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Why evangelicals are applauding California’s governor for halting executions

As evangelicals, we are taught to examine the systems around us and to call out those that are unfair and unjust. The death penalty is exactly that. It is arbitrary, biased and immoral.

A gurney is removed from the death penalty chamber at San Quentin State Prison, on March 13, 2019, in San Quentin, Calif. Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order placing a moratorium on the death penalty. (California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation via AP)

(RNS) — California Gov. Gavin Newsom made history this week when he suspended executions in California, an important and necessary step to address the inequities and failures in a capital punishment system that is utterly broken.

As evangelicals, we are taught to examine the systems around us and to call out those that are unfair and unjust. The death penalty is exactly that. It is arbitrary, biased, and immoral.

In explaining his decision, Newsom cited his concern that there are innocent people on death row in his state. More than 160 people have been exonerated and freed from death row across the country since 1973. That figure is part of what compels us to speak out against the death penalty.

As Christians, we believe that all life is sacred. We know the justice system will never get it right 100 percent of the time, and an imperfect system just isn’t good enough when we’re dealing with life and death. The risk of executing an innocent person is one we should never be willing to take.

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We know the death penalty is applied unfairly, with major racial bias. The race of the victim plays a large role in who receives a death sentence and who is allowed to serve a prison sentence. Someone who murders a white person is much more likely to get the death penalty. As people of faith, we stand on the principles of justice and racial equality. As Galen Carey, vice president for government relations for the National Association of Evangelicals, wrote in a statement after Newsom announced his decision, “Race should never be a factor in determining the severity of punishment imposed.”

California Gov. Gavin Newsom discusses his decision to place a moratorium on the death penalty during a news conference at the Capitol on March 13, 2019, in Sacramento, Calif. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

We also know that the system is undeniably unfair to those who cannot afford to pay for their own legal representation. This too flies in the face of our Christian values. We are called to care for the poor and to advocate for those who most need our help and support, including those sitting on death row who suffer from serious mental illness. We must do better for our most vulnerable brothers and sisters.

But as Christians, we also believe that every person is made in the image of God and that nothing can change that, no matter what choices we make here on earth. His love does not stop for those who commit terrible crimes. He never gives up on anyone. I’ve met people who have turned their lives around by the grace of God — I believe that our God in Heaven delights in these stories.

It was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who said that budgets are moral documents. As followers of Christ, we must look at the moral impacts of the financial cost of the death penalty. Those resources could be spent on services to help the victims of violent crime heal from the trauma that they’ve experienced. We’re losing so much and gaining nothing in return. It’s time to let the death penalty go.

Instead, we need to look for new responses to violence, to address victims’ trauma and advance racial equity in ways that promise healing, safety and restoration for all.

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We know that many evangelical Christians share these principles from the way our organization, the EJUSA Evangelical Network, has grown since its founding in 2011 by Dr. Joel Hunter, retired senior pastor of Northland, a Church Distributed, and Tony Campolo of the Red-Letter Christian movement, both of whom have endorsed Gov. Newsom’s decision. More and more evangelicals are standing with us as our voice grows.

It’s refreshing to see Gov. Newsom face this issue head-on. Because California has approximately one quarter of all the death row inmates in America, the governor’s action will have a profound impact on capital punishment in America. He’s already cast a glaring light on the system’s inequities.

It’s time for Evangelicals to rise up as well. Our Christian faith compels us to act — to stand up for justice and to fight against this system that has failed us all. Human lives are on the line.

(Heather Beaudoin is senior manager of the EJUSA Evangelical Network, which promotes a justice system centered on redemption and healing and helped to launch Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)