Even though she died 25 years ago, I still remember the story of Karla Faye Tucker. In 1998 she made national news by being the first woman executed in the state of Texas since the Civil War. When you saw her in interviews, it was hard to imagine that she could have done the things she did. She was a small, white, 38-year-old woman who led Bible studies while in prison. She spoke in a soft manner, with a huge smile on her face. But she and a male friend had murdered a young man and woman with a pickaxe. When she died, she had been on death row since she was 24 years old.
To say that her childhood was difficult would be a gross understatement. By the time she was 14, her mother had introduced her to a life of prostitution. Drugs and violence were a part of her daily life.
Soon after being convicted of her crimes, she read the Bible for the first time. She claimed to be a convert to Christianity and stated that Jesus had forgiven her. She not only led Bible studies, but also became a model prisoner and a woman the other prisoners would seek out for advice. She even married her Christian prison minister three years before being executed.
As the day of her execution drew near, many people pleaded with the governor of Texas to spare her life. They saw this petite female Bible teacher smiling and talking about Jesus on TV. She spoke of her regret and said she even loved those who would put her to death. She hoped the families of her victims would find it in their hearts to forgive her and that they would find peace in her death.
Many associated with Christianity called out for forgiveness. We were told that we should all forgive Karla. The World Council of Churches led the way. The Pope joined in the chorus. Pat Robertson, a conservative political commentator who was also a minister, said that he had forgiven her and that his millions of listeners to the 700 Club should as well. The brother of the young lady Karla murdered wanted her to be put to death. But then he experienced a “Christian conversion” and said Karla should be forgiven and allowed to live. It was the Christian thing to do.
Part of Karla’s last words were that she loved everybody and that she would soon be face to face with Jesus. This only added to the voices among various Christian groups that said we all should have forgiven Karla, just as Jesus has forgiven us. It is not uncommon to hear the same sort of thing even today. Leaders from various groups in Christendom, as well as self-avowed unbelievers, will often say things such as: “Jesus would have forgiven the people on death row. We should do the same and abolish the death penalty.”
I must admit that I find all of this very strange. First of all, we know that in the OT God demanded the death penalty for certain crimes. Murder was certainly one of those crimes. In the NT, Paul says that God has given governments the authority to kill with the sword (Rom 13:3-7). The idea that Christians should oppose the death penalty and forgive all murderers finds no Biblical support.
But this idea of forgiveness is strange for other reasons as well. Forgiveness, when it involves people, occurs between people who know each other, when one of them has been wronged by the other. It results in restored fellowship between these two people.
How exactly does that work when the person we are called on to forgive is a person we have never met? That person has not wronged us. We never had fellowship with each other, so how can fellowship be restored?
The vast majority of people calling for Karla Tucker to be forgiven were people who had never met her. She had not killed their family member. I sometimes wonder what the families of those victims thought when leaders in Christendom said she needed to be forgiven for her crimes.
Another strange thing about this call for forgiveness in Karla’s case is that forgiveness is equated with the concept of there being no negative consequences for our actions. Even if Karla had wronged me personally, I could forgive her but still desire justice to be done by her being put to death for the crime she committed. Forgiveness and the lack of consequences are not the same thing.
Sometimes we hear Biblical terms used in religious-sounding ways. But we need to step back and ask ourselves if they are being used in a Biblically accurate way. If Karla Faye Tucker believed in Jesus for eternal life, she is certainly with Him and saw Him face to face when she was executed. But that doesn’t mean that in 1998 all Christians should have forgiven her, whatever that means.