A sermon delivered by The Rev. Timothy C. Ahrens, Senior Minister, The First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio, Pentecost 22, November 16, 2003, dedicated to all those who are on death row and to their families and the families of victims of violent crimes and always to the glory of God!
(Part III of IV in the sermon series: "Reformed and Reforming: Speaking the Truth in Love in Every Generation")
Daniel 12:1-3; Mark 13: 1-8
During the past two weeks, I have looked at the roots of the Protestant reformation and its effect on church and society. This week, I will look our reformation theology from the point of view of one social issues - capital punishment. Next week, I will conclude with yet another issue of our times.
Two years ago this month, I preached on my opposition to the death penalty in a sermon entitled: "To Execute Justice." From biblical foundations, I made the case against the death penalty. I posited that capital punishment is ineffective, inequitable, irreversible, inhumane, and "tacky." By tacky, I explained, capital punishment is ugly. It has no style, no class, no character and I believe America has too much, style, class, and character to sink to the crude level of death practiced in executions. I have copies of that sermon at all the exits if you would like to see what I said. The copies are actually taken from the Interfaith Coalition to Stop Executions book distributed last month at "The Journey of Hope" At that statewide conference, my 2001 sermon was given to participants as one of several sermons preached on this subject. Today, I look at this subject, with no less conviction, but from a different angle. Again, I encourage you to read what I said then after we leave here today.
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 rock and our salvation. Amen.
The darkest hour of the Protestant Reformation belongs to the Swiss reformation movement which followed Ulrich Zwingli. Although Zwingli was killed as a chaplain in the Kappel Wars of 1529, his followers made peace with the minority of Catholics left in the land. But having made peace with the Catholics, they turned with a vengeance on the Anabaptists, another wing of the Protestant movement which practiced adult or believer baptism. Their great word was "Restitution." Much more dramatically than any of their contemporaries, they searched the scriptures in order to recover the pattern of the early church. They found in the scriptures a church which was withdrawn from the state and as such was persecuted, reviled, despised, rejected, and became a church of martyrs. So always, said the Anabaptists, must the true church be reviled, rejected, and crushed. Of course that was true, said the Catholics, the Lutherans and the Reformed under Zwingli. They said, when the state became Christian, the church could affiliate with the state and embrace the community. No, the Anabaptists responded. If Christians are well-spoken of the only explanation can that they have abandoned their witness for Christ. The Church must always be withdrawn. The Anabaptists were negative about the world and positive about the church. The Anabaptists called for a strict morality and there can be no question that they achieved it. They denounced covetousness, pride, profanity, lewd conversation and the immorality of the world, drinking, and gluttony. They practiced peace, humility, patience, uprightness, meekness, honesty, temperance, and straightforwardness in such a way that one would suppose they had the Holy Spirit of God in them.
Yet, in 1525, the theocracy of Zurich, with full approval of Ulrich Zwingli, pronounced the death penalty by drowning. Why? Why was Felix Manz, one of the first leaders drown in the lake? Why was the law code of Justinian revived which visited death upon those who repeated baptism and upon those who denied the Trinity? The law which had been established to stop the Donatists, not because of the their practice of adult baptism, but because of their disturbing the civil peace, was now reissued to stop the Anabaptists in their verbal and written attack on the establishment.
Herein, I have too little time to unravel all the significant theological struggles between the Anabaptists and all other Christians of the time, but, in essence it was their strong, unbending belief in religious freedom, which ultimately caused their executions by the thousands. Ironically, it was their repudiation of war and capital punishment and their radical belief in nonviolence which brought about their demise. Like the earliest Christians in Rome, they died by burning, drowning, hanging, beheading, by the sword, and various other ugly forms of execution. The Catholics and Protestants agreed on one thing, this growing movement of peaceful, anti-establishment Christians must be exterminated through capital punishment. And so it was that those who held themselves as gentle as sheep were slaughtered and exterminated as if they had been wolves. By the 1530's and after the execution of well over 3,000 souls, the remaining Anabaptists felt the need to restore not only the New Testament, but also the Old. They took up the sword in their defense. As such, they began to revive the eccentricities of the prophets and the immoralities of the patriarchs. While this ugly episode discredited the purity of the Anabaptist movement, it ultimately saved them from final extermination. They continued to stress their withdrawal from society. But, in time, their executions slowed and their lives were saved, as well as their souls. However, the blood stains on both Catholics and all other Protestants remain to this day.
Today, the Anabaptist movement is divided in many ways. There are the Mennonites, Amish, and old Brethren on the one side, the strong majority of whom continue to practice nonviolence, opposition to capital punishment and nonengagement with society. On the other side, the Baptists and new Brethren represent the only Christian denominations and confederations which support capital punishment. Ironically, our Catholic, Reformed, and Lutheran leaders have become some of the most vocal spokespersons against capital punishment. In the recent meeting I mentioned at Trinity Seminary, Bishop Griffin, of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Columbus, Rev. David V. Schwab, our new UCC Conference Minister, Rabbi Harold Berman of Congregation Tifereth Israel, Bishop Callon Calloway, Lutheran Bishop of the Southern Ohio Synod, along with Bishops of the Methodist Church, the Episcopal Church, and over 100 Rabbis and Pastors, joined The Rev. Thomas E. Kaufman, Conference Minister of the Mennonite Church USA in signing a letter to Governor Taft and the Elected Officials of the Ohio General Assembly calling upon Ohio to stop executions. I was among the leaders who signed this letter. We asked Governor Taft to immediately enact a moratorium on the death penalty and create a nonpartisan, statewide commission to study Ohio's death penalty practices and policies.
No matter where people stand philosophically on capital punishment, I believe any thinking person would agree that first of all, we must have a system which safeguards against human error or human bias. We must examine issues of effective counsel, evidence disclosure and maintenance, use of informants, proportionality review, courtroom procedures, and the legal criteria used in cases of mental illness and mental retardation. While other states and countries have begun to put in place effective and just alternatives to execution, Ohio has continued to maintain a costly and time consuming death penalty system.
These policies and procedures upon which I believe review and safeguards must be placed still, in my mind, beg the question - should we or should we not - continue the execution of men and women found guilty of capital crimes? This week, Turkey, decided to revoke the death penalty. With 208 men and one woman of death row in Ohio, we could become national leaders by revoking the laws which summon people to be put to death in our state. As we continue to execute persons in this country, we continue to be in the minority of 80 nations who regularly practice the death penalty. No European nations practice the death penalty and a country must agree to this before becoming part of the European Union. As long as we execute people, we stand united with the People's Republic of China, Cuba, Syria, Vietnam, Egypt, Saudi Arabia as well as President Bush's Axis of Evil nations - Iran, Iraq, and North Korea, nations who believe and practice the act of killing people for killing people to show that killing people is wrong.
US Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor has voiced opposition to the death penalty because of the evident flaws in the judicial system. Two years ago, The Columbus Dispatch reported that since 1973, 96 persons in 22 states sentenced to death have been found innocent. A study published by Columbia University has indicated that 66% of all capital punishment contain serious flaws, enough to warrant retrials. And in September 2000, a US Justice Department report condemned the federal death penalty system for glaring geographical and racial disparities.
The State of Ohio itself has provided evidence for geographical disparities. Because of the cost of prosecution of capital cases, poorer, rural counties cannot afford to prosecute capital cases. The State of Ohio and its counties do not adequately fund the defense of persons charged with capital offenses who cannot afford their legal defense. (I might add this is lack of funding is a slam on the men and women who attempt to defend capital cases with too few resources). A study coming out of Florida indicates that innocents persons have been executed in the past decade, perhaps as many as 3-5% of the total number executed (Quoted from Walter Bouman's October 9, 2003 speech entitled, "The Death Penalty: A Christian Perspective"). In 1999, Illinois' Governor Ryan placed a moratorium on the death penalty after it was discovered (largely through investigate reporting from The Chicago Tribune), that 13 innocent men were sitting on death row in Illinois for crimes they did not even commit! Percentage wise, that would mean that 6-10 people on death row in Ohio are innocent of the crime they are preparing to die for. Isn't that reason enough to stop executions in Ohio?
Pastors, like myself, are not the only people speaking out. For the past six years 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. In an article by Columbus physician, Dr. Jonathan Groner, entitled, "Lethal Injection: A Stain on the Face of Medicine," and printed in the November 2, 2002 issue of the British Medical Journal, the case is made for doctors to stop participating in any way in the lethal injection of prisoners. Comparing the medical community's participation to that of Nazi Germany's "euthanasia" program, Dr. Groner calls for all doctors to cease participation in executions based on medically ethical grounds. He concludes, "even without doctor's participation, lethal injection . . . has a deeply corrupting influence on medicine as a whole . . . Without the respectability that legal injection provides, capital punishment in the United States would probably cease" (see BMJ, Volume 325, 2, November 2002, bmj.com, p.1026-1028).
Pastors, lawyers, the medical professionals in many settings (not just Dr. Groner) have called for at least a moratorium, if not an abolition of the death penalty. We must join our voices and actions to theirs. Perhaps we do so to right the centuries old wrongs of our past. Perhaps we do so because Jesus, who was executed for our salvation, calls us to be people who reconcile differences and do not destroy human life. Perhaps we do so for a variety of other reasons. I believe each one of us in the sanctuary is capable of standing against the death penalty on some solid and substantial grounds. There is plenty of ground to stand on!
In listening to Ray Krone, whose sentence of execution was commuted April 8, 2002 (After ten years on death row in Arizona) when DNA evidence, not presented at his various trials proved that his ex-girlfriend was brutally murdered by a known criminal who lived right behind the building she was found in, I was struck by this honored war veteran and postal worker's clarity and honesty. As he was released from prison, one reporter asked Ray (whose case was nationally known) why "his God" did this to him, Ray replied - "I don't believe God did this to me, but I know he was with me through it all. And I know he is calling me to speak out for others the rest of my life." As Ray said to all of us, having read the Bible three times and having plenty of time to think and pray, he became clear about many things. He said to us as well, "One thing is clear to me: When Jesus said, `Love Your Enemies,' I believe he meant, don't kill them." As I look for ground to stand on, Ray's ground is enough for me! Amen.
Copyright 2003, The First Congregational Church
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