You’re probably already familiar with Dylann Roof, the young white supremacist who murdered nine African Americans while they prayed in the Mother Emanuel church in Charleston, South Carolina. Those victims, now known as the “Charleston Nine,” actually spent an hour talking to Mr. Roof about the Bible and their beliefs before he pulled out a handgun and shot them.

How do we know that? Three people survived the attack and identified Dylann Roof as the assailant; and then he voluntarily confessed to the crimes, he said, because he wanted to “start a race war.” Roof admitted that he had been planning the attack for six months, and had chosen the Mother Emanuel AME church because of its prominent role in the anti-slavery and Underground Railroad movement in the Civil War-era American South. He also told the FBI that he almost didn’t go through with the attack because members of the Bible study group “were so nice to me.”

As I write this essay, Roof is on trial for his life in federal court in South Carolina. He faces 33 felony charges, including 24 hate crime allegations. Eighteen of those charges carry the death penalty.

So the question before us today, as a nation and as a global community, is whether we should execute Dylann Roof. What do you think?

Many believe he should be executed. His self-admitted crimes went so far beyond the bounds of acceptable human conduct that they have outraged the entire world. To walk into a peaceful house of worship, be welcomed into a Bible study group and treated kindly, and then to kill multiple people in cold blood and without any provocation—those heinous, racist crimes, many people argue, are exactly what the death penalty should be used for. South Carolina’s governor, Nikki Haley, has called for the death penalty for Roof. The federal prosecutors have asked for capital punishment. State prosecutors have done the same. People from all over the globe have written to state and federal officials, demanding the Roof be put to death. One pundit said “if we don’t execute Dylann Roof, we might as well abolish the death penalty altogether.” Another wrote “Dylann Roof is the poster child for capital punishment. If we don’t execute him, there is no justice.”

But not everyone feels that way.

Shockingly, survivors of the church shooting and relatives of five of the victims spoke to Roof directly at his arraignment hearing, and publicly and tearfully forgave him for killing their family members.

People mourn outside Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina,

People mourn outside Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina,

Their spirit of forgiveness stunned many people, but soon spread to other religious groups and congregations. Investigations into Roof’s background and childhood revealed a broken home, an abusive father, a history of mental problems such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), a chronic pattern of drug abuse and longtime exposure to violent video games and toxic white supremacist websites.

Then, just as Root’s federal trial got underway, another surprise occurred. The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund—started by the first African American Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall—announced their official opposition to capital punishment for Roof.

“Such a sentence,” one of the NAACP’s attorneys, Christina Swarns, wrote in an editorial in the New York Times, “would have the perverse effect of justifying the routine, racially discriminatory imposition of the death penalty on black people.” She said:

In opposing the death penalty for Mr. Roof, the Legal Defense Fund does not speak for the survivors or the families of the victims; we grieve with and for the Mother Emanuel and Charleston communities. We recognize that there is a broad spectrum of emotions and positions on this volatile issue, and that the voices for justice that have emerged in the wake of these murders stand on their own and deserve our compassion and respect. We at the Legal Defense Fund can speak only for ourselves, based on our organization’s 75 years of experience with grieving families and communities, with victims and defendants and our quest for racial justice. – The New York Times, November 7, 2016.

This level of forgiveness, and the policy implications that go with it, challenge everyone to think deeply about Roof’s punishment for his hate crimes. Should we return hatred and killing with killing? Should we end Roof’s young life; or should we sentence him to a long lifetime in prison without the possibility of parole? Which punishment will deter other racist killers; and which penalty will best protect the innocent from future harm? Which one will do the most good for our society?

The Baha’i teachings allow us to consider both penalties as possibilities—and also allow us, as a society, to take changing social and spiritual conditions into account:

Human conditions and exigencies are such that even the question of capital punishment—the one penalty which most nations have continued to enforce for murder—is now under discussion by wise men who are debating its advisability. In fact, laws for the ordinary conditions of life are only valid temporarily. The exigencies of the time of Moses justified cutting off a man’s hand for theft, but such a penalty is not allowable now. Time changes conditions, and laws change to suit conditions. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 366.

So in answer to our BahaiTeachings.org reader who initially helped spark this series of essays, and who said ““How do Baha’i followers justify the death penalty? It is a huge sticking point with your practice;” the Baha’i Faith does not unilaterally advocate capital punishment.

Instead, its laws leave the choice open to the wisdom of society itself, and ultimately to the conditions and the conscience of the culture.

The opinions and views expressed in this article are those of the author only and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of BahaiTeachings.org or any institution of the Baha’i Faith.

21 Comments

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  • Arthur Dammarell
    Dec 23, 2016
    Arthur Dammarell
    "As to the question regarding the soul of a murderer, and what his punishment would be, the answer given was that the murderer must expiate his crime: that is, if they put the murderer to death, his death is his atonement for his crime, and following the death, God in His justice will impose no second penalty upon him, for divine justice would not allow this." per, 'Abdu'l-Baha'
  • Dec 11, 2016
    A very interesting and clearly laid out issue. As a "Baha'i follower" I justify nor condemn capitol punishment. Relevant principles will inform decision-makers views, consciousness, etc. Given the present social climate in the UnitedStates I wonder -- if the shooter was African American or Native American and had killed members of a European descent congregations would expressions of compassion, forgiveness, etc, be commensurate with those expressed by various groups (religious or otherwise) be the same or different from those reported? In my view the problem lies in the consciousness, ethical, spiritual and intellectual of all residents of the United States.
  • Michele de Valk
    Dec 10, 2016
    I would like to add that I do not believe capital punishment should be considered as a punishment for this crime, but that we need to address the cause of these crimes that result in horrible hateful acts, so perhaps putting money into assisting those who need the help before they commit the crimes would be the answer - mental health assistance, drug and alcohol addiction services, family and spiritual counseling for those who are in need of those services. Kindness and love prevent and deter more evil, horrible actions than acts of violence. that is what ...I believe, and have come to this assesment with the assistance of my faith in Bah'a'ullah
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  • Steve Eaton
    Dec 10, 2016
    My comment about where punishment should occur, in this
    world or the next, was only a personal view without reference to
    the Baha'i scriptures. However, Fyodor Dostoevsky said a society
    can be judged by how it treats its
    criminals. I believe any government
    in which execution acts as a proxy
    conduit for people's revenge is in
    spiritual darkness. A Baha'i quotation in article #4 says punishment is to "dissuade and
    deter" for society's protection.
  • I thought the writings said if we execute, God doesn't punish that soul twice, but if we give life imprisonment, God will deal with the punishment in the next world. Id rather leave it to God, plus the death penalty is incredibly expensive die to constant appeals.
  • Csaba Kerekes
    Dec 08, 2016
    We do not and cannot know the exact nature of reward and punishment in the next world. We know that God's Mercy surpasses His Justice in relation to punishing His creatures for their sins. But it is illogical to think that it completely nullifies His punishment in the next world. It is far better for Mr. Roof to be punished here on earth by capital punishment, and being pardoned in the next world (God will not punish anyone twice for the same crime), then being treated lightly here (e.g. rehabilitation attempts instead of execution) and being punished in the next ...world.
    Read more...
    • Steve Eaton
      Dec 09, 2016
      Does it make a difference
      in which realm the punishment occurs, where
      the Divine "balance sheet"
      of good and evil deeds by
      a soul is reckoned? I personally feel not, and
      therefore prefer human
      leniency in this world to
      the possibility of authorities
      making a mistake (as long
      as society is safe)!
    • Claudia Phillips
      Dec 08, 2016
      You make an excellent point about God meting out the ultimate punishment or mercy. When I look at Dylan Roof I see a poor misguided lost boy. But when I think about what he did I feel that we must have justice for the victims. The family members who have forgiven Dylan Roof are very strong and moral people. I admire them. But society must be protected from men like Mr. Roof. This is indeed a very difficult subject.
    • Csaba Kerekes
      Dec 08, 2016
      Society has the right to protect itself, it's members from the atacks of those who for whatever reason chose to descend to subhuman levels of cruelty, by removing them either via life inprisonment or execution (it is not an act of vengance, it is an obligation). So it seems to me that it is better for both Mr. Roof and society as a whole.
  • Dec 08, 2016
    My suggestion to commute death penalty in to community service with a time frame.Thank you Allah'u'Abha!
  • Robert Sinclair
    Dec 08, 2016
    Those who kill should be killed the decision is left up to humanity but clearly the writings state that it is folly to house and feed those people who kill and then let them go to do it again. Whilst it might be a noble thing to forgive only God can forgive. The other thing is these people are following a belief which has been made obsolete along with all the others. Age of maturity has come. Send him and anyone else over to Baha'u'llah and let him deal with them aint got time for this nonsense.
  • Max Mahabat
    Dec 07, 2016
    We are presently living under the current laws - so be it. When the Baha'i Era comes about, then things will change for the better and true justice will prevail.
  • Steve Eaton
    Dec 07, 2016
    I do not know the deterrent effect
    of execution compared to a life
    sentence, or if the experts know
    beyond question. That would be
    about the only benefit I can imagine,
    and maybe still would be outweighed by other things. Even in Mr. Roof's
    case, how would killing him make
    us better people? Wouldn't it be
    more constructive to address "motive" by spiritual or ethical
    education and mental health awareness, and "method"/ "opportunity" by gun control, etc.?