Independent Christian Voice

Tuesday

A response to recent reader comments about post on Tookie's execution

There have been quite a few comments received recently regarding the opposition to the death penalty expressed on this blog. These range from absurd suggestions — like Tookie being paroled to come live with those who oppose his execution — to more reasonable statements that Tookie is deserving of death and this represents Justice (albeit imperfect) and Justice is a pillar of Christianity. I can state whole-heartedly that Tookie is deserving of death — as are we all. Lest we forget that the penalty for all sin is death. Thankfully, we live under a system of grace. I am respectful of the law that exists (where the law gives the state the right to execute, I never suggest that the state is not acting within its rights). I will also continue to do what I can to change the law for several reasons. One, the system of personal Justice discussed in the Old Testament Mosaic Law was an imperfect system. Hebrews 8:7, 13 — "For if there had been nothing wrong with that first covenant, no place would have been sought for another… By calling this covenant "new," he has made the first one obsolete." Second and more importantly, "justice" should be truly "just." Tookie and others on death row are guilty of their crimes and deserving of punishment. Is justice carried out blindly and fairly in this country? If it is not, we have a problem when reading the same bible others use to defend this brand of "Justice". A New Testament follower would be better served to look to Jesus' lead. One example would be the woman caught in adultery. He upheld that the law had the right to stone her but he also put the burden back on the accusers that "Justice" should be just and only those without sin should cast the first stone. "The written Law" is often misapplied by man (as it often was by the Pharisees) when the "Spirit of the Law" is ignored to ensure that justice is applied to all but ourselves. In Matthew 5, Christ explains that he did not come to abolish the law, he came to fulfill it. This is often used as the bridge between the OT system of an "eye for an eye" and Jesus' obvious preference for grace. Throughout the rest of Matthew 5, he goes on to show that what "mankind" likes to see in the law is not always a full representation of the "Spirit of the Law." He put us to a higher standard that so many Christians would like to ignore because it is often easier to understand a system of do(s) and don't(s) than a system driven by grace and the Holy Spirit. There is an important and practical reason why society would not be well served by Tookie's death that pro-death advocates choose to ignore. He still carries a voice with the youth entrenched in the violence he helped create. His voice can still do something good. Whatever one's position on the morality of capital punishment, this is still an issue to consider. I am not trying to diminish his crimes or the punishment he deserves. His danger to society has been addressed by his imprisonment — that is no longer an issue. His death must be viewed in the light of punishment or revenge. As a Christian, I am confident Tookie will address his wrongdoings when he stands before the Creator. From an earthly perspective, I am aware he is already being punished by the loss of his freedom. I am left with the feeling that the primary issue is revenge. Revenge is not a particularly Christian attribute. God asked us to leave room for his vengeance and I can trust in his Justice above man's laws. I will offer the opinion writing of David Chandler regarding the death penalty as I think he makes some very valid points that we as Christians must consider if our first concern is truly "justice."
Since 1973, over 100 people have been exonerated and released from death rows around the country. The average time served by these innocent victims of the system was 9 years. The error rate is so high that in the year 2000 George Ryan, the Republican governor of Illinois declared a death penalty moratorium. The racial discrimination argument runs a little differently than the straw man version presented last week. The number of white inmates on death row (45%) slightly exceeds the number of black inmates (42%), but these numbers are way out of proportion with the population. The issue is not who commits more crime. A study in Philadelphia showed that when black and white defendants were convicted of comparable crimes, black defendants were 38% more likely to receive the death penalty. Even more telling than the race of the defendant is the race of the victim. A study in North Carolina showed that murders with white victims were 3.5 times more likely to result in the death penalty than murders with black victims. Black murderers of white victims are most likely, and white murderers of black victims are least likely, to receive the death penalty. 50% of murder victims are white, but 80% of those given the death penalty have white victims. The geography of executions is not determined by population density, as suggested last week. The densely populated Northeast has the lowest murder rate nationally and has executed only 3 people since 1976. The Western states have executed 59, the Midwest 96, and the South 735. Texas and Virginia alone account for 406 of the South's total. Hand in hand with racial discrimination is economic discrimination. In California in the 1980's, 42% of blue-collar workers convicted of first-degree murder received the death penalty, compared to only 5% of white-collar workers convicted of similar crimes. Most defendants in capital cases cannot afford to hire their own attorney. This is clearly tied to the high rate of error in convictions. There are deeper reasons to reject the death penalty. The death penalty is based on the concept of retribution: "eye for eye, tooth for tooth, life for life". Retribution is not about protecting society. That is accomplished once the criminal is imprisoned. Rather, it is a way of collectively venting our anger. When we have been wronged we have an urge to strike back and make the offender suffer. When someone is murdered we feel we owe it to the family of the victim to avenge the death of their loved one. But vengeance cannot reverse the original act or heal the pain. Instead it arouses and legitimizes our own murderous impulses. Vengeance does violence to the soul and perpetuates violence in society. Retribution is Biblical, but so is its antithesis. When Jesus was asked whether a woman taken in adultery should be stoned to death in accordance with the Mosaic law, he responded simply, "He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone...." By his response he rejects the entire concept of retribution. All of us, both accusers and accused, are flawed human beings, so mercy, not retribution, is appropriate. Jesus changes the focus to restoration and healing. Where our society parts ways with Jesus is in seeing murderers as monsters. He sees them instead, no matter how horrible their crimes, as prodigal children of a loving Father who awaits their return with open arms. The monster image alienates us from the person behind the crime. We see monsters as twisted, evil, and, most importantly, unlike ourselves. But criminals are in fact people like ourselves in whom God dwells. They may have grave weaknesses and failings, but they are the weaknesses and failings of humanity. If we deny our human bond with the criminal we implicitly deny our own capacity for evil and become guilty of hubris. Most of the nations of the world have come to realize that capital punishment does not serve the best interests of society. It is an irreversible penalty meted out by a fallible process that is not, and can never be, applied equitably and without error. It works more harshly against the poor, the dark skinned, and the damaged than against the sometimes greater evils of the rich and powerful. It denies the sacredness of human life, it precludes the opportunity for redemption, and it perpetuates the cycle of violence. Murder is just the tip of the iceberg of a violent society. The narrow focus of capital punishment diverts our attention from the systemic evils that permeate our society at all levels. Rather than venting our anger on the few, let us work to melt the entire iceberg of violence.

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