A sermon delivered by The Rev. Timothy C. Ahrens at The First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio, November 25, 2001, The Final Sunday of Pentecost and the Reign of Christ the King, dedicated to Sarah Ruth Sitler Ahrens on her 6th Birthday and always to the glory of God!
Jeremiah 23:1-6; Luke 23:33-43
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Strength and our Salvation. Amen.
On the hill of Skulls, the embodiment of justice was executed. The word crucifixion literally means "to drive a stake through a person." By the early days of the first century, the Roman Empire had expanded crucifixion - adding a crossbeam to the skewer. On such a cross, our Savior was executed. The one who embodied Justice and Mercy was unjustly and mercilessly executed.
Today's text from Luke seems to be strangely located on the cusp of Advent. Most of us would feel more comfortable if Jesus' execution at the hands of Roman and Jewish leaders would occur on Good Friday. But, today is the Reign of Christ the King. This Lucan text places the distinctive emphasis on Jesus' forgiving spirit and merciful remembrance of one of the criminals who was crucified with him at the heart of defining Jesus as Christ the King. "King of the Jews" - the sign mockingly says above his head on the cross of crucifixion, but King of Compassion, King of Mercy, King of Justice, or King of Humanity is a more appropriate demarcation. It is in the spirit of the Crucified One - Even Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior - that I offer reflections today on execution as we know it in America today.
Like the Roman Empire before us, we, in America, have our own form of state-sanctioned punishment known as the death penalty. We use the death penalty for men and women found guilty of first degree murder, usually with heinous circumstances having been involved in the murder. Although the Supreme Court is looking at cases now in which the death penalty may be disallowed (such as in circumstances where the killer is mentally ill or mentally retarded), nonetheless, they are not seriously seeking to end the use of capital punishment in our 50 states where it is administered.
In recent months the death penalty in Ohio has taken center-stage once again as the line up for executions has begun to move forward. We have executed two men and hundreds more are preparing to die by lethal injection (over and against the use of the electric chair whose use was ended by Governor Taft's edict this week). I stand before you today as one who is opposed to the death penalty. According to recent public opinion polls, this position is unpopular. I know (if the polls are right), that many of you in this sanctuary do not agree with me on this position. While I am concerned about your feelings and respect the ideas which bring you to your position, I find no other supportable position as a Christian pastor than the one in which I stand. Please allow me to share my thoughts and scriptural insights with you today.
First, I realize that positions in favor or opposition to the death penalty often begin from a political ideology. This certainly was true for Governor George Ryan of Illinois. As a Republican member of the Illinois General Assembly, he was a strong supporter of the death penalty. Like many other elected officials, he had believed there were crimes so heinous that only the death sentence was a proper societal response. When he became governor and had to "pull the switch," Gov. Ryan recalls struggling with the decision as a growing body of evidence pointed to the injustices in Illinois' death penalty system.
In 1999, the Chicago Tribune, did an in-depth investigation into Illinois' death penalty system. They discovered that nearly half of the 300 capital cases in Illinois were reversed for a new trial or a sentencing hearing. Thirty-three of one hundred and sixty-two of the inmates on death row were represented by lawyers who had later been disbarred or suspended from practicing law. Thirty-five African-American death row inmates were convicted by all-white juries. In fact, two-third's of the death row inmates are African-American and prosecutors used jailhouse informants to convict forty-six of the men on death row.
Governor Ryan writes, "In January 2000, the thirteenth death row inmate was found wrongfully convicted for the murder for which he had been sentenced to die . . . Thirteen people who lived the ultimate nightmare were sitting on death row, waiting to be killed by the state for a crime they did not even commit . . . It was clear to me that when it came to the death penalty system in Illinois, there was no justice." Governor Ryan concludes of his decision for a moratorium, "People often tell me it took courage to do what I did. I don't know that courage is the best word to describe it. I just call it doing the right thing. All I did was respond to the indisputable facts that the administration of the death penalty in Illinois was simply unfair and that our record was pretty shameful." (Found in human rights, vol 28, #3, Summer 2001, p.2). Politics did not stand in the way of Governor Ryan's decision. In fact, crossing the line one traditional Republican values on this has opened the door for other Republicans to speak out.
Since 1997, the American Bar Association has been calling for a nationwide moratorium on executions based on the evidence that states' death penalty determinations are unfair and arbitrary and thus unconstitutional (as determined in several cases which have come before the US Supreme Court). The weight and use of the death penalty falls almost exclusively upon the poor, people of color, and certainly people who cannot afford fair representation. Not one of us in this room can come up with a case where a wealthy person was put to death in this nation.
Although I agree with the American Bar Association, a moratorium on executions is merely a first step. As people of faith, I believe we should be calling for abolition of the death penalty. As our fore bearers did 150 years ago in the Abolitionist's movement against slavery, we need to end the use of the death penalty in America altogether and join the European Union and other international bodies which are calling for its abolition worldwide.
The basis for my beliefs come directly from the Bible. In the Hebrew Scriptures (or Old Testament) the theme is established for the sacredness of human life because we are created in the image of God - a theme that runs throughout both Old and New Testaments. God's abhorrence for murder is made clear beginning in Genesis with the story of Cain and Abel. Although people will quote Leviticus 24:13-20 in justifying executions ("an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth . . . ") to remove from the society one whose actions have been an abomination before God (a law which included homosexuals, men and women caught making love during the women's menstruation, and those found guilty of incest and their victims) - the truth is it was next too impossible in Talmudic Law to execute someone for such crimes. In fact, Jewish scholars and rabbis will tell you that Levitical laws around murder and capital punishment were rarely used. (As an aside - referring to Leviticus and homosexuality, one rabbi told me how absolutely absurd it was for Christians to quote Leviticus in relation to homosexuality when universally modern day Jews give no credence to these laws because they are so extreme).
Anyway, to qualify for the death penalty under Talmudic Law, the intending murderer had to plan it in advance, announce it to the community, warn the one(s) they were planning to kill, and have witnesses at the crime scene. And after all that, they had to remain unrepentant. Only then could they be executed for a crime. In other words, it was next to impossible to execute someone. Nevertheless, those were the rules.
Along came Jesus who said, "You have heard it said, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, but I say to you, if anyone strikes on the right cheek, turn and give them your left one as well. I say to you love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you" (Matthew 5:38-48). With that, Jesus changed the rules! The King of Love has spoken. The Lord of Compassion has offered a new ethic and new edict! The Law of Love for us and for all time. At the center of this new understanding are redemption and restoration. While others have said, "Vengeance is mine," Jesus says, "but, I say to you . . . love!" With that, he eliminates revenge as an option for his followers and establishes a new law.
As we have heard today, when Christ himself was executed he said, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing." And when confronted with what to do in the case of a capital offense in his own society, he responds, "if anyone of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone" (John 8). With this, his model of love and reconciliation does not leave room for penalty unto death.
I also believe the following about capital punishment. It is ineffective. It is inequitable. It is irreversible. It is inhumane. And it is "tacky".
First, it is Ineffective. The major utilitarian argument advanced for capital punishment is that the execution of violent offenders may deter other potential offenders from committing violent acts. Yet the most sophisticated studies have not been able to establish any deterrent effect of capital punishment. In fact, the states in which executions are being carried out are also seeing an increase in violent crimes over and against states where it is not being actively used. Most murderers commit violent crimes in moments of extreme anger, passion, or in times of deep psychological disturbance. Most, if any, do not weigh the cost and benefit and consequence of violent crimes at such times as that. If deterrence is the point, capital punishment is ineffective.
Second, capital punishment is Inequitable. As stated in the 1972 Supreme Court decision, current death penalty laws are discriminatory against minorities and the disadvantaged of our society. In spite of legal guidelines against discrimination, a huge majority of those on death row are the poor, minorities, and uneducated men and women in our society. If you have money, you can buy good lawyers and you can thus avoid the death penalty. It is that simple. It is also that inequitable.
Third, capital punishment is Irreversible. As in the cases presented by Governor Ryan where the innocents were about to be executed, the death penalty is irreversible. As the in-depth study of Illinois' system indicated, the state had more innocent men acquitted (13) than the supposedly guilty executed (12) when Governor Ryan made the decision to instate the moratorium in 1999. Capital punishment is far too serious an act to contemplate when there is any possibility of error. Time and time again cases have shown after death the innocence of the executed. It is irreversible.
Fourth, capital punishment is Inhumane. Taking a human life is an inhumane act. Surviving family members who have been victimized by violent crimes often call for the death penalty for the murderers of their loved ones. While I do not wish to minimize in any way the pain felt by those who have lost so greatly, I feel quite strongly that taking a life for taking a life does not resolve the first pain and loss in the long run. Perhaps, the guilty person should instead be imprisoned with a life sentence without the possibility of parole and with the understanding that they will work every day of their life within prison walls to make money for the family of the deceased. Virtually all First World countries have outlawed the use of capital punishment. It's ironic that primarily fundamentalist Muslim nations and the United States of America are among the last nations on earth to use the death penalty. The European Union and the United Nations have been imploring us for years to end the death penalty. The time has come to join the world community which is not bent on a vengeful ethic and expunge capital punishment from our agenda.
Finally, it is tacky. Will Campbell, a southern preacher, farmer, and writer was once asked to debate the death penalty with a well-known scholar. In his book, Soul Among Lions, Campbell tells this story:
The man gave a lengthy and learned statement on why he favored (the death penalty). I had no prepared remarks. So I said, `I think it's tacky,' and sat down. That led to confusion as to what `tacky' meant. Well, tacky means ugly, no style, no class. I didn't win that debate, but I do believe America as a nation has too much class, too much character, and too much style to go on sinking to the crude level of death practiced in executions (pp.10-11).
Will Campbell is right. It is tacky to execute people. We, the most powerful nation on earth, place ourselves in the company of Iraq, Iran and the crumbling Taliban government of Afghanistan when we choose to execute people rather than imprison them for life and seek their rehabilitation and restoration.
At the Dayton Peace Agreement, signed in Paris in December 1995, the new states of Bosnia and Herzegovina were held to the highest standards of human rights including no death penalty. The irony of this is that the accord was negotiated in a State that still upholds the death penalty, our own state of Ohio. We as a nation cannot give unquestionable leadership in the world community when we execute our own citizens. Canada now refuses to extradite criminals to the United States if their cases may lead to a sentence of death. Yes, it is now an embarrassment in the eyes of the international community that we practice the death penalty. It could, in the long run affect not only our prestige and the effectiveness of our leadership in global affairs, but also future economic relationships with first world countries who will refuse to do business with nations that kill their own.
We may arrive at our opinions through a political, non faith-based approach - but the death penalty should not ultimately be about party politics. It does not have biblical support. It is Ineffective. It is Inequitable. It is Irreversible. It is Inhumane. And it is Tacky. Above all else, it is directly opposite of the call of Christ to forgive and to love our enemies. With alternatives to the death penalty abounding in our country and in nations across the globe, I believe we, as people of faith, need to support moratoriums and eventually the complete abolishment of this "peculiar institution" known as the death penalty. On the Hills of Skulls, the embodiment of justice was executed. Let us work to see that executions end. Amen.
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