Executing Grace

I’m not a single-issue person. I’m not even really an issue person.

I’m doing my best to love God and love people… and to be a champion for life. I believe every person is a child of God, made in the image of God… and I believe that no one is beyond redemption. No one.

I got involved in the death penalty in part because it is an extension of my ethic of life. I came to realize that while many of us talk about being “pro-life,” we have narrowly defined what that means, and many Christians who say that they are pro-life are really pro-birth, or anti-abortion. Too often our ethic of life sometimes starts at conception and ends at birth. I want to be pro-life from womb to tomb, and that means finding alternatives to the death penalty.

I’ve had the honor of working with people directly affected by the death penalty. Murder victims’ family members, families of the executed, folks who were wrongfully convicted and sentenced to die. I even wrote a chapter of my book, Executing Grace, that is called “The Haunted Executioners,” as I talked with folks who were responsible for taking folks’ lives. It’s important to remember all the lives that are impacted by the death penalty. There is a lot at stake.

Too often our ethic of life sometimes starts at conception and ends at birth.  I want to be pro-life from womb to tomb, and that means finding alternatives to the death penalty. A zip code can determine who lives and who dies.

I think the right place to start is that we cannot divorce the contemporary death penalty from our history of race and the residue that slavery has left us. The states that held on to slavery the longest are the same states that have held on to the death penalty. Just as there is this evolution of slavery to mass incarceration, we also see the evolution from lynching to state sanctioned executions.

When we think of the death penalty, we like to think that we are executing the worst of the worst, but the truth is, too often, that we are executing the poorest of the poor and disproportionally folks of color.

Exactly where lynchings were happening 100 years ago is where executions are happening today. In 1950 African Americans were 22% of our population but they constituted 75% of executions. When you fast-forward 70 years later to today, African Americans are about 13% of our population, but they still make up almost half of death row (43%) and over a third of our executions (34%).

When we think of the death penalty, we like to think that we are executing the worst of the worst, but the truth is, too often, that we are executing the poorest of the poor and disproportionally folks of color. Jeffrey Dahmer didn’t get the death penalty. Charles Manson died of natural causes in prison. Harvard-educated Ted Kaczynski is still alive. Race and resources often determine who lives and dies. More than the atrocity of the crime, what often determines who gets executed are arbitrary things like the resources of the defendant, the race of the victim, and where the crime was committed. We know that now 2% of our counties–two percent—account for almost half of the death sentences. A zip code can determine who lives and who dies.

And, of course, there is the issue of innocence. We now have over 165 people who have been wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death and who have now been exonerated after proving their innocence. Those are just the ones who have been able to prove their innocence. And that is in 26 states. So, for every nine executions we have had one exoneration.  That’s not a good track record. What if for every 10 planes that took off one crashed? We would ground the planes right? It raises the question of how much we trust the government. Do we trust our broken human systems that much–that we are willing to give them the irreversible power of life and death? You can free someone when you wrong-fully sentence someone to life in prison, but you can’t bring someone back from the dead. As Sister Helen Prejean often says, sometimes the question isn’t whether someone deserves to die, but whether we deserve to kill, especially when we have such a bad track record of getting it wrong.

The people who have been wrongfully convicted are not just statistics. They are names, faces, children of God made in the image of God. I’ve gotten to know so many of these folks that were wrongfully convicted. My friend Derrick Jamison in Ohio was convicted of a crime he had nothing to do with. He spent twenty years on death row, saw fifty of his friends executed, lost his mom while he was in prison, had six execution dates, was hours from his execution, and eventually the prosecution was forced to release 34 pieces of suppressed evidence that proved his innocence. He was released, with no apology and no compensation.

In my home state of Tennessee, a man named Ndume Olatushani was convicted of a murder in Tennessee, and he had never even been to this state. The first time he came to Tennessee was to show up in court to defend himself. The system is broken, so broken that the Supreme Court has had to consider whether or not it is unconstitutional to execute an innocent person if they had due process. Help us, Lord.

So why do we still have the death penalty?

Violence is the problem not the solution. It’s the disease not the cure.

It’s clear that it’s not a deterrent of crime. It’s clear that it costs more to keep the death penalty than alternatives to it, even life without parole. A growing movement of murder victims’ family members have become vocal in their opposition of the death penalty, insisting that it mirrors the evil done to them, that it only extends trauma, exacerbates wounds, and creates a new set of victims. At the heart of their message is: “Remember our loved ones, but not with more killing.” Violence is the problem not the solution. It’s the disease not the cure.

When we look at the rest of the world, we stand alone in the industrialized world when it comes to the death penalty.  Over 160 countries moved on from the death penalty and have gone more than a decade without executions. The company we keep when it comes to executing our own citizens are China, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia. We are usually number five or number six and always in the top ten executing countries of the world. Those countries are not the champions of human rights, not the best company to keep. We can do better.

So, you start to ask how is it that the death penalty has survived, and the disturbing answer to that question is–CHRISTIANS.The death penalty would not stand a chance in America if it weren’t for Christians. The death penalty has survived, not in spite of us, but because of us. Wherever Christians have been most concentrated in America is where the death penalty has survived. It’s counterintuitive. And tragic. We talk about being pro-life, but we haven’t been on this issue.

How is it that the death penalty has survived? The disturbing answer is… Christians.

Eighty-five percent of executions have happened in the Bible belt. As my brother Dale Recinella says, “The Bible belt is the death belt in America.” And I was one of those pro-death-penalty Christians for much of my life. I had all the Bible verses to support my case, and I wielded them well. I’ve always been passionate, even when I’m wrong. But I went back and started to look at those Bible verses, the ones I have used to justify the death penalty.

There are a number of things that are troubling, lots of holes I found in my theology. Let’s start with the fact that in the Old Testament capital murder wasn’t the only death-worthy crime. There were like thirty death-worthy crimes which included disrespecting your parents, various forms of sexual conduct, witchcraft, even working on the Sabbath. Even in the early U.S. colonies we executed for witchcraft–think of the Salem witch trials. Think about that–working on the Sabbath was a capital crime. Pretty much everyone would be in trouble for that one except Chick-Fil-A. Not many people want to bring the full death penalty back as we see it in Scripture. We’re not ready to kill our kids for playing with a Ouija board.

But the interesting thing is that the Hebrew people rarely carried out executions. There were over forty strict requirements for an execution which ensured that they almost never happened. The rabbis used to say that if we have more than one execution in seventy years, something was wrong. One of my rabbinical friends pointed out the irony that Jews did away with the death penalty a long time ago, but Christians still misuse the Hebrew Scripture to justify it. He laughed as he pointed out the obvious, “And you all have Jesus to reconcile this with. That makes it even more baffling.”

Some will say that God is for the death penalty. But think of the story of Cain and Able, the inaugural murder in the Bible. God doesn’t kill Cain. Cain’s life is spared. In fact, Cain is actually protected by God, and he goes on to have a family, even build a city.

One of the other early murderers in the Bible is none other than Moses, right? Moses kills a man in the book of Exodus.  And yet Moses’ life is spared. Think of David. David killed Uriah the husband of Bathsheba to cover up his adulterous affair. Saul of Tarsus was a murderer. He oversaw the brutal murder of a young man named Stephen in the book of Acts. If we believe that murderers are beyond redemption, we could rip out half the Bible, because it was written by them.

I mean the Bible would be a lot shorter without grace.

But sometimes we interpret Jesus through the lens of Old Testament or Paul’s writing, rather than interpreting the Bible through the lens of Jesus.

Think of the “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” text. It is one of the most famous, and most well-known verses of the Bible. It warrants a closer look. This idea of lex taliones–from which we derive the idea of retaliation– was an ancient philosophy of justice that predated the Bible. It allowed for reciprocal harm. You could harm someone else inasmuch as they had harmed you. But we have grossly misunderstood it. What was meant to limit harm has been used as a license to harm.

The main purpose of an eye for an eye was to stop the spiral of violence. It put a limit on retaliation. If someone put your eye out, you could put one of their eyes out–but not both, an eye for an eye, but no more. If someone broke your leg, you couldn’t go break both of their legs and burn down their house. It was to prevent further harm. But think about it. If someone pokes your eye out, we wouldn’t recommend poking their eye out. If someone cuts your hand off, we don’t cut off theirs. We don’t rape people who rape to show that rape is wrong. But somehow in the most extreme case of capital murder, we still cling to this logic that we can kill to show that killing is wrong. That’s why Jesus shines so brightly.

As a Christian, I don’t believe that Jesus came to abolish the Old Testament law, but he came to fulfill it, to show us what perfect love looks like. And so he will say: “You’ve heard it said ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’… but I tell you this.” Moses told you this, but I tell you this… there is an even better way. Jesus shows us the fulfillment of the law. Limiting harm was a good place to start. Not harming at all is even better. We don’t have to mirror the evil done to us. We can overcome evil with good. We don’t use violence to stop violence, even if we have the legal right. Just because it is legal doesn’t make it right. Just because you can take someone’s eye out doesn’t mean we should.

One of the striking things about the early church is how consistent it was in advocating for life. It stood against every manifestation of violence and death in their world. Tertullian, Hippolytus, Origin, Lacantius, Athenagoras, Gregory, and Cyprian all spoke poignantly against capital punishment. Third-century Bishop of Carthage, Cyprian, pointed out our inconsistency as he said this: “When individuals commit homicide, it is a crime; it is a virtue when it is done in the name of the state.” He named the contradiction that when an individual kills we call it evil but consecrate it when the state does it en masse. The early Christians were right; it is wrong to kill, whether it is done by a criminal or by a governor. After all, on the death certificate of an executed person in the United States, the “manner of death” is listed as “homicide.”

“When individuals commit homicide, it is a crime; it is a virtue when it is done in the name of the state.” – Cyprian

Jesus is the ultimate interrupter of violence on the cross as he puts death on display and he triumphs over it with grace and love and mercy. On the cross, Jesus took on the powers of death. He absorbed all of the evil and sin and violence of the world. He put death on display, not in order to glorify death, but in order to subvert it. As Colossians says:  “Having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.” Love wins. Mercy triumphs over judgment. Jesus is like water poured on the electric chair, to short circuit the whole system of retribution, sacrifice and death. Death is dead.

And of course, we can’t forget Jesus’ ultimate interruption of death, when he stops the execution of the woman caught in adultery. Here’s the scene. The woman is dragged before the entire town, humiliated in public, her execution is imminent. All the men are armed with stones and ready to kill her, and arguably they had every right to do so.

Jesus enters the circle of armed men, and he digs in the dirt. We don’t know exactly what he wrote in the dirt. But we do know what he did next. He said to the men, “Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone.” And he’ll remind them, and all of us, that if you’ve looked at someone with lust in your eyes, you’ve committed adultery in your heart. If you’ve called someone a fool, you’re a murderer. None of us is above reproach and none of us is beyond redemption.

That’s the gospel. And the story ends as all the men just scatter, and we’re left with just Jesus and the woman. Jesus says to her, “Where did they all go?” The message is clear. The only one who has any right to throw a stone had absolutely no desire. The closer we get to God, the less we want to throw stones at other people. That’s how it should be. But we have some work to do.

Here’s the good news. I believe that we can be the generation to end the death penalty. Executions drop almost every year. They are the lowest they have been in twenty years. Death sentences are the lowest they have been in a generation. A younger generation is done with death. Millennial Christians (born after 1980) are overwhelmingly against the death penalty–80% of them. And it’s not in spite of their faith, but because of it. They can’t reconcile execution with the Savior who said, “Blessed are the merciful for they will be shown mercy.” In fact, Americans as a whole were polled, and 95% said Jesus would be against the death penalty. We just have to get the Christians to take Jesus more seriously.

This is our moment to stand on the side of life and declare the end of the death penalty, in the name of the executed and risen Jesus.

The question isn’t whether we will end the death penalty. The question is what role Christians will play in making the death penalty history. I believe the next generation will look back at capital punishment like we look back at slavery–with shame and horror, and embarrassed that the Bible was used to justify it. It doesn’t take courage to say slavery was wrong a generation after we ended it. It took courage to say that slavery was wrong when it was legal, accepted as the status quo, and justified from the pulpits of our churches. This is our moment to stand on the side of life and declare the end of the death penalty, in the name of the executed and risen Jesus. Amen.

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