"Before you can search for truth, you must be interested in finding it." -Miroslav Volf

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Execution or No Execution

Unrelated—I’m still recovering from the rush of four days in LA for Disneyland and a friend’s wedding…more on that soon!

I feel compelled to weigh in with a Christian perspective on the Troy Davis execution and drama. I don’t think it’s fair to say I speak for all Christians, but maybe some.

I’ll admit that I too was swept up in the drama surrounding the delayed execution. I probably heard fairly late about the ongoing news story and the push for yet another delay in his trial, due to belief that the evidence convicting him was inconclusive.

I was captivated by the reaction at the scene and on the internet. It’s remarkable how an event like this stirs up passions in everyone, many who hold differing viewpoints.

There was the crowd who insisted he be killed as soon as possible, for whatever reasonable points—trust in the legal system, financial burden on taxpayers, a need or respect for the principle of vengeance, or “justice.”

Then there were those who were freaked out, terrified that an innocent man might be put to death, convicted that if there is even a shred of doubt about this man’s culpability, such an irreversible action should not be taken.

What I didn’t hear much of, though I’m sure it was there, were those suggesting we permanently cancel his execution and push for the sustaining of this man’s life, until natural causes take him. His life and the lives of all violent criminals.

Whenever my English students get a bit passionate in our occasional class debates on controversial issues, I often tell them the same thing I tell those arguing over the viability of belief in God (or many religious arguments, for that matter).

And that is that brilliant people, all throughout human history, have made intelligent, coherent, articulate, persuasive arguments for both sides, whatever the issue.

Often, if you’re looking for the inherently “better” argument, you’re not going to find it. Sometimes you simply have to weigh the evidence and make a choice that might look something like a leap of faith. Maybe you’ll even choose to be open to change, to the other side—not a sign of weakness or doubt, in my opinion; just intellectual honesty.

That said…I know very little about this man who ultimately was executed last night. But I know I can’t support his execution. Pure and simple, the death penalty is inconsistent with my brand* of Christianity.

I can’t support it because I’m uncomfortable with humans taking life and death into our own hands. I question whether our agency in death reflects a high or low view of the value of life. While I’m aware of the occasional ethical dilemma that tests such a principle—especially when faced with a challenging decision between two evils—as a rule I don’t like placing such responsibility in our hands.

I can’t support it because I don’t think Jesus would support it. People who talk about grace often get accused by fellow Christians of ignoring the Old Testament version of God. This is a complex issue, one not easily resolved. Though there are some ways to ease the tension enough to find some clarity.

You might argue that “eye for an eye” mattered only in its context of keeping the Israelites in harmony, united in a covenant relationship with each other and their God and that Jesus significantly modified this old guideline. You also might argue that the violent picture of God you see in the Old Testament is—gulp—a projection of people’s expectations of God onto God.

You could argue that the OT is a glorious, horrifying, brilliant portrayal of how much God hates sin, evil, injustice…but not a portrayal of God’s quickness to end human life, nor a mandate for us to freely take life. Or you can just admit defeat and give up, left with no clues as to what's really happening with God in the OT. But I don't think that resignation is the only option.

“Starting points” are normal and important in theology and Bible study. That is, the assumptions that you bring to the text and use to make sense out of everything else. People usually have a verse that they prioritize over others, and so if the meaning of a second verse is unclear, people might interpret it in light of the "clear" or "sure" meaning of the other.

I start with Jesus being the ultimate picture of God, and thus, find a God who values forgiveness, second chances, peace, reconciliation, going the extra mile for our enemies. I understand the Old Testament picture of God in light of the radical love of Jesus, a Jesus who I believe chose not to retaliate against his persecutors not simply because it would interrupt his master plan of salvation, but because it was against his character, what he instinctively knew to be the right way to act.

I can’t support it because it seems the easy route, of which I'm often suspicious. I'm probably a bit ignorant about the economics and politics of the death penalty. Does not executing people mean a greater tax burden on me to keep someone alive who did something horrendous? (or is it just a matter of restructuring where our taxes go?) I don’t mind donating what little taxes I do pay to the government. After all, this is the land that provides me Starbucks whenever I want it. I guess I owe them something for that.

Rehabilitation, forgiveness, patience, endurance, restraint...these are demanding qualities and goals. But my intuition tells me they're worth pursuing.

I can’t support it because it contradicts my belief in justice. I find in the Old Testament a God who seeks justice, yes—but justice as a means of fixing and healing. God’s justice restores, not punishes. In the context of the death penalty, I see two stumbling blocks.

One, there is a permanent emptiness and sense of loss when you’ve lost a loved one. Killing the one responsible does not make things right, because your loved one is still dead. Worse, you may have now harmed another family by taking the life of the killer. It’s the ones left behind who suffer, right?

Two, I believe God loves to fix things, like a man (or woman) with his projects out in the garage, cleaning, finding the right parts, working until the old piece of junk works like new. I think this is a quality we’re called to emulate, a "God-like" way to do things that we can seek to make visible here on earth in how we deal with one another.

The death penalty does not seem like a commitment to fixing things to me; it seems like giving up, taking the easy route. Restorative justice versus retributive justice. Whatever deterrent to crime retributive justice may be (is it?), it too greatly contradicts with the way of God, as I see it.

Finally, I can’t support it because of what is probably my suspicion of personal responsibility and free will. This is a tension I try to hold. I believe I’m a free being and responsible to make choices, and believe my choices can have consequences for others. BUT…I think everything from genetics to neuroscience to sociology has taught us that who we are is largely formed by factors out of our control.

I'm not saying that Troy Davis—if indeed a killer—should not at all be held responsible for his action. But I am saying that I feel very fortunate (blessed? graced? lucky?) to be who I am today, and can imagine I might be an entirely different person had I been born to different parents, in a different country, in a different historical era, in a different socioeconomic situation, etc.

When faulting people for their actions, I get nervous about finding an individual deserving of death for such actions. I believe we are much more linked and united as a human race than such a high view of personal responsibility suggests to me. I see the human race (and the Church) as a unit, with many interwoven, interdependent parts. Something like that is probably how I would try to make sense of the Trinity to someone (or to myself).

We are in this human situation together. I'm not so sure Troy Davis deserves any worse than I do. But praise God—who loves the mess of humankind enough that God, as the apostle Paul believed, has in Christ reconciled all humankind to himself, not counting our sins against us. (Colossians 1:20, 2 Corinthians 5:19)

Please hear sensitivity in my tone here, and forgive me for any lack of it.

*While I don’t solely understand how I arrived at my beliefs as something akin to a visit to the supermarket, I do find the market metaphor helpful here in stressing diversity of opinion with Christianity.

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