“Till Something Better Comes Along”
October 2, 2011
A week and a half ago there were two executions in the United States. In 1965 Iowa abolished the death penalty, and yet, conversations over the past week have confirmed that this issue still troubles and such executions still disturb.
When I lived in Connecticut, I occasionally saw a car with a bumper sticker that stated in large print: “SOMEONE I LOVE WAS MURDERED.” That was a shocking, upsetting message to read on the back of a car. I don’t know what those words meant to suggest. Was it:
“I’m so upset. Watch my driving.” or
“I’m hurting. Please do something about the pain.” or maybe
“I’m angry. I don’t know what to do.”
I'm always a little disturbed when I hear the families of murder victims talking about the need for capital punishment. These are deeply wounded people, speaking out of their grief. And while I want to respect that pain, I'm not sure that their perspective is the one on which we want to build our public policies.
A word of warning, then: I could have one of those bumper stickers on my car. My cousin was murdered some years ago. Those who killed him will live longer than he did, but they will never be out of prison. I speak as one who is part of a murder victim's extended family. It's been many years since his death and I think I've got a grip on it. But it's hard to talk about this.
We do need to recognize that emotional component of the debate about the death penalty.
We live in times when police officers are ambushed, when disturbed parents kill children, when innocent bystanders become playground casualties. In response voices cry out: “Death.”
Knee jerk liberals shout: “Never!”
Knee jerk conservatives shout: “Now!”
After our knees stop twitching, however, most of us are left asking “What can we do? What should we do?”
Let's first of all be clear what we're talking about. The phrase “capital punishment” can obscure what the “death penalty” is all about—death. It is the state ending the life of one person because a court has found them guilty of criminally ending the life of another. This death penalty may involve electrocution, gas, lethal injection or some other means. Many favor this punishment for those who kill children, police officers, or several people.
The result will always be another death.
Death seems so right to so many—a punishment that fits the crime.
Certainly the death penalty is not a deterrent to murder. We've known that for a long time. States, like Texas, that have been executing people for years have a much higher murder rate than Iowa.
There is no deterrent—but there is a penalty. And increasingly, we have found that many who have been so penalized have also most likely been innocent.
The problem for Christians goes even deeper. It is theological and goes to the heart of what Jesus said, what Jesus did.
“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Yes, once again, it's the troublesome voice of Jesus. We wish he'd be quiet.
What, after all, does Jesus know about the death penalty?
We know what the authorities did when Jesus spoke and healed. They silenced him. They crucified him. From our own stories of the one we call Lord and Savior, we know how brutal and unjust execution can be.
Still many in churches support it.
It is supported even though “mistakes” are made sometimes. It is supported even when we can’t see the logic of killing people who kill people to show that killing people is wrong. And we know all the statistics that tell of far more black people given death sentences than whites—and that, too, is of little significance to many.
I think such people forget what Paul called “the power of the resurrection.”
In Paul’s letter to the Philippians that we’ve been reading on recent Sundays, Paul keeps coming back to “life and death” issues. Today we listened as he expressed his desire to “know the power of the resurrection.”
The power of the resurrection is the ability to act that comes from a faith—however tenuous—that God is bringing about a new creation and we are a part of that work and that creation. It is a hope that redemption is possible.
The power of the resurrection is the ability to act because in the resurrection we come to see that, as it has been said, the arc of the universe is long but that it moves toward justice, even though this world can at times seem so obviously filled with such evil and injustice. We can truly act “in faith,” that is, trusting that the ultimate direction of creation is toward God’s good purposes for all of life.
This power comes not through our own positive thinking or by our strenuous efforts. This power rises from God’s vindication of the suffering and death of Jesus in the resurrection, in which we see by faith that even at the moment of great suffering and death, God was at work bringing life—and by that same faith claiming that God continues to do so today.
We, too, want to know such power—power that sets us free to love with abandon, to act even when fear presses in, to draw out the best in ourselves and other people.
In his short story, “Ephipany,” Ferrol Sams tells of a patient, a former convict, who confides to his physician that he decided against killing two of his adversaries, although a reasonable case could be made for self-defense. The patient experienced an epiphany of sorts when he remembered a conversation between his grandfather and step-grandmother: “It was the craziest thing: all of a sudden I heard Miss Lila's voice, and I had about quit ever thinking of her. She said, ‘Mr. Metters, two wrongs don’t make a right.’ And I heard Mr. Metters say, ‘That's a crazy way to live when somebody’s done you wrong, Miss Lila, but I guess it’ll do till something better comes along.’ All of a sudden I realized that I was all twisted up in my thinking.”
I’m not sure anything better has come along since Paul's advice that we not respond to evil with evil.
From what position shall we advocate for public policy?
Our anger at its deepest?
Our fear at its greatest?
Or our faith at its best?
My hope is that we might still rise above the level of those who would kill, that we would say we won't go your way, as evil and tempting as it might be. We will say “No” to death at the hands of the state.
My hope is that on this day when at the Table we affirm our unity with Christians around the world, we might find the vision to make our nation like so many others that have put an end to the death penalty.
This is not easy, but we have been told that the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life. By saying “No” to the death penalty, we will take a step through that gate. We will take a focused step toward the elimination of cruelty.
We will take a step toward life—God’s desire for all creation.