Sunday, June 7, 2015

Sunday reading: some thoughts on faith and the death penalty

A few days ago, I wrote a post about how the Nebraska Legislature banned the death penalty despite the fact that Nebraska's governor opposed doing so. It turns out that Nebraska's Governor Pete Ricketts really, really wants to execute prisoners. As a result,  Governor Ricketts claims he is going to have the 10 prisoners currently on Nebraska's death row executed before the new law takes effect.  As Garrett Epps points out at the Atlantic, it is unlikely that Governor Ricketts can make that happen.

Governor Ricketts is also supporting a group called Nebraskans for the Death Penalty. The group is seeking to hold a referendum that will overturn the law banning the death penalty.  The honorary co-chairs of the group are former Nebraska Attorney General (and current State Treasurer) Don Stenberg and Beau McCoy, a state senator.  One of the sponsors of the referendum is Omaha City Councilwoman Aimee Melton.

According to the Omaha World-Herald-presumably from information supplied by the men to the paper, Mr. Stenberg is an "Evangelical Christian" and Mr. McCoy is a "born again Southern Baptist." Ms. Melton's biography on the Omaha City Council webpage suggests that she is a Roman Catholic. It might be worth noting that, as Ms. Melton's local bishops recently pointed out, the Roman Catholic Church teaches that the death penalty is wrong.

I bring up the religious faith of these three individuals because they have publicly proclaimed their faith. I think it is safe to assume they proclaimed their faith because they wanted people to know that they were voting for a candidate who would act in accordance with their religion.

So what might Jesus think about supporting the death penalty? In the Gospel of Luke (4:18), Jesus states that his mission on earth is "proclaim good news to the poor . . . proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free" (emphasis mine). I doubt the freedom for the prisoners that Jesus had in mind was execution by the government. In the Gospel of Matthew (25:31-46), Jesus tells how, at the judgment day, people will be judged worthy of eternal life.  
‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in,  I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ 
Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?  When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you?  When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ 
[Jesus] will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
(emphasis mine). The people who did not do not feed the hungry, care for the stranger, clothe the naked, and visit the prisoner "go away to eternal punishment," The implications of this passage in Matthew sometimes awaken me, as the saying goes, like a fire bell in the night when I think of the times I did not do those things.  But I digress

Anyway, I do not understand the part about visiting prisoners to be visiting prisoners in order to execute them.

Some people might say that an exhortation to visiting prisoners suggests that Christ does not have any issue with people having criminal sentences imposed upon them. But consider the story of Jesus and the woman who was caught in adultery (John 8:1-11).

In the story, "teachers of the law" bring a woman caught in adultery to Jesus. They point out to Jesus that the punishment for adultery is to be stoned to death. They ask Jesus what he has to say about the imposition of this punishment. Jesus ignores the question for a while and writes on the ground with his finger.  The teachers of law press Jesus for an answer and he says "Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her." John writes how people began to leave one at a time until only Jesus was left with the woman. Jesus instructs the woman to go and leave her life of sin.

Another digression, you can watch a clip of this passage-starring someone who looks a lot like the guy who played Desmond Hume on Lost-here.

I understand this passage from John to say that the State should not execute people because the state is not blameless, i.e., without sin. Moreover, Christ's admonition that the woman leave her life of sin suggest that the death penalty is wrong because it does not allow the sinful to repent and be redeemed.

There is also is a practical reason that Nebraskans should not vote in favor of the reference proposed by Ms. Melton, Mr. McCoy and Mr. Stenberg. Sometimes the innocent are sentenced to death. Indeed the Charlotte News-Observer has the story of how North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory recently pardoned two brothers who were sentenced to death (and on death row awaiting imposition of their sentence for 30). The reason Governor McCrory pardoned the men is that they were innocent.

I am not trying to mock the faith of death penalty supporters. And I am not trying to suggest they are hypocrites. I fail to live up to my religious beliefs all the time. But it seems to me that when disregarding one's religious beliefs results in someone being executed, people ought to try harder to follow their faith.

What do you think Mr. Torvik, is it fair,  to point out that Ms Melton, Mr. McCoy, and Mr. Stenberg are not following in the best traditions of their faith? Should politicians base their political views on their religious views?


  1. There has been pro death penalty Christian teachings for over 2000 years (1).

    Some mainstream Christian denominations started anti death penalty teachings around 1960.

    Possibly, you should have asked what biblical scripture, suddenly, changed in 1960?

    You misinterpreted the woman caught in adultery (2).

    The Catholic Church has never taught that the death penalty is wrong (3), nor can She.

    Jesus gives a specific reference to death penalty support (4), as well as other examples.

    Innocents are more at risk without the death penalty (5).

    1) New Testament Death Penalty Support Overwhelming

    2) New Testament Death Penalty Support Overwhelming

    The Death Penalty: Mercy, Expiation, Redemption & Salvation

    3) Current Problems: Catholic Death Penalty Teaching
    Most recent Catechism (last amended 2003)

    4) Jesus and the Death Penalty

    The Death Penalty: Mercy, Expiation, Redemption & Salvation

    5) The Death Penalty: Do Innocents Matter? A Review of All Innocence Issues

    1. ugh.

      Messed up the footnotes.

      This should have been placed

      2) The Woman Caught in Adultery, the Death Penalty & John 8:2-11

  2. I don’t wish to turn this into a dispute, but the death penalty is and has always been wrong. What changed in 1960? We changed, we figured out we misunderstood the scriptures. It’s called ‘learning’. Once the Bible was invoked to justify slavery. What biblical scripture suddenly changed in the 1860s? None, we just figured out we had misunderstood the scriptures.

    I have no interest in an indirect debate with; their position is built on their own, personal understanding of scripture. They don’t speak FOR the scriptures any more than I do. I have no less authority than they do.

    The death penalty is evil, futile, cruel, and unnecessary. Other than those, there’s nothing wrong with it.

    sean s.


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