For Christians, nothing is more central to their theology than the notion of atonement, or the means by which Jesus Christ reconciles human beings to God. Over the course of nearly two millennia, Christian theologians have developed a variety of theories to help understand and describe how and why atonement works.
One theory popular among Reformation theologians and many evangelicals and Mormons today is called the penal substitution theory. In it, sin is the breaking of God’s eternal moral law of justice. Humans deserve death and hell for their sin, according to this theory, but Jesus substitutes himself in the sinner’s place, taking the punishment upon himself so that justice is satisfied and sinners can be saved through his mercy.
Many other theories of the atonement have come and gone over the centuries. For instance, certain nineteenth-century Mormon leaders, while generally subscribing to something like a penal substitution theory, also taught that some sins, such as murder, were so grievous that only the voluntary shedding of the sinner’s own blood could satisfy the demands of justice and thus secure the possibility of salvation. Critics of Mormonism, then and now, have made much of this teaching, which was in fact never the consensus view of the church and, contrary to many colorful assertions, did not inspire a theocratic bloodbath in pioneer Utah.
The LDS Church has made repeated and consistent disavowals of the doctrine of blood atonement, beginning in 1889 and as recently as last year. In June 2010, the church issued a formal statement acknowledging the erstwhile teaching, then unequivocally rejecting it. According to the statement, Mormons “believe in and teach the infinite and all-encompassing atonement of Jesus Christ, which makes forgiveness of sin and salvation possible for all people.”
One does not need to be a Mormon or a Christian to consider blood atonement to be bad theology — and a generally bad idea. Nevertheless, in our American civil religion, which requires no explicit theological commitment but relies instead on a broadly shared set of national values, rituals and symbols, we have promulgated our own secular corollary to blood atonement. We call it capital punishment.
The death penalty is infrequently imposed in modern Utah. And currently there is a bill pending to reinstate the option to carry out executions by means of firing squads. Eight people currently sit on death row; all but two have been there for over 20 years. Because the state rightly takes extra precautions in capital cases, simply charging a crime as capital triggers enormous investments of time and money, including a decades-long and hugely expensive appeals process. In the meantime, those criminals convicted in capital cases are imprisoned just as they would be if they had been given a life sentence. That is, except they are costing taxpayers orders of magnitude more than those simply convicted for life, as the state justly provides every possible means for them to defend themselves from its own insistence that they shed their blood to atone for their sins.
It is time for Utah to renounce its secular doctrine of blood atonement — first by rejecting the firing squad bill, then by joining the 18 other states that have already abolished the death penalty. A diverse coalition of abolitionists motivated by theology, ethics, criminal justice and fiscal responsibility shows that this is not a partisan issue. Taking the life of the sinner, whether through the shedding of blood by firing squad or by some other means, does not bring reconciliation. To suggest otherwise is simply bad atonement theology, whether in the religious or civil sphere.
Patrick Q. Mason is an associate professor of religion at Claremont Graduate University, where he is also the Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies.