reformatory. The Reformatory housed prisoners from 1896-1990. Known for its haunting architecture and the violence suffered by the inmates, today the Reformatory hosts tours, welcomes ghost hunting expeditions, and serves as a set for films like The Shawshank Redemption. When the Reformatory closed, the new Richland Correctional Institution opened less than three miles away. The RCI housed Ohio’s male death row inmates until 2005. Living near facilities associated with the violence of killing led me to reflect on capital punishment in practice and in scripture, especially the execution of John the Baptist.
The facts of John’s case are familiar. John was arrested for criticizing the adulterous relationship of Tetrarch Herod Antipas and his sister-in-law Herodias. The Gospel according to Matthew says that Antipas had imprisoned John and wanted to kill him. Antipas, however, feared public opinion. This alone indicates the arbitrary nature of capital punishment. His fear of the crowds prevented him from taking John’s life. If Antipas had been bolder or if John had not been so popular, the tetrarch might have summarily executed the Baptist without a second thought. Instead, he jailed the Baptist. While John languished in the dungeon, Antipas threw a party.
Antipas had the choice of listening to John’s warnings and ending his relationship with Herodias. If he had taken this option, John never would have been in the position of being executed. In either case, John’s life was subject to the whims of Antipas.
As the party continued, Herodias’ daughter Salome danced for the tetrarch and his guests. Enthralled by the dance, Antipas promised to give his step-daughter anything she wanted. According to Mark’s gospel, Herodias prompted Salome to ask for John’s head on a platter. This illustrates another act of caprice that lead to John’s execution. She could have asked for anything, including wealth for herself, generosity toward the common people, or leniency for her enemies. Instead, her impulse for revenge led to John’s state-sanctioned killing.
After Salome demanded John’s severed head, Antipas had another choice. As the one with authority to order the execution, the tetrarch could have denied Salome’s request. Yet apparently prompted by fear of losing face before his dinner guests, Antipas consented to the young woman’s wish. He ordered the immediate beheading of John. The Baptist’s execution could have been prevented, or at least stayed, at several stages. Nevertheless, John suffered the death penalty due to the fickle choices of several actors who cared little for justice.
Capital punishment cannot be carried out without bias. Codified legal systems may reduce the erratic decisions of absolute monarchs, but they do not ensure fair sentences. Fewer than sixty countries still retain the death penalty for criminal cases, and most executions are carried out in China, Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United States. Within the U.S., 31 states and the federal government permit the death penalty. Lethal injection is the primary form of capital punishment in the U.S., but secondary methods include electrocution, lethal gas, hanging, and firing squad.
I suppose it’s typical to assume capital punishment is reserved for the most violent menaces to society following a deliberative process of jurisprudence. However, statistics suggest the death penalty is carried out today as arbitrarily as it was for John. According to Amnesty International, most death row inmates in the U.S. had public defenders who lacked significant experience in capital cases, and 140 people were released from death row due to wrongful convictions between 1973-2012. In all executions in the U.S. since 1976, the victim in the underlying crime was white over 75% of the time. A geographical bias exists too. From 1977-2013, nearly 82% of all U.S. executions took place in the south.
Like the Baptist’s case, government officials such as judges and governors have the power of life and death over prisoners. After little more than a routine review, they may choose to allow the execution of the capital sentence due to political concerns. Governors may wish to seem tough on crime, but they may have more random reasons. In early 2017, the State of Arkansas planned on executing eight prisoners in eleven days. Four prisoners received reprieves, but the other four executions were carried out. The four who were deemed unworthy to live needed to be killed quickly because according to reports the lethal injection drugs needed to be administered before they expired. That is an extraordinarily arbitrary reason for taking human life—perhaps even more so than in John’s case.
John’s beheading is not just a 2,000 year old martyrdom tale. Moral, political, and personal elements combined to end John’s life. There were several people along the way who could have prevented his execution by making different choices. John’s blood cries out to us to look carefully at our practice of capital punishment. Capital punishment is often carried capriciously whether it is due to inadequate legal representation, racial bias, or soon-to-expire drugs. We have the ability to make decisions that lead to life.
Kevin Beck lives with his family in Colorado Springs where he teaches school.