Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Death Penalty Demeans Us All

I have a friend from high school, Doug Ramseur (now interestingly married to a UCC minister), who has made a career of being a Capital Defender.  A Capital Defender is employed by a state to carry out defense work at the sentencing stage of capital crimes.  Since most public defenders are overworked and underpaid and sentencing can involve specialized legal work, Doug comes in when someone has been found guilty of a capital crime and is facing a death sentence in order to give them the best defense the law can allow.  

I can remember when Doug first began this work years ago we were talking about the death penalty.  I offered that the crimes are horrible and listening to the families of the victims is traumatic.  I asked, "How can we help but want the ultimate punishment for such terrible violent acts?"  Doug's response has always stayed with me.  He replied that it was also traumatic to listen to the family members of the offender.  Often, the offender underwent abuse and neglect, suffered from mental illness and/or was himself the victim of violent crime.  Listening to the mother of an offender weep for the misspent life of her son is also haunting. 

Once I reflected on Doug's words, maybe for the first time, I began to think of offenders of horrendous crimes as human.  The acts of violence are so terrible that the normal human response is to recoil in horror and to re-categorize such a person as a monster--the ultimate other that should have no place in this world.  My reluctance  to think of such an offender as human, I realized, had a lot to do with my own desire not to see any similarities between myself and him. 

Over the years since then, once I began to consider the possibility that capital offenders were human too, I have paid attention to the issue of capital punishment.  Study after study continues to demonstrate the inequalities in our justice system.  If you are wealthy enough to hire good criminal defense lawyers it is highly unlikely you will be sentenced or even convicted, whereas a person who only has an overworked and under-trained public defender is almost guaranteed to not only be convicted but face harsher sentences.   Furthermore, the scientific evidence is vast that ethnic minorities receive harsher sentences than Caucasians and are convicted by juries at a higher rate for the same crimes.  Regularly, it seems, various "Innocence Projects" reveal through DNA research or review of evidence that a person on Death Row (usually African-American and male) is innocent.  Debate over the death penalty would be a different matter if our legal system really offered everyone the same treatment.

One of the main arguments in favor of the death penalty is that it serves as a deterrent to crime, but such is not the case in reality.  Crime rates rise and fall regardless of whether or not a state has a death penalty.  Go ahead and google the death penalty.  You will find the sad statistics and studies are readily available to all, but facts are rarely a part of the political discourse.

Kansas City's free weekly newspaper The Pitch recently had an excellent article about Missouri's death penalty by Steve Vockrodt.  Vockrodt effectively and convincingly shows the ridiculous lengths the Missouri Department of Corrections has gone through to shroud its process of lethal injection in secrecy.  The doctor it uses is incompetent, the drugs it uses are untested, and the laws regarding capital punishment are twisted to prevent scrutiny by defense lawyers, medical experts and the public at large.  Vockrodt also wrote an article back in January about Missouri's lethal injection machine, which was designed by Fred A. Leuchter, a Nazi sympathizer and Holocaust denier who was convicted of falsely presenting himself as an engineer.  If this sounds like the plot of a movie, it is, except it's not a work of fiction but a documentary by Errol Morris which details this bizarre story.  Yet, not even those facts can stop Missouri and its executions.  Our legislature and especially our governor, Democrat Jay Nixon, wish to appear tough on crime even if it means using a machine created by a Nazi sympathizer and Holocaust denier.

Of course, one of the main justifications for capital punishment is the oft-quoted "eye for an eye" argument by people--often Christians--who claim the Bible supports it.  Never mind that Jesus explicitly refutes this reading of scripture, Christians, especially "Bible-believing" Evangelicals demonstrate the highest rate of support for the death penalty.  Recently, fundamentalist extraordinaire Al Mohler of the Southern Baptist Convention wrote a defense of capital punishment.  Mohler's weak argument was easily dispatched by Evangelical blogger Shaine Clairborne, who notes that Mohler's pro-death penalty piece didn't mention Jesus at all.  I liked Clairborne's piece, but when I shared it on Facebook one of my church members pointed out an obvious omission in it.  Clairborne expertly points out the flaws in the criminal justice system and then wonderfully points out that Jesus demonstrated that no one is fully beyond redemption, yet he fails to mention the most obvious point of all that Jesus Christ himself was an innocent man put to death by the state.

I would argue that the main reason more Christians are not opposed to the death penalty is because of a bad theological understanding of why Jesus died on the cross.  The dominant understanding of the reason for Jesus' death is wrapped in an understanding of atonement theology that says Jesus' death was necessary, because Jesus takes the punishment we sinners deserve.  The logic of this theology says that God's justice requires suffering and violence in order for God's wrath to be assuaged.  Following this line of thinking, violence can be redemptive and when carried out by those who are righteous satisfies the demands of justice.  Never mind the bit about Jesus being innocent or Rome using violence to control its subjects, God needed someone to die and Jesus did.  Even beyond what this theology says about God and violence, the problem remains that our legal system does not dispatch God's justice, because it lacks God's omniscience. 

The God I believe in desires more than vengeful retribution.  Instead God desires restoration.  For me, Jesus' death exposes the inadequacies and injustices of human legal systems and power-hungry politicians.  Jesus' death demonstrates humanity's need for reconciliation not only with God but with one another.  Rather than a justification for violence, Jesus' death is the ultimate statement about the failure of violence to solve humanity's ills.  A society must have a legal system to function, but that system must always be open to reform, scrutiny and when necessary, reformulation.  As it stands, the states of Missouri and Kansas continue to kill people in your and my name through a system that benefits the rich over the poor and the white over the black and brown.  Most of all, this system denies the humanity of the offenders and diminishes the humanity of all of us.  Until it is stopped, all of us are demeaned by it.  

Grace and Peace,

You can read more thoughts from Chase and keep up with what he's reading on his blog: www.revpeep.blogspot.com and follow him on Facebook and Twitter. 

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