Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Americans’ Attitudes Towards Christianity and the Death Penalty

Apropos of Michael O’Connor’s thought-provoking essay on the executions of Russell Brewer and Troy Davis, I wanted to offer a few more generalized observations on the death penalty from a Christian perspective.
Not long ago, I attended a dinner of several lawyers and the topic of capital punishment was discussed at length.  One of the lawyers had spent his career working exclusively on death penalty cases.  It was an interesting evening.  I appreciated hearing different people’s insights on the topic.  They gave me a lot of food for thought.
At one point in the discussion, I shared with my colleagues that I have always been very confused by our country’s attitudes about the death penalty.  Many purport that we are a “Christian nation” and our Christian values are the foundation for our secular laws.  That is a hotly debated view, but even if one accepts it, I do not understand how our support of the death penalty squares with Christian values.  Indeed, I’ve long been perplexed that it is in the region of our country often dubbed the “Bible Belt” where the death penalty is used most extensively.
In my reading of the Bible, Jesus’s overarching message was the value--indeed the absolute preciousness--of each human life.  In his ministry, Jesus went out of his way time and time again to witness to and emphasize God’s love for us his children.  Further, no one was beyond the tremendous love of God.  Not corrupt tax collectors, not Gentiles, not the selfish and lazy Prodigal Son.  Jesus taught that all are equally cherished by their Creator.
To that end, Jesus tried to make us understand that in turn we should share God’s love for his children.  He repeatedly taught us both in word and in deed to love and care for God’s people.  In light of the central message of Christ’s witness and teaching, I do not understand how we Americans could look to Jesus as support for our country’s continued use of the death penalty as a sanction for criminal behavior.   His teachings would seem to dictate a very different approach.
Moreover, in the eighth chapter of the Gospel Book of John, the author describes Jesus’s intervention in a capital case.  A woman was caught in the act of adultery.  The scribes and Pharisees bring her to Jesus.  They challenge him in John 8:5 by saying, “Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou?”   Jesus stooped down and mysteriously wrote with his finger on the ground words that are not recorded.  In doing so, Jesus initially acted as though he did not hear their question.  They continued to ask and finally in John 8:7 Jesus responds, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.”  The Gospel records that the woman’s accusers felt convicted in their hearts such that they walked away and the death penalty was not carried out.  In John 8:10-11, Jesus and the woman are the only ones remaining, and Jesus tells the woman “Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.”  In this passage in the New Testament, Jesus is depicted as having interrupted the execution of a violator of the law, and refusing to carry out the death penalty himself.
Apart from his teachings, Jesus’s own life experiences seem to suggest the use of capital punishment is potentially dangerous and unwise.  Jesus was himself a victim of his society’s brutal use of the death penalty.  And the circumstances of his execution demonstrate the potential abuses of permitting authorities to punish individuals by taking their lives.  Jesus had committed no crime, but the authorities of the day still found pretext to take his life and execute him as a common criminal.  To me, Jesus’s life story warns of the imprudence of capital punishment.   
Incidentally, the lives of the apostles arguably provide a similar warning.  We do not have a lot of information about how Jesus’s apostles died, but many are thought to have died by human hands.  Several of them (e.g., Peter, Bartholomew, James, Phillip) are believed to have been executed by authorities who were hostile to the message they preached.
Perhaps not unlike the experiences of Jesus and some of his apostles with the death penalty, in more modern times, the punishment has been used in countries to suppress the voices of people with ideas considered “dangerous” to those in power.  In recent memory, the Soviet Union, the People’s Republic of China, North Korea, Iran and Iraq have used the death penalty to eliminate political opponents.
In modern times, the death penalty has also been used in various nations disproportionately on minorities within a particular society--inadvertently at times and on purpose at others . 
Finally, we have compelling evidence even in our own country that the death penalty has been used to execute people who were innocent of the crimes for which they condemned.  Sister Helen Prejean’s book The Death of Innocents is but one example of this.  Human systems of justice are not infallible.
At this recent dinner, when I shared my inability to reconcile our nation’s purported Christian values and our widespread popular support of the continued use of the death penalty, one colleague mentioned the biblical teaching of “an eye for an eye” as an explanation.  Interestingly, a non-Christian colleague at the table noted that phrase was from the Old Testament and not a teaching of Jesus himself.  Thus, that Old Testament teaching did not seem to reconcile the apparent conflict between the purported embrace of Christianity and the use of the death penalty.  There were several other Christians at this particular dinner, but no one could explain this apparent contradiction.  We all seemed stumped.  I went home that night feeling somewhat depressed and frankly more perplexed than ever.
When I got home, I looked up Jesus’s teaching on the admonition of an “eye for an eye.”  I’ve pasted it below.  I just do not see how it can be reconciled with the use of the death penalty.  I’m certainly open to others’ opinions, but it seems a fundamental contradiction to me.

Matthew 5:38-48 (New American Standard Bible)
“You have heard that it was said, ‘AN EYE FOR AN EYE, AND A TOOTH FOR A TOOTH.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also.  Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you. You have heard that it was said, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? If you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

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