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"Not Even Death!" A sermon on capital punishment, May 6, 2012


Yesterday's sermon, delivered at Oak Lawn, from the "Holy Conversations" series.

From time to time I have created an all-time favorite movie list. At the very top, etched in stone, never to be removed, stand the first two Star Wars movies, A New Hope (1977) and The Empire Strikes Back (1980). But then an interesting thing happens. #3 on the list, possibly also a permanent fixture, is 2008’s The Dark Knight. I am eagerly—and I mean eagerly—awaiting the release of the next installment of the Batman series, The Dark Knight Rises, which opens July 20, only 75 days away. The Dark Knight is a special movie in so many ways, but what I want to point out is a scene that plays out near the end of the film—Batman and Joker are not in the scene. If you haven’t seen The Dark Knight, I’m sorry about the spoiler, but it’s been four years, and I have never spoken of this in a sermon. It’s time. Stop by Blockbuster on the way home.

Two ferries, crossing Gotham Harbor side by side, stall. They are packed with people. One ferry carries regular passengers on their way home from work. The other one is full of prisoners, all wearing their bright orange jumpsuits, surrounded by armed guards. The boats are rigged with explosives. But each boat has the detonator for the other ferry. The Joker’s voice is heard by both boats over the loudspeakers. The Joker says one boat must blow up the other by midnight or he will destroy both. For the next fifteen minutes, both boats argue about what they should do. On the civilian boat, a woman says, “Those men had their chance. They made their choices. We’ve upheld the law. We shouldn’t have to die to save them.”

We’re continuing our sermon series on issues in the news today with an examination of the moral arguments surrounding the death penalty. This is an interesting discussion for Christians, because the great majority of denominations—basically every one except the Southern Baptist Convention—calls for an end to capital punishment. In your study guide at the back of the bulletin you’ll find what our United Methodist Social Principles say about it. While most of our churches officially oppose it a majority of our members support it. According to the Pew Research Center, 65% of Protestants support it, while 26% do not. White evangelicals and white mainlines Christians both support in greater numbers, 70 vs. 20%. Catholic voters break down 60/32%. It’s only when different races were asked do the numbers begin to change. Among black Protestants, 37% support, 49% oppose. Among Hispanic Catholics, it is evenly split—43/45%. For people who oppose the death penalty, a majority say the main influence in their decision is religion. Support among Republicans is very strong: 78/16%; Democrats 50/42%; Independents 62/30%. Nationwide roughly 62% of Americans support capital punishment while 30% do not. This number has trended downward over the last 10 years—indeed it’s the lowest number in nearly 40 years—after reaching its peak (78%) in the mid-1990s.

The most popular reasons for the decline in public opinion are exonerated inmates and the risk of executing an innocent person. Between 2000-2011, an average of five persons per year has been exonerated. The State of Illinois, which suspended the death penalty in 2009 and abolished it last year, had a 5% exoneration rate since capital punishment was reinstated in 1977—the highest in the nation. Among industrialized countries, the US is one of the few still practicing capital punishment. Of the so-called “G8” countries: Great Britain, France, Italy, Germany, Canada, Russia, Japan, and the US, only American still practices capital punishment. Russia suspended it in 1996, although a majority of its citizens want it reinstated. The countries where the death penalty is exercised, ranked by number of executions, go like this: China, which executes more than the others combined, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and America. If Texas were still an independent nation, we would rank 7th on the list. Amnesty International says last year death cases jumped 28%, primarily in the Middle Eastern countries I listed.

Despite public support, many states have changed their laws recently. Over the last five consecutive years, five states have repealed the death penalty, Connecticut became the 17th state to abolish just last month. Voters in California, which has the largest population on death row (22% of all death row inmates) will decide whether to abolish it in November (prisoners would be commuted to life without possibility of parole). Nationwide we’ve seen fewer executions and fewer death sentences. Even Texas, which has executed four times as many prisoners than any other state since the death penalty was reinstated in the late 1970s, has reduced its executions. Only 13 last year and only 10 are scheduled for this year. Death penalty proponents argue this is because of reduced violent crime, which shows the death penalty is a deterrent. Others claim one factor in less executions and less death sentences is cost. As strange as it sounds, many studies claim in the long run it is less expensive to house an inmate for life without parole than to execute one, because of automatic appeals, legal fees, etc. With the downturn in the economy, many state legislatures are saying we simply can’t afford the death penalty.

The death penalty was once a partisan issue—Republicans tended to favor, Democrats opposed—but that trend is gone now. In fact President Obama has dramatically increased drone missile strikes against suspected terrorists, even ordering the killing an American citizen. Those actions typically do not fall in the death penalty discussion, but they raise serious moral questions. Even the death of Osama Bin Laden, the anniversary of which was remembered this week, brought to life interesting questions, particularly amongst those opposed to the death penalty. Are wartime deaths exempt from the discussion? What are the moral implications? Is the death of one person, which likely saved the lives of many more, an acceptable moral action? And when an execution is carried out—particularly someone who was especially a menace to the broader society—do we feel safer? Is what we feel more about revenge and hate? Does a person’s sinful actions forfeit their right to live? Doesn’t the state have an inherent duty to protect its citizens?

Last week in the “Holy Conversations” series we discussed the Contraception Debate. Thinking about Roman Catholic doctrine, I mentioned a “seamless garment” theology of human life espoused by some Catholic theologians.  It’s a reference to Jesus' crucifixion. When Jesus was crucified, the soldiers gambled for his clothing. But his outer garment, which was seamless, was not torn. In the same way, there is a consistent ethic of human life. It is the gift of a loving God, who alone is the just judge with ultimate authority. This includes all of human life—from the moment of conception through death—and it informs Catholic teaching regarding abortion, contraception, childhood poverty, the death penalty, and end of life issues. Many opponents of the death penalty point to the work and influence of the Roman Catholic Church in reducing the number of executions, as well as in those states which have recently abolished the death penalty. Many of those governors are Catholic. Is that a coincidence? Going back to the question we asked in the first sermon in the series: how does one live out his/her faith in the public realm? I’ve found it interesting recently when some Catholic politicians speak to the importance of their faith in justifying their positions, on say, birth control and abortion. But what about the death penalty? What about childhood poverty? Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, who authored the House Budget for 2013, heard feedback from Catholic bishops, who argued the budget was immoral, cutting funding for poorer Americans while at the same time calling for tax breaks for wealthier Americans. He responded that his Catholic faith taught him that the government should not enable folk to be stuck in poverty. John Boehner, Speaker of the House and a fellow Catholic, said sacrifices had to be made or the entire safety net would be gone, and that would create a more serious moral problem.

So—what does the Bible say about capital punishment, you ask? Well, it’s complicated. On the one hand, proponents of the death penalty quote the verse, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” (it’s found several places—Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy), but it’s not a text meant to justify the death penalty. Leviticus 24:17-20: “Anyone who kills another human being shall be put to death. Anyone who kills an animal shall make restitution for it, life for life. Anyone who maims another shall suffer the same injury in return: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; the injury inflicted is the injury to be suffered.” These are texts that recall the time when the Hebrews were establishing a society of their own. They were wandering through the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land. They had no prisons, so death was often the default punishment. Strike a mother or father: death. Insult mother or father: death (forget your teenage years for a moment). Kidnapping: death. Murder: death. Touching the wrong kind of animal skin: death. Adultery: death . “An eye for an eye” was meant to establish a rule of justice, where the punishment for a crime fits the crime that’s been committed. People were taking the lives of others for crimes much less serious than murder and these texts seek equal punishment for whatever crime. But then Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, took things to a whole new level: “You’ve heard it said before, ‘An eye for an eye and tooth for tooth.’ But I say to you: Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile go the second as well” (Matthew 5:38-42). Christians are called to forgive.

In the Book of Genesis, Cain, a son of Adam and Eve, murders his brother Abel out of jealousy. God approved Abel’s offering over Cain’s, and the shame he felt led him to take the life of his brother. Later that evening, God looks for Cain and Abel, but only finds Cain. Sensing something horrible, God asks Cain: “Where is your brother?” “How am I to know?” replies Cain. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” God knows something horrible has happened. “What have you done? I sense your brother’s blood calling to me from the ground!” God is very angry at Cain and sentences him to a life of wandering loneliness. Cain then knows his guilt, but his emotion is not directed at his murdered brother, but at himself: “My punishment is too severe! Anyone who meets me may kill me!” “Not so!,” says God. “Anyone who kills Cain must suffer a seven-fold vengeance.” God places a mark on Cain—maybe the world’s first tattoo—which, in effect, says, “Cain’s life belongs to me.” Across the millennia, many people have interpreted Cain’s mark as a punishment from God. Everyone he met on his wanderings would know who he was and what he had done. But another way to think about the mark is protection. The mark affirms that God is Cain’s judge—no one else has authority over his life—and over all human life. While some affirm the state’s authority to kill in order to protect its citizens, many Christians argue that the state’s ability to kill supersedes God’s role as ultimate judge. Others argue the death penalty, while ending a human life, stops Christ’s role of redeemer of all sinners. It should never be too late to echo the words of one of the thieves crucified with Jesus: “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” You’ll find this argument in our Social Principles. The mark of Cain reminds each of us that human life has its origins in God. And nothing can separate us from God.

Paul picks up this theme at the end of Chapter 8 of Romans: “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him give us everything else?” “Who shall separate us from the love of God? Shall hardship, or distress, or persecution or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?...No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Let’s return to the scene from The Dark Knight where the two ferries float, lifeless, on Gotham Harbor. Both are loaded with people and explosives. One boat is filled with civilians, the other with convicted prisoners. Passengers on each boat have the power to destroy the other to save their own lives. If one boat does not destroy the other by midnight, Joker will destroy both. The civilian boat takes a vote, and decides to blow up the criminals. “They had their chances. They chose to do horrible things.” A man grabs the detonator. He puts is back down. On the other boat a large, intimidating prison approaches a prison official who holds the detonator, obviously struggling with what to do next. “You’ve never had to take a life,” the prisoner says. “Give it to me and I’ll do what you should have done ten minutes ago.” He throws it out of the window. Both boats have the earthly power to save their own lives at the expense of taking other lives. They would rather risk being killed. Life is too precious. Thankfully Batman stops the Joker before he can blow up both ferries. What if it we were on the ferry? What would you do? It’s a deep moral question that one does not expect in a super hero movie.

The Romans used the cross as instrument of death. Those criminals sentenced to die on a cross would linger for days, writhing in pain. Crosses were placed near the city walls so everyone walking past would see them. Signs were placed above the head listing the charges. The message was clear: do what this person did, and you’ll hang here too. But the power of God transformed the cross. It ceased to be a symbol of ultimate suffering, humiliation, and death, and became the ultimate symbol of salvation, grace, and love. Even victory. Like Cain’s mark, the cross is our sign. We wear it, kneel before it, stand in its shadow, and we know that our life has value. Our life belongs to God. And nothing can separate us from that love. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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