I believe it quite easy to assert that in the modern nation-state’s quest to justify its existence, its power lies in the ability (or more to the point, a narrative claiming) to ensure safety and curb alternative forms of violence. The state, however, achieves control by subjecting all violence under its rule (I avoid the use of the term law here because it could to easily be read without the background of “the state of exception”). The state claims rigorous and jealous control over violence. In economics, we call this a monopoly. This monopoly on violence extends beyond simply war making or policing (if you must see a grand difference between the two). It is about determining who lives and who dies.
However, this command over life and (finding an enemy in) death is divine work. In the creator/created distinction, it is the creator that calls life into flourishing and has/will defeat death. The assertion that the state has the ability to banish someone into death is to claim a position above life and death, but to use death to maintain such privilege. This is a theological claim all too reminiscent of the Roman Imperial cult:
Roman power was inescapably religious: the state gods of Rome gave victory to the armies of Rome. So to witness to the kingdom of god as far as the edges of the earth, as Jesus commissioned his apostles to do, was to expose Rome’s aspiration to limitless dominion as blasphemous.
Richard Bauckham, Bible and Mission: Christian Witness in a Postmodern World, 107.
Like the Roman Empire, the modern nation-state makes a theological claim; an idolatrous claim by the modern nation-state — command over who lives and who dies — makes a claim of possessing the position of divine oversight while foregoing the content of the imperial cult. Here William Cavanaugh’s essay on the empty shrine comes to mind.
So what does this have to do with the death penalty? Quite simply, the state does not have the sovereignty, and therefore the authority, to execute people. Its self-asserted theological claim is questionable at best: it uses violence to wield power over others that it has marginalized. The divine work, however, maintains power in a different way: kenotic and cruciform. True divine work does not use death to maintain power over people, rather, the opposite is the case: divine work confronts death for the flourishing of life. The True theological work recognizes the christological form in a seeming precarious position and against death, rather than fall prey to the idolatrous simulacrum of authority and sovereignty ensuring safety and strength.