Around two weeks ago, I posted the first part of this series exploring the connections between the last narrative section of the fifth book of the Bible and the Jewish high holiday, Rosh Hashannah. Since the article I posted before this was also on the long side and dealt with some heavy topics, I broke things up a bit in my last post by delving into an exploration of the concept of lived simplicity. Although we have now passed the time in the Jewish calendar devoted to Rosh Hashanah, there is still quite a bit I would like to share by developing the preliminary work I did two weeks ago. So, this post will pick up where we left off back then in order to dig into the meat of Deuteronomy 29:9 – 31:30, showing how this portion of scripture so beautifully lays out key aspects of one of the most important biblical holidays, which is traditionally celebrated by Jews right around the same time each year that many of them are meditating on this portion of scripture.
My goal in the previous part of this series was to prepare the grounds for this process by highlighting various aspects of Jewish life and practice that are intimately tied to both the text and the holiday in question. My hope is to facilitate a robust engagement with the cultural context in which this portion of holy scripture is frequently read by the religious community that received it, which will in turn enable us to engage with God in a unique and vital manner often neglected in the church. Among other things, I mentioned how the Jewish rabbis partitioned the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, into sections called parshas that one can study sequentially each week over the course of a year. In fact, if you ever visit a synagogue to participate in a service of worship on Shabbat (more popularly known in English as “the Sabbath,” the seventh day of the week), you will probably hear a message delivered by the presiding rabbi that analyzes the parsha for the week. The parsha for the week during which Rosh Hashanah occurs is our text, Deuteronomy 29:9 – 31:30.
Last time, I also discussed how the Jewish calendar works quite a bit differently than the Gregorian or Julian calendar. It marks its first year from the date the rabbis calculated back to the creation of humanity such that we are presently living in year 2011 C.E. according to the Julian and Gregorian calendars and year 5772 according to the Jewish calendar. Also, there are not one but four different points marking the beginning of the year for the Jewish calendar, Rosh Hashanah being one such point commemorating the new year from a perspective celebrating the creation of the world and ramping up over ten days to Yom Kippur, the holiday commemorating God’s process of atoning for the sins of the Jewish people and thereby reconciling them back again to a restored, righteous relationship with God.
This time around, I will pivot from describing the praxis of the celebration of Rosh Hashanah and the reading of Deuteronomy 29:9 – 31:30 in the Jewish community today to laying out the biblical context of the text in question. I want to plow into this parsha to answer four different yet interrelated questions: 1) Just what is going on in this text in general, 2) how does it relate to the holiday of Rosh Hashanah during which it is traditionally read, 3) what on earth does this tell us about who God is, and 4) what might be our response–how does all this not only serve to inform us but to transform us? So, by the end of this post, we should have acquired both the cultural context in which our text is read by the Jewish community as well as the biblical context in which the text can be found. That will enable us to do the in-depth, exeggetical drilling in the final post of this series to take a solid crack at answering those four questions I mentioned above.
Incidentally, I’m writing this post while rocking out to this song, which you should clearly listen to right now while you’re reading this to capture the synergistically epic nature of the compositional moment. Or maybe this one if you want to swing in a more Jewish direction or something…
Okay, Deuteronomy received its English title from the Greek term, “Deuteronomion,” which means “second law.” This refers to the recapitulation of much of the teaching delivered over the previous three books of Torah–Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers. These books tell the story of God’s deliverance of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt through Moses, one of the single most important prophets and leaders mentioned in the entire Bible. According to Exodus 33:12 34:35, Moses is the only individual mentioned in the entire first half of the Bible who gets a glimpse of God’s glorified presence; in fact, Moses’ countenance became so radiant from this encounter that he terrified other people who saw him afterwards such that he walked around with a veil over his face to keep them from flipping out. Numbers 12:3 describes Moses as being “more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth,” and yet God worked so powerfully through him that the Lord himself said that he had made Moses “like a god” to others with whom he came into conflict, such as the king of Egypt in Exodus 7. In fact, Exodus 34:10 says that God spoke with Moses “face to face,” and Numbers 12:8 says that Moses spoke with God “mouth to mouth,” which are parallel literary devices indicating a degree of intimacy in communication greater than virtually anyone else in the entire Bible. (Remember, not even Moses could handle actually looking directly at God face to face according to Exodus 33:12 and following.)
Given all of the above, it is little wonder why the final redaction of Deuteronomy 34:10 indicates that no other prophet had arisen in Israel like Moses ever since, a person whom “the LORD knew face to face.” Now, all those capital letters that get brought into most English translations with this verse indicate the most holy iteration of the name of God in the Old Testatment, nicknamed “the Tetragrammaton,” which means “the four letters.” Why such a strange moniker? Because the Hebrew text doesn’t actually spell out the entire name of God in this case; it was thought to be too holy to even write out in this form. Instead, there are just four Hebrew letters present in the text–yodh, he, waw, and he–and the rabbis actually mixed in some different vowel markings over time to prompt any reader following along to use a completely different word at this point when reciting scripture aloud out of reverence, namely the word, “adonai,” which is the Hebrew term for “lord” or “master.” In other words, Deuteronomy 34:10 is juxtaposing the single most holy name of God with the statement that God knew Moses “face to face.” That’s as freaking intimate as it gets all the way until Messiah Jesus, the Son of God, shows up in the New Testament. This is probably why John 1:17-19 purposefully states that “the Son” is “himself God,” that he is in closest relationship with God, that he is the only one to have truly “seen” God, and that he has on this basis “made God known” to those who follow him.
To continue with Moses, it is little wonder why the rabbis concluded that the person he identifies in Deuteronomy 18:15-19 as being one whom God would raise up as a prophet “like me from among you, from your fellow Israelites” must undoubtedly refer to the Messiah, the chosen and anointed one of God. (Of course, most rabbis do not conclude that this Messiah is Jesus, but that’s a topic for another time.) It is also little wonder why Moses shows up not once but twice in the closest thing we have to a comprehensive statement of faith for the Jewish community today, Rabbi Moses ben Maimon’s “13 Principles of Faith.” And that is also why it must have been utterly terrifying for the myriad Jewish people who had followed Moses for decades through the wilderness towards the Promised Land around the present-day State of Israel to even think of moving forward without Moses’ leadership.
But the twentieth chapter of the book of Numbers indicates that Moses would not survive the Jewish people’s journey from slavery to wilderness to homeland. In fact, almost nobody who had initially been delivered from slavery in Egypt survived that journey, and that is why the final book of Torah, the fifth book of the Bible, gets that nickname Deuteronomy, “second law,” because it was Moses’ last chance to reiterate in detail precisely what God had done on behalf of the Jewish people and what the terms of God’s covenant relationship with them was. That way, all the children of those who had directly witnessed God’s miraculous deliverance back in Egypt, those children who had quite literally grown up wandering around in the middle of nowhere between bondage and promise, would never forget who God is and what God had done–even if their parents’ had not related the story so accurately up to that point.
To really bring this point home, Moses not only reiterates the gist of the teaching recorded in the previous three books of the Bible across the text of Deuteronomy, he also boils all of it down into what is the closest thing to a central confession of faith for the Jewish people, the Shema. This is recited at every single Shabbat service of worship, and it’s the very same portion of scripture that Jesus himself quoted when asked what the greatest commandment in all of the first five books of the Bible could be. It’s right there in Deuteronomy 6:4-5, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” It turns out that this is not just important for Jewish people in general, it’s rather important for the analysis of our parsha; so, let’s take a closer look.
Well, you can see a whole bunch of instances of that exceptionally holy name of God, the Tetragrammaton, in those two verses comprising the Shema. But you can also see several other things when you look into the Hebrew; for the sake of brevity, I’ll mention just a few:
- All of the Jewish people present are implored to “hear.” This isn’t a mere dictation but an attempt to draw into relationship even while informing and exhorting.
- The LORD–the most holy and awesome being in existence–is also the God of the Israelites. God is both transcendent yet also immanent. As Isaiah 57:10 later puts it, “For this is what the high and exalted One says—he who lives forever, whose name is holy: ‘I live in a high and holy place, but also with the one who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite.'”
- “The LORD is one,” which means two things at the same time in Hebrew: First, that there’s just one, true God; God doesn’t need to jockey for power among some pantheon like the Egyptian, Sumerian, or Greek concepts of divinity. Second, that this God alone is the God of Israel–a sort of radicalization of the whole transcendence / immanence thing that illustrates the completely different sort of relationship God wanted to share with the Jewish people compared to how others understood their relationship with the divine was supposed to work.
- The bottom line of what God wants, what God commands, is love expressed through every aspect of one’s being. In an ancient, Jewish worldview, the heart (H. lebab) was understood to be the seat of the intellect, emotions, will, and appetites. The soul (H. nephesh) was understood to be the central essence of a person, the very life of a given being. So what base is left to cover in the appeal to love? Nothing! the final phrase that get’s translated into English as “all your strength” is literally something like “exceedingly much” or “abundant muchness” (H. m’od). It’s like God is imploring the Israelites, “I want you to love me with literally everything inside of you–your reason, your feelings, your volition, your passions, your very spiritual essence, your–well, you get the picture–your everything I put inside of you! Because that’s how much I love you.”
That’s why the Shema stands as a summary statement for the entire Torah, because all the rest of the stories and prophecies and commandments hang upon the truth expressed in these two, short verses. And there are repercussions for committing oneself to living accordingly on the one hand or else abandoning such a love-drenched relationship with God on the other hand. Living in the former way guides us towards the sorts of activities that bring wholeness and justice and truth to ourselves and those around us with prosperity being the result; living in the latter way not only severs our covenant relationship with God, it puts us at enmity with one another, too. The consequences of eschewing this love of God, of rejecting the activities predicated on a response to that love, is nothing short of destruction and death; the consequences of turning to God are overflowing life and peace. To make sure the Israelites would never forget this point, Moses separates all of the people into two groups located on two adjacent mountains in Deuteronomy 27 – 28, and they literally shout the blessings that would follow from their obedience to God’s commands from one mountain as well as shout the curses that would follow from their disobedience of God’s commands on the other mountain.
This brings us right up to Deuteronomy 29, the chapter where our parsha starts. If we were to look at what follows immediately after our parsha to round out our understanding of its biblical context, we wind up in a huge chunk of poetry that runs for a solid two chapters–the longest piece of prophecy that Moses delivers in the entire Bible. This is followed by a short, narrative epilogue describing his final resting place somewhere “in Moab, in the valley opposite Beth Peor,” a place that remains shrouded in mystery to this day. Deuteronomy 34:7 tells us that “Moses was a hundred and twenty years old when he died, yet his eyes were not weak nor his strength gone.” Well, dropping a couple chapters of prophetic poetry right before one hikes across a mountain and a valley before giving up the ghost certainly demonstrates that!
Now, ancient Hebrew lacks punctuation. So if one wanted to break up a section of narrative, one would typcially insert a section of poetry. And that’s exactly what the portion of scripture following our parsha is doing; it’s communicating through a Hebrew literary device that this is the end of this part of the story. But that means that our parsha is the very last chunk of substantial narrative in the entire Torah, the last bit of story before Moses delivers the longest and probably the most important monologue of his entire life. This means that whatever happens in our parsha must be incredibly significant. And every year, Jews read about the content of the end of Moses’ life at the exact same time that they are celebrating one of the most important holidays, Rosh Hashanah, the biblically mandated celebration that wound up getting associated with the beginning of the year from the perspective of the creation of the world. Why?
Now that we have explored both the cultural and biblical context of Deuteronomy 29:9 – 31:30 over the first two parts of this series, we can turn towards an in-depth analysis of the text itself to try to answer that question. And also the other three questions I mentioned above. Next time…
For erev Shabbat last week, I got the chance to deliver a parsha teaching at my friend, Heather Blecher’s flat. Heather is an accomplished, young adult leader of Chicago’s Jewish-Christian community, worshiping with an evangelical congregation in Evanston and serving as a senior ministry partner with the Skokie branch of the non-profit, para-church organization, Jews for Jesus. Beyond this, Heather is a gifted photographer who distributes her prints through etsy, posts one shot a day on tumblr, was recently featured on imagekind.com, and occasionally exhibits her work in assorted coffee shops and art galleries across Chicago and New York. It’s always an honor to partner with her, and I’m glad I got the chance to do so once again last week. To spice up this post accordingly, I included a couple of my favorite photos from Heather’s aforementioned tumblr blog, which you should obviously check out, pronto.
My ultimate goal in this post is to set up an analysis of a key portion of scripture that many Jews reflect upon during one of the most important times in the Jewish calendar, the same portion of scripture upon which I taught at Heather’s flat a few days ago. I want to do this from an explicitly Jewish-Christian angle, illustrating just what is at stake for followers of Jesus who want to better understand the Jewish roots of their faith so that they can more faithfully follow after Messiah. In order to pull off this sort of analysis, I have to lay out a prolegomena of sorts describing a bit more about Jewish life and practice so that the biblical analysis I mentioned is achievable at a deep rather than a superficial level. In other words, this post is not merely anthropological but hermeneutical; it is not just about various, whimsical facets of Jewish culture but about the context of holy scripture, our attention to which will enable us to engage with God in a vital way that has been often neglected in the church. My next post in this series will deal with the in-depth, biblical analysis; this post will properly set it up. Let’s get rolling by unpacking a few of those religious terms I casually tossed into the very first sentence of this post. When is “erev Shabbat” and just what on earth is a “parsha”?
Jewish people measure the beginning of a given day from nightfall of the one that precedes it. Hence, a lot of religious observances scheduled to occur on a given day in the Jewish calendar get inaugurated the previous night–you know, because that’s technically already the next day. Hence, there’s a pretty frequent use of the term “erev” referring to the night preceding a given day, which is also the same thing as the very beginning of that day for a Jewish understanding of the ways that days and nights work. If this seems confusing, maybe this analogy will help clarify things a bit. For a Gregorian or Julian calendar, the first day of the week is Sunday and the last day of the week is Saturday, meaning that the weekend starts on Saturday morning and runs through Sunday night. But just about everybody knows that you really celebrate the weekend not on Saturday morning but on Friday night, right? The night before the technical weekend is so wrapped up in the observance of the weekend itself, it winds up getting functionally lumped together in our minds. (And parties, where applicable.) Well, something like this is true for the Jewish observance of every day, except that the evening before a given morning is technically a part of that morning and not just functionally a part of it. The linguistic marker of this fact is the term “erev,” the night before a given day that is also a part of that day.
Incidentally, the effect of this arrangement is such that one often wakes up on the morning of a spiritually significant day that has already begun and has in some part been commemorated before one went to sleep the previous night. To illustrate the significance of this way of doing things, the average, observant Christian does not associate Saturday night with a Sunday worship service, and the average Sunday morning is often frenetically paced. (Some buddies of mine actually leveraged this fact by planting a church in Brooklyn whose Sunday services began at 6pm.) In contrast, the average Jew does associate Friday night with a Saturday worship service, and they will have prepared themselves to participate in the latter with a focused yet relaxed rhythm on Friday night–literally going to sleep and waking up again in a state of rest devoted to worshiping the Living God and celebrating this blessing with their families and community of faith.
The key term in Hebrew for the seventh day of the week is שבת, i.e. “Shabbat,” or what most English speaking people call “The Sabbath.” Not only is this the final day of the week, it is the only day of the week with a proper name in scripture. In Hebrew, the other days of the week are given nicknames for their distance from Shabbat; that’s how ridiculously important Shabbat is for an observant Jew. Moreover, Shabbat it is the only day of religious observance mentioned in what is popularly called The Decalogue, or “The Ten Commandments” recorded in Exodus 20:1-17 and Deuteronomy 5:6-21. These are ten of the most important instructions delivered to the Jewish people out of all 613 commandments articulated in the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, and Shabbat receives more commentary than any other teaching in in those two, aforementioned portions of scripture.
In order to help Jewish people study scripture faithfully each week, the rabbis apportioned various selections from Torah into units for sequential study, called parshas. Each Shabbat, Jews are encouraged to study the given parsha selection, then meditate and act upon it over the course of the following week. So, last Friday night for erev Shabbat, i.e. the very beginning of Shabbat last week, I delivered a teaching on the parsha selection for the group of people Heather had rounded up at her flat. We also shared an awesome time of prayer, laughter, dialog, and the consumption of some utterly delicious food and drink, but those are topics of discussion for another time.
I’m going to move towards wrapping up this post by mentioning one detail that will provide a nice pivot for part two of this series. According to the Jewish calendar, this present week spans Elul 26, 5771 to Tishrei 3, 5772. Whereas the common era calendar measures everything with reference to the birth of Christ circa 1 B.C.E. and 1 C.E. (even though it’s pretty likely that Jesus was actually born around 4 B.C.E.), the Jewish calendar measures everything from the date it has calculated the creation of the world for religious purposes, which corresponds to 3761 B.C.E. The months are also run on a strictly lunar cycle and given different names than, say, the Gregorian or Julian calendars; hence, today is the 27th day of the month of Elul in year 5771 for the Jewish calendar and also the 26th day of the month of September in year 2011 for the Julian and Gregorian calendars.
Now, you may have noticed in the second sentence of the above paragraph that the parsha actually runs right across the new year according to the Jewish calendar; we’re going from the end of the month of Elul 5771 to the beginning of the month of Tishrei 5772. The festival marking this shift is one of the four most important holidays for Jewish faith and practice, holidays so important that one was supposed to suspend all normal work in order to properly connect with God through them such that one could be excommunicated from the Jewish community for callously disregarded their significance back in the days when scripture was being codified. Those “big four” holidays are Shabbat, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Pesach. And just to make things interesting, while it is Rosh Hashanah that functionally serves as the Jewish new year, the day falling right in the middle of the week for which our parsha section is reserved, it is actually Pesach that technically serves as the marker for the Jewish new year.
Alright, I cannot leave this post dangling on such an apparent contradiction; so, here’s one way to understand the matter. The central, religious event for the Jewish people recorded in first five books of the Bible is God’s miraculous deliverance of the Jewish people from hundreds of years of bondage and slavery in Egypt. This single event predicated everything that followed in such a fundamental way that God literally reset the Jewish calendar to commemorate it, and this is precisely what Pesach, also known as “The Passover,” accomplishes. I love how the first couple verses of Exodus 12:1-28 illustrate the matter, where God says to Moses and his brother, Aaron, “This month shall be for you the beginning of months. It shall be the first month of the year for you.” It’s like God is saying, “What I am doing right now on your behalf will blow your minds so much, it is so completely unprecedented, I want you to rearrange your entire year around it.” So the first two weeks of the Jewish year during the month of Nisan are devoted to ramping up to Pesach, and there is an entire week of celebration afterwards named the Feast of Unleavened Bread to protract the lesson. In other words, Jews take three weeks to celebrate the new year, and the most important point of time over that period isn’t the first day of the year but twilight just before the morning of the fifteenth!
A similar thing happens as we go deeper into the year and approach Yom Kippur, also known as “The Day of Atonement,” which commemorates God’s process of making amends or reparations for the sins of the Jewish people and thereby reconciling them back again to God’s self. Remember how we took two whole weeks to ramp up to Pescah? Well, we take ten days to ramp up to Yom Kippur nicknamed “the days of awe,” which begin with Rosh Hashanah. Now, Rosh Hashanah is actually a Hebrew nickname meaning “the head of the year” for the more biblical term in Leviticus 23:24, “The Day of Sounding,” which refers to the trumpets whose blast indicated to everybody within earshot that the gradual ramping up towards Yom Kippur had begun. The Jewish rabbis would later develop the concept of four different new years commemorating the beginning of different parts of our world. Pesach commemorates the beginning of the salvific relationship God established with the Jewish people by liberating them from slavery in Egypt and, consequently, the beginning of all holidays. Perhaps in some part due to the significance of forgiveness and the removal of sins commemorated by Yom Kippur, the rabbis treated Rosh Hashanah as the day when the world was created; that’s why the calendar actually advances a year on Rosh Hashanah and why it gets that nickname, “the head of the year.”
What all this means for our purposes is that the parsha for this week, Deuteronomy 29:9 – 31:30, spans an incredibly significant period of time for the Jewish calendar, the week when observant Jews celebrate the creation of the world and begin to prepare themselves to encounter God on a day devoted to recognizing their need for forgiveness and the removal of sins as a people. I’m going to go out on a limb here to say that the rabbis picked this parsha with care; they meant for us to meditate on the truths of scripture in that aforementioned context of observance and meditation on these key aspects of our relationship with God.
Paradoxically, while Jews are supposed to reflect upon this parsha selection near the end of Deuteronomy over a week that includes a day dedicated to remembering God’s creation of the world, a day marking the turnover of the Jewish calendar and, hence, a celebration of the beginning of the new year in Rosh Hashanah, the actual scriptural content of the parsha marks the end of one of the most important figures in all of the Bible, Moses. What’s the significance of that detail? Well, now now that we’ve done the work of establishing more of a culturally edifying context to explore this passage of scripture, we can turn to an in-depth analysis of it.
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.