Unless you’re not an American or have been living under a rock, you’re probably flush with exposure to pointed discussion about George Zimmerman being found not guilty of second-degree murder or manslaughter in the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin. I have strong and yet also mixed feelings on this matter, and I’ve perused a good portion of others’ perspectives over the past couple days. On the one hand, I cannot argue that the jury exercised a lapse in judgment given the specific charges Zimmerman faced and the relative strength of the prosecution and defense. On the other hand, I cannot say that justice has been served with any definitive sense of closure based on the simple fact that a grown man wielding a handgun whist serving as a volunteer neighborhood watch shot to death a teenager wielding a bag of skittles with no legal repercussion to date–even after that man was instructed by a 911 dispatcher to avoid engaging that teenager in the first place with subsequent state investigation concluding that Zimmerman had racially profiled Martin despite Martin “not being involved in any criminal activity at the time of the encounter.”
To share some personal context, I do not ascribe to the overt, anti-gun camp’s philosophy. And while I earnestly try to embrace a life of peacemaking and non-violence, I cannot ascribe to all out pacifism. If it truly was the case that Martin attacked Zimmerman, then Zimmerman had the right to defend himself. But did Zimmerman provoke Martin first? Did Zimmerman exercise asymmetric force in responding to Martin even if it is true that Martin attacked him? Questions like these remain frustratingly outstanding. At the very least, Zimmerman’s case does bring to light problems with the invoked “stand your ground” legislation that became so critical to his criminal defense. While I don’t pretend to have completely analyzed the ways that race and class played a key, deleterious role in the events that took place in Sanford, Florida on February 26, 2012, I sure am glad that I do not live in a state that will acquit a man like George Zimmerman while finding guilty a woman like Marissa Alexander. In case her name sounds unfamiliar, Alexander is a young, African American woman sentenced to a twenty year prison term for firing warning shots against her allegedly abusive husband, i.e. without actually shooting him. Why a black mother cannot successful cite “stand your ground” legislation in her legal defense after firing warning shots at a fully grown assailant in her own home while a Hispanic, volunteer security guard can successfully cite that same legislation after shooting to death a teenager on the street in the rain is utterly beyond me. I don’t know exactly what is going on here, but it’s not justice.
On that point, while I expected a divergence of opinion about whether justice had been ultimately served in Zimmerman’s trial regardless of my views on the matter, I have been surprised at the complete apathy many people have espoused about the story in general. For a lot of folks, Florida v. Zimmerman was evidently little more than a ponderous cloud of datum clogging their evening news and afternoon twitter feed, a grand distraction hyped to the heights of public opinion by media cashing in on the story–no matter what the actual ramifications of that story might be for America in general or the families of Martin and Zimmerman in particular. Given this, I thought I’d share some reflection communicated by my friend and former Princeton Theological Seminary colleague, Trajan McGill. Since this is some of the best, most concise analysis I’ve seen so far, I’ll let Trajan’s words and a parting note from the biblical book of Amos speak for themselves in conclusion:
So I don’t think the jury here had much choice. It isn’t about whether they think he’s almost certainly guilty. If it is possible to hold a reasonable doubt, then they have to go with not guilty. And if you think our court system is unfair toward blacks today, just imagine where it would be if you started lowering the standard of proof below “beyond a reasonable doubt” down to “we think he did it.” But here’s the thing: if you are feeling actually celebratory about this outcome, you need to just be quiet and meditate on that for a while. Because what is proven beyond a reasonable doubt is that some damn fool with a wannabe hero complex, carrying a holster full of bullets and prejudice decided some black kid walking to his dad’s house was not only automatically worth calling 911 about, but needed to be followed and harassed. He then created a totally unnecessary confrontation that resulted in the death of a teenager. That much is proven even if George Zimmerman’s version of the story is true. So don’t call him a hero, and don’t call this justice. This is, at best, a case where there is no way to carry out actual justice but where nevertheless somebody out of his own idiocy triggered a tragedy that cost a life.
Another thing that I think needs to be said here: there is a certain kind of man who becomes a bigger man when he’s carrying a gun. That kind of man should never carry a gun. If being armed affects the size of your sense of self and the degree of confidence you have in your manhood…if you walk differently when you have a gun on you–and I mean more self-assuredly rather than more carefully…if it makes you more likely to casually walk right into a confrontation rather than more cautious about bringing something that can kill into the midst of a situation…if you are a bigger man when you are carrying a gun, then you need to put it away and lock it up, go take some time and find yourself, and wait until you’ve grown into a full man in your own right. Only once it doesn’t change who you are to hold a tool like that will you be ready to do so.
“This is what the Lord says to Israel: ‘Seek me and live…There are those who turn justice into bitterness and cast righteousness to the ground… Hate evil, love good; maintain justice in the courts… Let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!'” ~ Amos 5:4, 7, 15, 24.
While sharing discussion on various online media about the recent news of Exodus International’s closure, I was asked to share my “stance on same-sex marriage.” I’m actually in the middle of a longer-form writing project focused on this; however, I figured that I might as well share the gist of my thoughts on the matter here in the mean time.
So, I’ve compiled my contributions to today’s discussion to respond still somewhat on-the-fly about my approach to the topic of same-sex marriage. This is partly observational with some forecasting as well as partly prescriptive with an explicit focus on conditions in America and an attempt to root my response in a close reading of scripture. Here are a few of the main points in the observation and forecasting category:
- Same-sex marriage will be legalized across America.
- Most Americans regardless of faith background tacitly accept a naive distinction between politics, sociology, and ethics that critically complicates how we make decisions about marriage since that state of affairs possesses a public, community-located, and private dimension to its existence.
- American Christians are ill-equipped to make good, assertive decisions about the rise of political, sociological, and ethical support for same-sex marriage in the broader culture due to the above taken together with the fact that American Christians possess a weak sexual ethic in general–this is true for both conservative / evangelical as well as progressive / liberal Christians as thoroughly evidenced by the statistical insignificance of faith background on sexual activity.
- In an attempt to prevent the acceptance of same-sex marriage in the broader culture, American evangelical Christians have made an ineffective decision to focus on the political and sociological arenas of activity rather than strengthen their sexual ethic and work outwards by way of influencing individual people. This is failing as everyone in the broader culture–including heterosexually oriented Christians–are adopting an ethic that is progressively less robustly informed by scripture.
- Even if American evangelical Christians succeeded against all odds to prevent the political acceptance of same-sex marriage, this would not affect people in a substantial way with regard to their behavior; both same-sex and opposite-sex attracted people will continue to behave in conflict with the sexual ethic that American evangelical Christians have espoused regardless of the political climate due to the entrenched, social acceptance of a sexual ethic based on things like freedom of personal choice, consent, and so forth with virtually no reference to scripture as a source of substantive, ethical information.
Here are some prescriptions based on the above. For the sake of being concise, I’ve included myself in the use of the term “evangelical Christians,” although I have some reservations about this phrase given its loaded connotations. When I’m not as concerned about being so concise, I often describe myself as a Jewish follower of Jesus with an orthodox, constructive framework. Right then:
- American Christians should abandon the attempt to prevent same-sex acceptance through political and sociological means, refocusing their efforts on developing a more robust sexual ethic that is actually compellingly for everyone regardless of what the political or sociological climate may be. Christians have done this in the past and can do it again; when we don’t do this, we functionally illustrate our lack of belief in the power of the gospel.
- American Christians should recognize the difference between marriage as a state of affairs created, defined, and protected by a given nation-state versus marriage as a state of affairs created, defined, and protected by the God of scripture; we already do this to a certain extent by expecting people who want to get married to both a) get a marriage license from the nation-state to effect a political union and b) partake in a wedding ceremony with the church as God’s agent for effecting a spiritual union.
- American evangelical Christians like myself should advocate for sexual activity limited to chastity in singleness or else heterosexual marriage from an ethical perspective regardless of the political or sociological climate.
- Evangelical Christians in representative democracies like me should advocate for what is in the best interest of the nation-state from a political perspective; based on all the data I’ve analyzed up to this point, this concretely means either a) advocating for the legalization of same-sex marriage, b) advocating for identical rights for civil unions that are equally open to same-sex couples as opposite-sex couples, c) advocating for the dissolution of all legally conferred benefits for anyone that the nation-state recognizes as being married while giving up those benefits in the mean time, e.g. through financial support to the same-sex community.
- American evangelical Christians like me should basically ignore a direct attempt to accomplish sociological change in the broader culture through any route other than the persuasive expansion of our own sexual ethic provided that we succeed in fixing it; of course, this will likely be a recursive process since people change over time and effectively communicating the gospel requires fresh articulation and demonstration with those changes.
- Evangelical Christians like me should deal squarely with the litany of hurt suffered by the same-sex attracted community specifically by Christians and take protracted, embracing, patient, humble, and courageous action to repair that damage indefinitely into the future with real people.
This past Wednesday, an acquaintance of mine pursuing a Manhattan-based career in choreography posted a facebook status update link to Rick Perry’s now infamous clunker of a YouTube campaign clip, “Strong.” The link was preceded by my friend’s expression of total exasperation, a couple disjointed words trailing off in an ellipses indicating that unique variety of dumbstruck, cognitive dissonance that the Jackie Chan meme adjacent to this paragraph can alone properly express. And while I had not been very interested in Perry’s candidacy up to that point, I valued the opinion of my pal in New York enough to view that clip.
I should mention that I had just concluded a modestly pointed yet vastly rewarding discussion with about a half a dozen folks from the church I am privileged to serve on the topic of Jesus’s prophetic role as depicted in biblical texts like Hebrews 1:1-4. Perhaps I felt inspired by that investigation to speak some truth to power myself, to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, as that saying by Finley Peter Dunne goes. Perhaps I was motivated to provide a counterexample to what looked like a bizarre amalgamation of something quietly hateful and deceitfully Christian in Perry’s message for the benefit of my friend and whoever else might click through that link he posted. Perhaps I was just really ticked off from the whiplash I suffered by plummeting from the heights of mutually edifying, respectful conversation with friends to the depths of Perry’s tortured campaign dreck. In any case, I just had to respond.
Now, if you’re one of the few people who has not yet viewed this clip in question, please do so now and then read onward; it pains me to even summarize its content any more than I do in passing below. And in case some of the things Perry said in that clip positively resonate with you, in case you sometimes feel that society is waging war against your faith or your ideals for our culture as a whole, please bear with me until the end. (The same thing goes for those of you who are sick of Perry and his video clip.) Aside from a few clarifications accommodating for the shift in context from a more personal facebook comment thread to a more general blog post, here is what I wrote three days ago and stand by this morning:
As a pastor actively serving the men and women of Chicago in some way, shape, or form for years on end, I most assuredly do not approve of Rick Perry’s message. Pitting the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (henceforth, DADT) against the prohibition of kids openly celebrating Christmas or praying in public schools merely plays to the base Perry hopes to strengthen at the cost of polarizing that base with respect to everyone else. The tired trope of a “liberal attack on our religious heritage” engenders not just an “us vs. them” mentality, it also seeks to increase the incidence of reactionary behavior among whoever qualifies as an “us.” And it seeks to do both of these things for the sake of gaining political power.
This strikes a deep chord within my soul, because I am not that far from the group of people to whom Perry’s message was most directly focused given my faith in Jesus as Messiah. And on the basis of that message Perry promoted, I am supposed to believe with all the other huddled masses of “us” that there is some group of nameless antagonists, a “them” epitomized in Obama against whom Perry will heroically provide defense. But I see absolutely nothing of Jesus in what Perry has said in this clip, and I wonder how long he will continue to obfuscate the fact that it was the outcast, the marginalized, and the sinners with whom Christ chose to dwell yet the religiously established colluding with the politically powerful who sought most fervently to put him to death.
Moreover, why should anybody care about some archaic religious heritage constructed out of the pastiche of America’s history in the first place? Why is that revision of our past that Perry selects–a revision that all-too-conveniently neglects the litany of genocide and injustice interwoven with the more commendable aspects of our story–the one we should arbitrarily claim to “matter” today? Isn’t all of it important since, well, all of it actually happened? Moreover, the end result of that pseudo-homogeneous religious heritage would be our present context, right? So, if we don’t like the fruit of our past decisions, what sense is there in an attempted return to its more nascent form? To repeat the whole process all over again because we cannot think of any better way to move towards a categorically new and more promising future?
The congregation I serve in Chicago was challenged several years ago to develop a statement of its view of sexuality, its understanding of God’s desires and designs for our lives in their sexual dimensions. Although this occurred before my time ministering with the women and men of First Free Church, I love the way that the document resulting from this endeavor emphasizes a few key facts that are central to an orthodox, Christian worldview elevating the conversation of sexuality above a mere list of do’s and dont’s. And while there is much to discuss about sexuality, suffice it to say here that I share the conviction expressed by the statement my fellow church leaders drafted regarding the fact that human sexuality is a good and purposeful thing, that God’s very self came up with the idea of sexual intimacy in the first place. As Creator and Lord of all, God possesses the right to make claims on our sexuality, and following God’s ways is what is best for us even when it is difficult or unpopular. With the majority of the Church through time, the rest of my current congregation’s leadership and I believe that God’s intent for the active expression of sexual intimacy is within the context of heterosexual marriage or else singleness in chastity. As an unmarried man with a relentless hunger to experience the joy and, yes, also the challenges that come with married life, those claims I just mentioned are hard. For me personally. (Jesus, help me!) But they are sound; they are good.
Hence, one might not expect to find that I am supportive of the repeal of DADT. Why would I come to that conclusion despite all of the above? Because losing DADT means that both the heteronormative and the LGBT military community can be honest and open about the facts rather than advised to live a lie by omission of detail. Similarly, I appreciate the removal of prayers from public schools in the sense where this actually has occurred, viz. where students are no longer forced to actively pray or sit through prayers conducted by their teachers and school administration, because it enables our society to be more open and honest about our actual, pluralistic composition. We are people with enough similarity to have a shot at coping with our differences rather than pretending they don’t exist or leveraging those of us in one group to toe the line of another group without sufficient warrant. In other words, there is a profound benefit to this sort of pluralism, one that does not seek to blur all our distinctions or overcome them by fiat but to realistically deal with them in their pointedness and messiness, eschewing scripted, sitcom-like plot lines where voiced disagreement with another’s way of life is tantamount to bigotry on the one hand and the ideological equivalent of tyranny on the other hand.
I like being able to speak openly about my faith in Jesus in this context, about the merits of the claims that my Messiah makes upon my life and the lives of others without getting pat, hollow, responses of pseudo-agreement from people following some utterly sickening twist of civic virtue neutered of all reference to truth. I would much rather share a difficult relationship with someone who completely disagreed with me–in truth–rather than a vacuous relationship with somebody who had jettisoned any robust sense of their own convictions for whatever it is they are “supposed” to think or do. If Perry means to protect America’s religious heritage by shutting up the sorts of people who sharply disagree with me, then he is not just attempting to abuse them, he is also attempted to rob me of one of the most precious opportunities I have to share my faith. And if the substance upon which my faith is itself founded is not sufficiently strong to survive those turbulent waters of dialog and disagreement (especially without Perry’s protection), then there is no possible way that the foundation of my faith came from the Almighty God who spoke the universe into existence and in whom all things live and move and have their being.
Sure, I know just as well as anybody with a modest command of history that many of the founders of American society were religious, but several of them were not all that exemplary by that day’s standards. And even those who were religious certainly were not all cut from the same cloth: Penn was Quaker, Washington was Anglican, Jefferson was a humanist deist, and Franklin was a Christian one of Puritan heritage. But Perry’s political gerrymandering not only obscures this fact and the others I mentioned above, it neglects the far more impactful point on which I’ll conclude this diatribe.
There is nothing–absolutely nothing–meritorious about leveraging a spirit of division, exclusion, reactionism, and false antagonism on Perry’s premises (even if they weren’t so thoroughgoingly specious) when the precious opportunity to dignify, embrace, and redemptively engage one another while we labor to create a categorically better future lies in wait. That latter project will be difficult and undoubtedly marked by turns of dispute and misunderstanding as much as agreement and co-laboring. But at least it is truthful. At least it is possible. At least it is more like the Christ that Perry purports to worship than the politically charged religiosity that crucified Jesus over the very sorts of ideas Perry so mistakenly aggrandizes to everyone’s hurt. Not just the hurt of “them” gays and lesbians and Obama-lovers so callously treated as foils in this God forsaken clip but the hurt of whoever the “us” was supposed to be. And my own hurt, too.
Well, I wasn’t too sure how anybody would respond to my unsolicited, theo-political tirade, but the first comment it received was “BRAVO SIR!” Then somebody posted a different clip of Hilary Clinton speaking at Palais des Nations in Geneva, Switzerland to the end that “gay rights are human rights” on the very same day that the Perry clip was uploaded to YouTube. Then somebody else asked me if I was planning to run for office since, evidently, they were inclined to vote for me. And then another person posted a link to an image that had swiftly flown up the ranks of websites like reddit.com showing that Perry wore a jacket in his campaign clip that looked a whole lot like that of the late Heath Ledger’s character in Brokeback Mountain–working title “can’t make this $#!% up.”
Then somebody else argued that Rick Perry “is bigot”–not a bigot but is bigot. Amber Macarthur argued a similar point the following day in her article with The Globe and Mail, saying that Perry’s clip could be considered “hate speech” leading to a take down from YouTube given a sufficient number of users flagging it as such. Since I personally believe that just about everybody probably holds some bigoted views about something, this aspect of the clip was not the most frustrating part of the matter. Rather, it was Perry’s decision to leverage the polarizing nature of his views to gain support, i.e. at the expeense of driving more deeply the fractures that already exist in our society. I will admit that I found Perry’s views offensive and not just illogical. On a personal level, I bristled at the sheer velocity with which he swept a declaration about not being ashamed to admit that he is a Christian right into trying to fortify a claim that “there is something wrong in this country when gays can serve openly in the military but our kids can’t openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school.” It would be too much of a sidetrack to articulate how frustrating it is to watch people like Perry reinforce again and again that stereotype that Christians are a bunch of moronic, homophobic haters–and especially to know that Perry is probably acting this way because he really believes it is for the best. But on the level of evaluating his aspirations for statesmanship, it is his calculated use of everything comprising that wild package of campaign ad to gain political strength specifically through polarizing activity that I found most disturbing of all.
And that is why I was pleasantly surprised at what happened next, for, lo and behold, Rick Perry has miraculously unified America. Namely, through prompting a virtually unanimous, negative response to Rick Perry’s “Strong.” Within roughly one full day after the clip was posted by Perry’s camp, Chicagoan film critic extraordinaire, Roger Ebert, tweeted, “Answer to Rick Perry’s confusion: We live in a democracy, not a theocracy. Epic YouTube fail,” including a link to Garance Franke-Ruta’s article in The Atlantic analyzing the overwhelmingly negative, high-volume response the campaign commercial was receiving from virtually every front. All sorts of people began uploading parody videos satirizing the matter, including nationally established groups like Chicago’s Second City Network, rising “YouTube famous” acts like The Comedy Couple, maybe-not-so-famous-but-quite-prolific atheists like James Kotecki, and the one I personally found most hilarious, Conservative Jewish rabbi, Jason Miller.
Will Ferrel’s “Funny or Die” website put together a more surprisingly tasteful response than expected, depicting a buddy-buddy version of Jesus Christ correcting Perry’s gaffes. Memes began to fly all over the place, including a Harry Potter homage to the 2012 campaign of “Lord Perrymort,” alleging that you “do not need to be a Pureblood to know there is something wrong with the Wizarding World when Mudbloods can live among the worthy as equals, but our own children cannot openly practise the Dark Arts.” Roughly 72 hours after Perry’s “Strong” was posted to YouTube, it has garnered over 3 million views with a 98% disapproval rating, a feat so momentous that apparently everybody from The Huffington Post to Salon.com to local television affiliates like Wilmington, NC’s channel 6 News all felt compelled to report on the matter.
I don’t want to treat the extremely problematic aspects of what Perry said in those fateful, thirty seconds with too much levity. His perspective is dangerous. It bears a family resemblance to the specific mechanism that crucified Jesus, and it smacks of the very sort of thing that is driving so many people away from Christ’s Church of which I am a part and continue to serve. This lousy ad has upset a lot of people I love, not just ones who feel personally targeted but others who feel misrepresented, not to mention still others who are sincerely concerned about some of the fears upon which Perry played to his own political ends.
But all this has quite thankfully resulted in something I never expected when I first viewed that clip after my buddy posted it. It has brought some of us–in fact, quite a lot of us–closer together now than we were before. And in so doing, it has shown us that this is possible not just in spite of but specifically by the agency of what was selfishly intended to drive us apart. Are you ready to help build that future?
in Bioethics, Jurisprudence, Justice, Politics, Theology Tags: Bible, bioethics, death penalty, jurisprudence, justice, Kingdom of God, Messiah, pacifism, Paul, politics, sacrifice, shalom, theology, Troy Davis
One might think that a guy excited about Jewish-Christian ministry would surely dedicate some verbiage today on the scheduled bid for Palestinian statehood in the UN security council. Or at least gripe about the facebook news feed update inflicting confusion and distress across the Interwebs, like virtually everybody else is doing at the time of this post. But the single most noteworthy event on my mind right now is the probable, unjust execution of Troy Davis tonight and the exceedingly costly lesson it should teach us.
Troy Davis is an American death row inmate convicted of the murder of a Savannah, Georgia police officer, Mark MacPhail, in August of 1989. According to Amnesty International’s dedicated page on the matter, the case against Mr. Davis “consisted entirely of witness testimony which contained inconsistencies even at the time of the trial. Since then, all but two of the state’s non-police witnesses from the trial have recanted or contradicted their testimony.” In fact, these inconsistencies prompted the U.S. Supreme Court to order a federal district court in Georgia to review Mr. Davis’s situation to determine whether or not new evidence had arisen that could clearly establish his innocence. This resulted in a June 2010 evidentiary hearing during which nearly all of the witnesses who had originally testified against Davis altered their stories, some claiming that they had been coerced by police in their original testimonies and others alleging that a completely different assailant had actually confessed to committing the crime if question. In fact, you can view a .pdf of multiple, sworn affidavits recanting testimony or statements given in Troy Davis’s case right here.
But this is where things get complicated. As Bob Herbert’s 2009 article in the New York Times describes the matter:
There was no physical evidence against Mr. Davis, and no murder weapon was ever found. At least three witnesses who testified against him at his trial (and a number of others who were not part of the trial) have since said that a man named Sylvester “Redd” Coles admitted to killing the police officer.
Mr. Coles, who was at the scene, and who, according to witnesses, later ditched a gun of the same caliber as the murder weapon, is one of the two witnesses who have not recanted. The other is a man who initially told investigators that he could not identify the killer. Nearly two years later, at the trial, he testified that the killer was Mr. Davis.
How could a just basis for the execution of any individual be drawn from such a tenuous body of evidence? It seems that much has turned on U.S. District Court Judge William T. Moore Jr.’s August 24 rejection of Troy Davis’s petition on the grounds that Davis failed to prove by “clear and convincing evidence that no reasonable juror would have convicted him in light of the new evidence.” Speaking self-consciously as one not extremely well versed in American jurisprudence, this is an exceptionally precarious measure against which to hold a man’s life in the balance. Since the state of Georgia requires a unanimous jury to avoid a mistrial, just one juror dissenting from a guilty verdict at Davis’s original court date would have been sufficient to forestall his conviction and prompt a retrial at most or a dismissal of his case at least. But now, the situation is reversed; the burden of proof lies on Davis’s shoulders to demonstrate that all reasonable jurors would have reached the conclusion that he was not guilty based on updated evidence.
I’m aware of the fact that there’s a litany of case history upon which Judge Moore based his ruling. Its goal is to uphold the integrity of past legal proceedings even while attempting to course-correct for substantially new information, and while this makes plenty of sense in general, the matter is tensed when something as final as the taking of a life is in question. I am in no way attempting to position Moore as the villain of this story, nor am I presently interested in analyzing Coles’s relative guilt or innocence and its implications for Davis’s case. Nor is my purpose to argue against the death penalty at the level of pacifistic principle, to claim that the practice of state execution is inherently barbaric and should be outlawed because it is always wrong in every circumstance to take a human life.
Theologians have debated this matter for centuries, and despite the fact that Jesus himself rebuked his disciples when they attempted to assault others according to Luke 9 (and even healed at least one person his disciples had impertinently attacked when he was arrested), Jesus also kicked arse when appropriate and recommended a variety of submission to earthly, governmental authorities. Perhaps explicitly expanding on this point in the thirteenth chapter of his letter to the church in Rome, Paul asserted that such “rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.” There is such a thing as governmentally effected, non-pacifistic justice.
Rather, the main point I want to make in this post is this: Even if there are circumstances in which it is legitimate to take a human life, the American justice system’s particularities repeatedly fail to yield the most just state of affairs for our society in the case of the death penalty. At the time of this post, nearly 150 previously convicted death row inmates have either been acquitted or had their charges dismissed since 1973 upon investigation of new evidence or review of past court proceedings–only 17 of which depended on the submission of new, DNA-based evidence. Our justice system can reverse an indefinitely lengthy prison term when it becomes clear that a mistake has been made; it cannot reverse the taking of a human life.
Furthermore, multiple studies have emerged demonstrating that is actually more costly to execute convicted individuals rather than imprison them for life without the chance of parole. One California-based study found that the state could save $1 billion in five years by replacing the death penalty with permanent imprisonment. (And if you doubt the legitimacy of these claims, visit this website presenting a list of noteworthy pros and cons arguments comparing the costs of the death penalty versus life in prison.) Not only is the death penalty extremely risky in practice at the bioethical level, it is literally worse for our economy.
But speaking now as an aspiring theologian, one of the main points that keeps arising in my mind regarding the practical problems with the death penalty and American jurisprudence is its pitting a sense of retributive justice against redemptive justice. As reported by a Fox News article posted yesterday on Troy Davis’s case, the son of the police officer who was gunned down, Mark MacPhail Jr., believes that the state of Georgia’s repeated denials of Davis’s requests for clemency boil down to one, all important result, that “justice was finally served for my father.” If Davis is not guilty as many claim, MacPhail is tragically misguided, and another injustice has been perpetuated from the moment Davis was imprisoned up to the final hour of his incarcerated life. But even if MacPhail is right, even if Davis actually did murder his father, executing Davis will not reverse this fact. Killing Troy, even if he is guilty, will not bring back Mark’s dad, and it will not replace the years of loss with which Mark has coped from his infancy onward.
The Bible has two, key terms reserved for its description of divine justice: shalom and the Kingdom of God. It is shalom that both Troy and Mark and pretty much everyone else needs today, and that is a state of peace, well-being, and wholeness rooted in the self-giving being of God in which we have the opportunity to participate. Human retribution cannot accomplish wholeness, even when it is directed against a truly guilty party. Only the redemptive grace and love of God can repair Mark’s loss if Troy is guilty, and only that same love and grace can heal Troy’s wounds if he is innocent. The death penalty interjects a time limit on this process for the sake of retribution that tenses our opportunity to experience justice for the sake of redemption. It does so in an extremely problematic way for those of us who are convicted, in a dramatically irreversible way for those of us who are executed, and in a deeply costly way for those of us who are free.
Moreover, this willingness to trump God’s redemptive justice with humanity’s attempts at retributive justice in the case of the death penalty threatens to obscure the fact that the only perfectly just state of affairs for which we can hope has already been inaugurated and paid for through the penalty God willingly took upon God’s very self in Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross. The author of the book of Hebrews lifted a passage from Psalm 45 by putting it this way: Through Messiah’s death and resurrection, God effected a “throne” that will last forever, “a scepter of justice will be the scepter of your kingdom. You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, has set you above your companions by anointing you with the oil of joy.” It is only in the Kingdom of God, heralded by Jesus’s first coming and eventually completed through his second, that society will finally be made perfectly just. In the mean time, we can find no lasting consolation in vengeance for wrongdoing because God is the only being capable of equitably executing such, and God has already freely elected to absorb the cost of this upon God’s very self. As Paul put it while quoting from Deuteronomy 32:35 in Romans 12:19, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.'”
We should work hard for justice, and there is a legitimate place for our governments to attempt to effect such. Again, this is not a diatribe for the sake of pacifism, full stop. But the ethical and theological costs of the death penalty far outweigh any possible benefit when considered from a general, practical standpoint. And more specifically, our country will execute Troy Davis, a man far from clearly guilty, this very night unless some last-minute, highly unlikely reversal of fortune occurs. Countless people have petitioned on his behalf across the religious and political spectrum, including Pope Benedict XVI, President Jimmy Carter, former U.S. Representative Bob Barr, ex-Justice Department official Larry Thompson, former FBI Director William Sessions, the Rev. Al Sharpton, Amnesty International, and the NAACP to no avail.
If it’s too late to stop an unjust execution for Troy Davis, may we learn an exceedingly costly lesson about how we can and should live better in the days ahead. And may God bless you and I to labor to that end until Messiah returns in glory. (Note: I am indebted to my San Franciscan brother, Marcel Jones, for initially drawing my attention to this matter.)
Update: The state of Georgia has ended the life of Troy Davis, confirmed dead at 11:08pm EST. Immediately before Davis was administered a cocktail of lethal injection, a reporter with the Associated Press recorded his final words, as follows:
I’d like to address the MacPhail family. Let you know, despite the situation you are in, I’m not the one who personally killed your son, your father, your brother. I am innocent.
The incident that happened that night is not my fault. I did not have a gun. All I can ask … is that you look deeper into this case so that you really can finally see the truth.
I ask my family and friends to continue to fight this fight.
For those about to take my life, God have mercy on your souls. And may God bless your souls.
Yesterday, Davis sent this statement through Amnesty International: “The struggle for justice doesn’t end with me. This struggle is for all the Troy Davises who came before me and all the ones who will come after me. I’m in good spirits and I’m prayerful and at peace. But I will not stop fighting until I’ve taken my last breath.”
If you want to join that fight in his stead, here is one beginning.