Sunday, November 16, 2008

Capital Punishment

"I'm a Christian, I support the death penalty."

When I heard these words earlier in the week, I wanted to scream. I work (as basically a secretary) for a non-profit law firm that defends people on death row through their appeals and other legal processes. The two lawyers I work for in particular do a lot of consulting and training work with lawyers throughout the state who represent people charged with murder. This last week, we held a seminar in Raleigh for lawyers from all over NC, and one of the most interesting things we did was hold mock jury selection with real people from the community. We hired folks through a temp agency to just come and pretend to be prospective jurors on a capital case. They were told to just be themselves and answer any questions as honestly as they could.

Picking a capital jury is interesting. You can't be a juror on a capital case if you would never sentence a murderer to death. You can't be on one if you would always sentence a murderer to death. You have to be someone who thinks the death penalty is appropriate in some cases, but not in others. Consequently, when picking a jury, lawyers who represent the state and the defendant get to ask questions about the prospective jurors' views on the death penalty, among other topics. Right now a slim majority of the country supports the death penalty, and the preference is much higher in the South, so I wasn't surprised that most people were in favor of it. I can and do respectfully disagree with them (I'll explain why shortly). But this one guy...his answer was clear, and unambiguous, and it pissed me the hell off. 

"I'm a Christian, I support the death penalty."

He wasn't saying, "I'm a Christian, AND ALSO I support the death penalty" or even "I'm a Christian WHO supports the death penalty." There are many Christians who do, and though I think they're incredibly wrong (I'm getting to why), again I can respectfully disagree. No, this guy infuriated me because he was really saying, "I'm a Christian, THEREFORE I support the death penalty. I follow Jesus, therefore I want to kill murderers. I worship the most famous victim of capital punishment in world history, who told his followers to turn the other cheek and not resist evildoers, who declined to exercise the righteous judgment of the law even though he's the only person who could ever have rightfully done so, therefore I advocate putting certain people to death, even though it won't undo any of the terrible things they have done. I believe vengeance is mine (or the state's), despite claiming to worship a Man who is a God who said that vengeance is His."

When I'm talking to friends or family members who support the death penalty, or are unsure, sometimes I stick to practical matters. If I was talking to this guy, for instance, I would talk about the 130 people who have been released from death row after being exonerated. We are human beings creating a human system, that is bound to be flawed, so we should not do anything we cannot undo, I say. We cannot give life to the wrongfully executed, therefore we should not take life. And that is a good reason to abolish the death penalty.

I might talk about the well-documented racial disparity. If you are black and kill a white person, you are much more likely to receive a sentence of death than if you are white and kill a black person, or even if you are black and kill another black person. Our justice system values white lives more than black lives, and that is wrong, and so we should abolish the death penalty. And that's a good reason too.

Or I will address the idea of deterrence. If we kill murderers, the thinking goes, then other people who might commit murder will be less inclined to risk their own lives. That turns out to not be true, I'll say. And there's a good reason; people who commit murders frequently do so under the influence of mental illness, drug or alcohol abuse, or severe emotional stress. Most murders are not the carefully planned out schemes you see on Law & Order. People who commit murder are not doing a cost/benefit analysis on the various punishments they may receive. Deterrence is the main reason people give in favor of the death penalty as good policy. So I'll argue against it. 

Or I could simply point out the other countries that execute people like we do. Here's a sample of the places that carried out executions in 2007: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Botswana, China, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Kuwait, Libya, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Vietnam, and Yemen. Oh, and the United States of America. One of these things is not like the others.

But as I think more and more about faith and justice, I think I have to attack the base of the death penalty: the moral and ethical question of it. Never mind whether we can create a fair system of justice that will administer executions (which we can't). Are we morally allowed to kill people who have killed others? Are we morally required to? Under the ethics of most societies through history, yes (although all other Western democracies have banned capital punishment). Under the Constitution of the U.S., sure, at least according to our current Supreme Court. I'm not saying capital punishment isn't American. But under the ethics of Jesus?

Matthew 5:38-47
You have heard that it was said, 'Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.' But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Love your enemy. Do not resist an evil person. Turn the other cheek. Eye for an eye justice doesn't apply anymore. Be perfect as God is perfect. These are the ethics of Jesus. I believe Jesus comes at the question of violence, as he always does, in a way we do not expect. 

Us: Jesus, Murderer X killed someone, he deserves to die!
Jesus: Fine. Who deserves to kill him? Let the person who hasn't sinned be the executioner. 
Us: Well, uh, define "sinned".
Jesus: How about this, if you've ever hated someone or called them a fool, that's the same as murder.
Us: Ok, you got us, Jesus...wait! You haven't sinned! You can be our executioner!
Jesus: Rest assured, I will do all the judging that needs to be done. Vengeance is mine, after all. But follow my example. Put the stone down. Turn the other cheek. Lock people up if you have to. But do not take a life. It's not yours to take.

This is kind of long already. More of this later.

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