Monday, March 9, 2009

Matters of Life and Death (Dialogue Column 3.10.09)

I wrote this for The Dialogue, the newsletter of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in St. Joseph, MO. Often, I'll post here on the blog my columns for the weekly newsletter. I mention it just so that folks who read the snail-mail version can skip this post if they've already read it.

This Sunday at First Christian Church we will eat corned beef and cabbage (at least some of us will), dedicate a redecorated nursery and talk about matters of life and death. While we eat food in honor of St. Patrick’s Day following worship, we will also discuss and vote upon a resolution supporting a moratorium on the death penalty in Missouri. I have been pleased by how the discussion at our church has gone thus far in regards to this issue, and I am very hopeful we can have another good dialogue as a church whatever we decide in our special church business meeting. In an effort to foster healthy dialogue on Sunday—when I don’t plan on saying much, if anything, I’d like to offer a few observations here.

1. I think most of us at First Christian have misgivings about how some churches approach political and social issues. We bristle at suggestions that ALL Christians should move in lock-step with one another, but let me assure you such is not the case in regards to Sunday’s vote regarding the death penalty moratorium. The process for having this discussion did not begin with a minister or other church leader declaring by fiat that we all should believe the same thing. Instead, it began as it should in churches like ours with one layperson who felt a strong sense of conviction not only about a particular issue but also about our church’s ability to do something about that issue.

Dave Tushaus, who happens not only to be the chair of the Criminal Justice and Legal Studies Department at Missouri Western but also our church moderator this year, became aware of the moratorium on the death penalty making its way through the state capital and that religious and civic groups around the state were offering their support of it. He brought the issue to the Outreach Committee which discussed the matter and voted to take it to the Administrative Board. The Board then discussed it and voted to take it to the congregation. At each step, church members gave the matter careful consideration and now the entire church membership is asked to do the same.

2. The bill going through the state legislature is a bi-partisan effort and is supported by both by supporters and opponents of the death penalty. It is sponsored by Rep. Bill Deeken of Jefferson City who happens to be a Republican and in favor of capital punishment. He, as well as members of both political parties, supporters and opponents of the death penalty, University of Missouri Law School, the American Bar Association and other groups, has noted that although Missouri is the fourth highest state in numbers of executions, it has a flawed system when it comes to handing down death penalty sentences. There are a number of credible claims of innocence among those on death row including three exonerations of death row inmates, as well as a disproportionate number of low-income and/or African-American death row inmates.

3. A vote in favor of or against a moratorium by a church in St. Joseph could influence the debate at the state capital. Resolutions in support of a moratorium have been passed by religious and community groups across the state, but with the exception of several groups who are a part of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, no group has done so in St. Joseph. Our community’s voice matters, because currently our own Charlie Shields is president of the State Senate and will have considerable influence upon the bill. Religious groups in support of the bill include Quakers, Baptists, Roman Catholics, United Methodists, Episcopalians, Community of Christ, Unitarian-Universalists, Jews, Buddhists, and non-denominational Christians, but other than the Catholic diocese, no group in St. Joseph has weighed in on the issue.

4. Each church member is expected to vote his or her own conscience under our way of doing things as a church. Each member also has the option of skipping the vote if he or she chooses. Capital punishment is a difficult issue that can raise emotions. Indeed, several church members have been affected directly by violent crime, so this is also a personal issue. Given these factors, along with the fact that we are truly discussing matters of life and death, it is important that we remember that we are Christians and it is the grace of God that gives us the ability to agree and/or disagree while still treating one another as beloved children of God.
On this last count—loving one another—I expect we will do just fine on Sunday.

Grace and Peace,


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