Friday, September 30, 2011

Guest Blogger Michael P. O'Connor on the Executions of Brewer & Davis

Russell Brewer & Troy Davis: Should Your Christian Conscience be More Troubled by the Execution of the Guilty than of the Innocent?
By Michael P. O’Connor

On Wednesday, September 21, 2011 two men were executed.  One was put to death by the State of Texas and another was put to death in Georgia.  Both had been convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death, but there are not many other similarities to the cases. 

Texas executed Lawrence Russell Brewer, a purported white supremacist, for the grisly hate crime murder of James Byrd, Jr.  Despite the ghastly nature of this crime and the highly publicized trial that followed, the Texas execution generated relatively little publicity and was carried out with minimal protest.  Georgia, on the other hand, executed the celebrated Troy Davis, believed by many around the world to be an innocent man unjustly condemned to die.  His case generated tremendous publicity and his execution was met with vociferous and sustained protest. 

Unlike Davis, few doubt Brewer’s guilt and fewer still found in him a compelling enough figure worth expending energy to save.  (To their everlasting credit, members of his victim’s immediate family were among those few to advocate for the life of Russell Brewer.)  As a lawyer who has worked on many capital cases throughout our country, it did not surprise me at the “sympathy gap” that existed among the general public concerning these two condemned men.  As a Catholic, however, I found myself unable to sleep the night after these executions pondering why a nation that largely claims to adhere to Christian teaching could so readily accept our role in the death of a man who we believe committed a heinous crime. 

Should not our beliefs caution us to be more fearful of taking the life of a guilty man – one who we have reason to believe may not be in a state of grace? 

First, scripture is clear that human beings are inherently poor judges of God’s favor and whether our fellow beings are currently in a state of grace or deserving of everlasting reward.  Luke 14:24 (“For I tell you, none of those men who were invited shall taste my dinner.”); Matthew 20:16 (“The last shall be first and the first shall be last.”)  Jesus warned against judging ourselves as righteous and viewing others as contemptible sinners.  Luke 18:9-14 (the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector).   This extends to those guilty ones society condemns to death.  Luke 23:39-43 (“Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in paradise.”)  So, we must be cautious not to assume that one of the men executed two nights ago was more likely to be in a state of grace and worthy of salvation than the other.  As fallible mortals, this is something we can never know.

We who believe that scripture contains truth, however, can derive certain important
lessons from these texts.  First, Christ came to redeem sinners. It is not those who are well who need a physician, but those who are sick.  I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” Luke 5:31-2.   In telling the parable of the lost sheep, Jesus reminded us how heaven views the salvation of one sinner: “I tell you that in the same way, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”  Luke 15:7.  

Consider these principles in light of the prevailing opinions concerning Russell Brewer and Troy Davis.  Brewer was convicted of one of the most heinous crimes in recent U.S. history.  There is little doubt about his involvement in this crime.  While we could not know whether Brewer had repented and made his peace with God, we can state with some degree of certainty that whoever dragged James Byrd to his death had sinned greatly and was in need of repentance.   If Brewer had not yet come to terms with the nature of his deed and sought forgiveness for his acts, his death at our hands frustrated the very purpose for which Jesus came.  If our intervention in the form of putting this man to death prevented him from repenting, we have deprived heaven of a greater joy than would be received by ninety-nine persons living righteous lives and dying in the good graces of God.

Therefore, the execution of an innocent man (as we suppose Troy Davis to be), while unacceptably cruel and heaping worthy scorn upon our criminal justice system, should be recognized as less troubling theologically and spiritually than is the execution of the guilty.  Troy Davis, like the criminal condemned at Jesus’ side, may already “be with [Jesus] in paradise.”  Luke 23:43.  While we cannot know if this is true of Mr. Brewer, as Christians, shouldn’t we be most concerned about executing the guilty with the inherent risk that we will frustrate Jesus’ central purpose in the salvation of lost souls?

September 23, 2011

Monday, September 26, 2011

Guest Blogger Submissions

In my predecessor blog, I posted the essays of several different guest bloggers.  It is wonderful to read and share the perspective of other people on related themes and topics.  It makes this blog a richer experience for everyone.
To that end, I wanted to offer that if any reader is interested in having his or her essay posted on this blog, please send me an e-mail with an explanation of your proposed topic.  Please e-mail me at:
There is no political or theological litmus test.  Conservatives, progressives, moderates are all welcome. 
Moreover, although the focus of this blog is the impact of Christianity on our laws and government, I would not limit the offer to only Christians.  I think it would be enlightening for myself and for readers of the blog to hear from non-Christians.  To that end, Muslims, Wiccans, Buddhists, Agnostics, Hindus, Sikhs, Atheists and others are all welcome. 
I am an American and was raised in multicultural communities such that I have a great respect and interest in other perspectives.  We often grow most when we are challenged to look at events or beliefs through the lens of people with a different approach or different life experiences.

Job 34:16
If you have understanding, hear this; listen to what I say.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Blog Host Biography

As a lawyer, one thing I have come to appreciate is that every human being is shaped by his or her culture and life experiences.  No matter how we might attempt to be independent and objective in our thinking, those forces shape our perspectives and our opinions.  This realization leads me to always try to discern the cultural influences and life experiences that may have shaped others’ views.  Thus, if I were reading this blog, I would want to know a bit more about the author.  In that spirit, I share the following brief autobiographical sketch of myself.
On my first blog, I went into more detail about my professional and faith journeys.  There is no need to be redundant of what I’ve already written elsewhere.  But for those who have not read that first blog and have no inclination to go searching, the following information should be helpful in understanding the forces that shape my perspectives and opinions.
I am a native Texan, but grew up predominantly in the D.C. area.  I am a product of public schools at all levels of my education.  I earned three degrees from state sponsored schools in Texas. 
My husband and I both come from families of modest means.  Most of my relatives have been grade school teachers.  My husband and I were the first in our families to work in the corporate world.
However, I actually began my career as an idealistic grade school teacher in impoverished neighborhoods in Texas.  I predominantly taught Mexican American students, many of whom had recently migrated from Northern Mexican sin papeles.  Eventually I went to law school.  I ended up practicing corporate tax law, which was a specialty I knew nothing about until my 2L year.  I left practice a few years ago to teach at a law school where one of the mission pillars is serving the underserved.  That mission pillar particularly resonated with me.
Most in my family are Christians.  Specifically, most are Protestant.  I myself did not feel particularly at home in such churches growing up.  Indeed, in my teen years, I considered myself an atheist and arrogantly believed religion was for simple-minded people.  When I went to church, I was distracted by what I observed to be a heavy emphasis on judgmental attitudes, a misguided preoccupation on one’s formal church-going attire, and a general hypocrisy in many respects.
Nonetheless, I’ve always tried to be an open-minded person.  In college, I had a good friend with spiky bleached hair and a love for punk music.  She was also a Christian.  But I liked her enough to see past that strange quirk.  Eventually, she bought me a copy of Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis and challenged me to read it.  I did.  It has been so long now, I don’t remember the details anymore.  But somewhere in reading that book I no longer considered myself an atheist.  Soon after, I bought myself a Bible and began reading.  Eventually I felt a strong sense of truth in the teachings of Jesus.  Something resonated so deeply about his teaching that I came to believe he must have been the Messiah and the Son of God.  It did not happen at one specific point in time. But at some point I became to realize I was indeed a Christian.  That faith evolved to become a central part of my life.
I tried out several Protestant churches while still in college, but on a fluke ended up going to mass regularly with a Catholic friend of mine.  I felt a real affinity for the form of worship and the church’s identification with the poor and vulnerable.  It was rather a shock to me (as well as my family and friends) when I decided to become baptized in the Catholic Church.  With my Protestant upbringing, I had frankly though Catholics were wackos and the Roman Catholic Church was akin to a cult.  Thank goodness I had had an open-mind and was willing to be proven wrong.
Eventually, I met my husband (a cradle Catholic) at church in college.  Years later, we married in the Catholic Church and were active parishioners for many years.  However, when we became parents, to our surprise, we no longer felt Catholicism was a good fit.  For a while, we just stopped going to church.  That was huge for us.  It was the only time in our adult life when we weren’t regular church-goers.  We didn’t like that.  We felt a bit like we were being unfaithful to God.  It was important that we try to put God first in our lives, and that didn’t seem to be happening if we couldn’t even make it to his house once a week.
We explored several non-denominational churches after that lapse.  Coming from a Catholic perspective, such non-denominational churches were a bit of a jolt to the system initially!  My husband and I joke now about that being our period of “wandering in the desert.”  (For non-Jews and non-Christians, who may not realize, this reference is a bit of biblical humor; after the exodus from Egypt, the Hebrews spent forty years wandering in the desert before entering the Promised Land.)  In actuality, our time “wandering in the desert” was a time of tremendous spiritual growth for our whole family.  There are some excellent non-denominational churches, and we were regular attenders at several during those years.  But we were truly “wandering” in a certain sense.  We never felt called to formally join any of those churches, though we were very active in several of their ministries. 
Eventually, several years ago, our family settled down and began to put down roots in a local Episcopal church near where we live.  We love our church, and don’t feel like we are going anywhere any time soon.  The pastor and deacon are terrific.  There are a lot of wonderful ministries.  The church community is lovely.  In sum, we feel like we can be our true selves to learn and grow in our faith.

Luke 11:33-36
“No one lights a lamp and puts it in a place where it will be hidden, or under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, so that those who come in may see the light. Your eye is the lamp of your body. When your eyes are healthy, your whole body also is full of light. But when they are unhealthy, your body also is full of darkness. See to it, then, that the light within you is not darkness. Therefore, if your whole body is full of light, and no part of it dark, it will be just as full of light as when a lamp shines its light on you.”

Monday, September 19, 2011

Christianity Law Blog 2.0

Some readers have found this blog because they read my first one: “Progressive Christianity & the Law.”  As I explained when I founded that blog, I really struggled with an appropriate name for it.  I considered a variety of possibilities.  Ultimately, I used the modifying term “Progressive” because in many segments of our society the term “Christian” has become synonymous with just one subgroup within Christianity: politically active fundamentalists. 
In incorporating the term “Progressive” in my first blog’s title, I was attempting to distinguish myself from that particular subgroup.  However, I never felt completely at peace with the title.  I actually do not believe Christianity is “progressive” or “conservative.”  Moreover, whether applied to religion or politics, I think those labels are often superficial and overly simplistic.  In that sense, they are often misleading.
The longer I wrote under the banner of “Progressive Christianity,” the more concerned I became about potential misunderstanding of my perspective.  While it is true that I’ve been disappointed with many positions embraced and actions taken by the so-called “Christian Right,” I do not believe the antidote is the emergence of a Christian Left.  My Savior was not a politician.  While on this Earth in human form, Jesus of Nazareth specifically eschewed secular leadership roles.  That was not why he lived among us. Earthly power was not of interest. 
I believe Jesus came here for a greater purpose with much longer lasting implications.  He taught through his words and his actions about the nature of God the Father.  He also taught how to make the Kingdom of God a reality now. 
His teachings have had a profound impact on my life.  That influence does not stop at the boundaries of the church building where I worship on weekends.   Like other Christians, I try to incorporate Jesus’s teachings in all aspects of my life.  I certainly fall short of that aspiration on a regular basis.  But being a Christian is not about being perfect.  Even canonized saints were “no saints.”  Being a Christian is about loving God, trying to emulate him, but knowing you are forgiven when you fall short.  Another tenet of Christianity is the recognition that everyone falls short.  Indeed, grace is a central tenet of Christian theology.
Although most Christ followers try hard to incorporate their faith into all aspects of their lives in a holistic manner, we often have very different understandings of how to do that.  Many non-Christians (and even some Christians) incorrectly believe Christianity is composed of homogenous believers who are uniformly skeptical of science, are rabidly homophobic, and believe abortion should be re-criminalized.   I don’t subscribe to those specific beliefs, so initially when I founded my first blog I felt the need to clarify.  To do that, I chose to insert the term “progressive” in my blog title. 
In the last few years, as I have studied and pondered the subject more, I have come to a fuller appreciation of the diversity of Christian beliefs and no longer feel the need for the “progressive” modifier.  In fact, I came to feel somewhat indignant at having ever sensed the need for the modifier in the first place.  Using it could be viewed as acquiescence to the stereotype of Christians as politically active fundamentalists.  In insisting on using a “progressive” modifier I might have been inadvertently signaling that progressive Christians were somehow different or even lesser than other Christians.  That was never my intent.  For that reason, I eventually felt compelled to drop the “progressive” modifier and start anew with a different title. 
The simpler title of this blog is aimed at recognizing the diversity of belief within the broad umbrella of modern Christianity.  Simultaneously, it is an attempt to break down meaningless divisions within the Body of Christ.  Though I may not agree with people like Pat Robertson, Janet Parshall, Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry on political matters (or perhaps even on theological ones at times), I certainly recognize them as my brothers and sisters in Christ.  Consequently, I would not aim to vilify them, but would instead look for common ground.  I may sometimes disagree with their understanding of how the Gospel should be applied in our modern world.  Nonetheless, I try to maintain a Christian humility to recognize that I don’t have all the answers and I’m not always correct.  While he walked this Earth, Jesus reached out to all kinds of people who were vilified and rejected in his society.  That is an important model that I believe we’re obliged to try to emulate.

Luke 11:4
Forgive us our sins,
for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.
And lead us not into temptation.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Welcome to the Blog!

We lead hectic lives and have countless demands on our time, so I appreciate that you have taken time out of your day to visit this blog.  Thank you.  I hope you will find the time spent here worthwhile.  Specifically, I aspire that you would be challenged, encouraged and even perhaps enlightened by what you read in this space.
I am a law professor.  I am also a person of faith.  Specifically, I am a Christian.  Like most adults, the majority of my waking hours are spent doing work for my job.  And as a Christian, my beliefs influence my perspective and my opinions on a variety of worldly issues.  In this blog, I will be exploring the interaction of these two important aspects of my life.  I will be writing on topics related to the influence of Christianity (and Christians) on our American system of government and our secular laws.
As a lawyer and an academic, I anticipate that my writing will be primarily of interest to lawyers, law students, and others in academia.  However, because the intersection of faith and secular government impacts a much broader segment of the population, I welcome readers who have no direct involvement in the legal profession.  Whatever brought you to this site, I welcome you and encourage you to post comments.

Romans 12:3

Contribute to the needs of God’s people, and welcome strangers into your home.