Tuesday, October 16, 2007

No One Is Beyond Redemption

This article was first published in Religio: An Undergraduate Journal of Christian Thought at Duke, in April 2007.

The United Methodist Church, of which I am a part, has stood against the death penalty for over 50 years. Many other denominations take a similar stance. American Christians especially must grapple with this issue because the U.S. is one of few developed countries that has retained the death penalty over the years. As the modern world has advanced, the overwhelming trend among industrialized nations has been to abolish the death penalty. Capital punishment is not practiced anywhere in Western Europe; in fact, this is a prerequisite to membership in the European Union. The company that America keeps in its use of capital punishment is less than flattering: other nations with high rates of execution include Iran, Iraq, Sudan, China, and Pakistan, countries whose human rights records are not among their best qualities.

The demographics of those against whom capital punishment is used in America evince a disturbing trend. A huge percentage of convictions are handed down to defendants who could not afford an attorney, and a majority of death row inmates are people of color. In 80% of capital cases, the victim is white, but only half of homicide cases nationwide involve white victims. Amnesty International's website summarizes this in a damning statement: "From initial charging decisions to plea bargaining to jury sentencing, African-Americans are treated more harshly when they are defendants, and their lives are accorded less value when they are victims" (www.amnestyusa.org). The fact that the people who are executed for crimes in this country are those who are already marginalized by society evinces the ease with which one can dehumanize criminals and distance oneself from the humanity of the accused.

Much time and energy has been spent on finding more humane ways of carrying out executions. Regardless of the extent to which certain methods of execution may or may not be "humane," the death penalty is an incontrovertibly violent act. Violence entails doing bodily harm to another person, and I can think of no bodily harm more permanent than death. One does not need the example of Eduard Delacroix's grisly death in the movie The Green Mile, or the real life example of Angel Nieves Diaz, whose 2006 execution in Florida took over half an hour, to recognize the face of violence in the death penalty. The danger that emerges here is one that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. recognized well when he pointed out that "returning violence for violence multiplies violence" (Nobel Speech 1964). Peter Storey, a Methodist bishop in South Africa who helped lead the nation's protest against apartheid, made a similar observation: "If you justify violence for any reason, no matter how good and noble, you legitimize it for every reason, no matter how wrong and unworthy" (With God in the Crucible, Abingdon 2002). Both King and Storey had seen what violence had done to tear their countries to shreds and had heard the good news that with Christ lies the way of peace and reconciliation, a path not taken when recourse to violence, including the death penalty, is taken.

To support capital punishment is to say that some people are beyond redemption. This was not what Jesus declared when he stretched his arms out on the cross in an eternal gesture of welcome and forgiveness. This was not what Paul was telling the early Christians when he said, "while we still were sinners Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8). Jesus was a victim of the death penalty, and he was flanked on each side by criminals being put to death. To the thief who cried, "Jesus, remember me," he responded, "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise" (Luke 23:42-43). Who is this Savior who hangs next to sinners and tells them the gates of heaven are open wide to them, even as they endure state-mandated execution for crimes they willfully committed? This is the Savior we address thus: "Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace" (Book of Common Prayer). Christ's death and resurrection declares loudly that no one is beyond redemption, and the death penalty flies flagrantly in the face of this unconditional, forgiving love.

Capital punishment seeks to establish a system of justice, but it is enslaved to the concept of retributive justice. The famed Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa explains the difference between retributive and restorative justice eloquently in his book No Future Without Forgiveness as exemplified in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission held in post-apartheid South Africa. Archbishop Tutu writes that retributive justice, "whose chief goal is to be punitive...has little consideration for the real victims and almost none for the perpetrator. We contend that there is another kind of justice, restorative justice...the central concern is the healing of breaches, the redressing of imbalances, the restoration of broken relationships, a seeking to rehabilitate both the victim and the perpetrator" (No Future Without Forgiveness, Doubleday 1999). Tutu says that this approach looks at a crime as something personal, "something that has happened to persons and whose consequence is a rupture in relationships." In the legal workings of capital punishment cases, the perpetrator is the accused and the wronged party is the state. In actuality, it is all of us, including the perpetrator, who experience the crime as a tear in the fabric of humanity. The American justice system does not acknowledge this and provides the victims' families—not to mention the perpetrator's loved ones—little space for healing. Our legal system sees only the transgression of laws, not the rending of human hearts.

Christ came not so that everyone might get what they deserve in an "eye for an eye" system of justice. Christ came "that they may all be one" (John 17:21). Christ died and rose again that broken relationships might be healed and that all might be reconciled with God and with one another. To resort to the death penalty is to make permanent the damage done to human relationships in a violent act, first in the initial crime and again in the perpetrator's trial and execution. To say that the death penalty is the only option is to abandon hope that we, the body of Christ, broken and bruised, may one day be made whole. We as Christians need to believe that we are promised more than the suffering we now experience and to recognize that in our ability to forgive and to live in peace with one another lies God's greatest dream for us, his most beautiful creation.

3 comments:

Dakota said...

Hi Sarah,


I must say that I admire your love for human life. We need more pro-life activists like you!

We must remember, though, that God Himself instituted the death penalty. "An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth" is the perfect justice system, even though we should not make this our philosophy for personal relationships.

If something is stolen, the thief must return the goods and pay for the damages.

If you steal gasoline, your driving privileges will be suspended.

If you plot violence against your neighbor, you will go to jail.

In the same way, consistency requires that a murderer pay for his crime with his own life (Exodus 21:12). The Old Testament undeniably permits Capitol Punishment and the New Testament nowhere disallows it. (John 17:21 was Christ's prayer for the church, not the world - see also verse 9)

Sentencing a criminal to death does not place one beyond the reach of grace, or suggest that they have already crossed this boundary. Our government and judicial system is not designed to extend grace to lawbreakers, but to give them the sentencing they deserve. Unfortunately in our wicked day and age this often means Capitol Punishment.


In Christ,
Dakota

Sarah said...

“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 evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

-- Matthew 5:38-42

Dakota said...

Hi Sarah,

It's important to realize that this Scripture is taken from the Sermon on the Mount, preached to regular people as instruction for their personal relationships. Your interpretation (i.e. applying this passage to crime and punishment) requires that our justice system "not resist evildoers", allowing them to smite their neighbor on the cheek without fear of consequence.

Just as Christians today pay tithes because it's commanded in the Old Testament and supported in the New, Capitol punishment was instituted by God and we find no New Testament record of Him ever revoking it.


In Christ,
Dakota

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

No One Is Beyond Redemption

This article was first published in Religio: An Undergraduate Journal of Christian Thought at Duke, in April 2007.

The United Methodist Church, of which I am a part, has stood against the death penalty for over 50 years. Many other denominations take a similar stance. American Christians especially must grapple with this issue because the U.S. is one of few developed countries that has retained the death penalty over the years. As the modern world has advanced, the overwhelming trend among industrialized nations has been to abolish the death penalty. Capital punishment is not practiced anywhere in Western Europe; in fact, this is a prerequisite to membership in the European Union. The company that America keeps in its use of capital punishment is less than flattering: other nations with high rates of execution include Iran, Iraq, Sudan, China, and Pakistan, countries whose human rights records are not among their best qualities.

The demographics of those against whom capital punishment is used in America evince a disturbing trend. A huge percentage of convictions are handed down to defendants who could not afford an attorney, and a majority of death row inmates are people of color. In 80% of capital cases, the victim is white, but only half of homicide cases nationwide involve white victims. Amnesty International's website summarizes this in a damning statement: "From initial charging decisions to plea bargaining to jury sentencing, African-Americans are treated more harshly when they are defendants, and their lives are accorded less value when they are victims" (www.amnestyusa.org). The fact that the people who are executed for crimes in this country are those who are already marginalized by society evinces the ease with which one can dehumanize criminals and distance oneself from the humanity of the accused.

Much time and energy has been spent on finding more humane ways of carrying out executions. Regardless of the extent to which certain methods of execution may or may not be "humane," the death penalty is an incontrovertibly violent act. Violence entails doing bodily harm to another person, and I can think of no bodily harm more permanent than death. One does not need the example of Eduard Delacroix's grisly death in the movie The Green Mile, or the real life example of Angel Nieves Diaz, whose 2006 execution in Florida took over half an hour, to recognize the face of violence in the death penalty. The danger that emerges here is one that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. recognized well when he pointed out that "returning violence for violence multiplies violence" (Nobel Speech 1964). Peter Storey, a Methodist bishop in South Africa who helped lead the nation's protest against apartheid, made a similar observation: "If you justify violence for any reason, no matter how good and noble, you legitimize it for every reason, no matter how wrong and unworthy" (With God in the Crucible, Abingdon 2002). Both King and Storey had seen what violence had done to tear their countries to shreds and had heard the good news that with Christ lies the way of peace and reconciliation, a path not taken when recourse to violence, including the death penalty, is taken.

To support capital punishment is to say that some people are beyond redemption. This was not what Jesus declared when he stretched his arms out on the cross in an eternal gesture of welcome and forgiveness. This was not what Paul was telling the early Christians when he said, "while we still were sinners Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8). Jesus was a victim of the death penalty, and he was flanked on each side by criminals being put to death. To the thief who cried, "Jesus, remember me," he responded, "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise" (Luke 23:42-43). Who is this Savior who hangs next to sinners and tells them the gates of heaven are open wide to them, even as they endure state-mandated execution for crimes they willfully committed? This is the Savior we address thus: "Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace" (Book of Common Prayer). Christ's death and resurrection declares loudly that no one is beyond redemption, and the death penalty flies flagrantly in the face of this unconditional, forgiving love.

Capital punishment seeks to establish a system of justice, but it is enslaved to the concept of retributive justice. The famed Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa explains the difference between retributive and restorative justice eloquently in his book No Future Without Forgiveness as exemplified in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission held in post-apartheid South Africa. Archbishop Tutu writes that retributive justice, "whose chief goal is to be punitive...has little consideration for the real victims and almost none for the perpetrator. We contend that there is another kind of justice, restorative justice...the central concern is the healing of breaches, the redressing of imbalances, the restoration of broken relationships, a seeking to rehabilitate both the victim and the perpetrator" (No Future Without Forgiveness, Doubleday 1999). Tutu says that this approach looks at a crime as something personal, "something that has happened to persons and whose consequence is a rupture in relationships." In the legal workings of capital punishment cases, the perpetrator is the accused and the wronged party is the state. In actuality, it is all of us, including the perpetrator, who experience the crime as a tear in the fabric of humanity. The American justice system does not acknowledge this and provides the victims' families—not to mention the perpetrator's loved ones—little space for healing. Our legal system sees only the transgression of laws, not the rending of human hearts.

Christ came not so that everyone might get what they deserve in an "eye for an eye" system of justice. Christ came "that they may all be one" (John 17:21). Christ died and rose again that broken relationships might be healed and that all might be reconciled with God and with one another. To resort to the death penalty is to make permanent the damage done to human relationships in a violent act, first in the initial crime and again in the perpetrator's trial and execution. To say that the death penalty is the only option is to abandon hope that we, the body of Christ, broken and bruised, may one day be made whole. We as Christians need to believe that we are promised more than the suffering we now experience and to recognize that in our ability to forgive and to live in peace with one another lies God's greatest dream for us, his most beautiful creation.

3 comments:

Dakota said...

Hi Sarah,


I must say that I admire your love for human life. We need more pro-life activists like you!

We must remember, though, that God Himself instituted the death penalty. "An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth" is the perfect justice system, even though we should not make this our philosophy for personal relationships.

If something is stolen, the thief must return the goods and pay for the damages.

If you steal gasoline, your driving privileges will be suspended.

If you plot violence against your neighbor, you will go to jail.

In the same way, consistency requires that a murderer pay for his crime with his own life (Exodus 21:12). The Old Testament undeniably permits Capitol Punishment and the New Testament nowhere disallows it. (John 17:21 was Christ's prayer for the church, not the world - see also verse 9)

Sentencing a criminal to death does not place one beyond the reach of grace, or suggest that they have already crossed this boundary. Our government and judicial system is not designed to extend grace to lawbreakers, but to give them the sentencing they deserve. Unfortunately in our wicked day and age this often means Capitol Punishment.


In Christ,
Dakota

Sarah said...

“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 evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

-- Matthew 5:38-42

Dakota said...

Hi Sarah,

It's important to realize that this Scripture is taken from the Sermon on the Mount, preached to regular people as instruction for their personal relationships. Your interpretation (i.e. applying this passage to crime and punishment) requires that our justice system "not resist evildoers", allowing them to smite their neighbor on the cheek without fear of consequence.

Just as Christians today pay tithes because it's commanded in the Old Testament and supported in the New, Capitol punishment was instituted by God and we find no New Testament record of Him ever revoking it.


In Christ,
Dakota

 

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