Troy Davis, Capital Punishment, & the Death of Conscience


This is a tough one to write. And it’s long. I broke almost all of my personal blogging rules in this, but I just need to get this out. I’ve spent the past two days with this post and it’s central ideas rolling around in my head and even now as I sit to type, I have little knowledge how it’s all going to come out.

Today, for the first time in my young life, I shed tears for a man that was executed at the hands of the State. Two nights ago, Troy Davis was finally executed in Georgia for the 1989 murder of an off-duty police officer. Questions still abound concerning his guilt and innocence, the politics at play in the various boards and courts that refused to change their minds, and the calcification of a seemingly dispassionate justice system  that renders helpless the voices of those it presumes to protect. This New York Times article perfectly captures the complexity and tension that exists right now over this topic.

Where I’m at

Almost exactly a year ago, I did a (surprisingly popular) series on this blog talking about how my own personal fear and self-doubt had caused me to change in recent years in how I approached truth and topics of wide-spread controversy and disagreement (read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3). I spoke of how I had become a man who valued doubt and “diversity of opinion” over truth and would not come out and talk explicitly about my views on certain topics that historically cause much dissent. I concluded the series saying that I would begin speaking boldly on these things.

I never did, and Davis’ story has brought my ambivalence to the forefront of my mind. So here is, as plainly as I can put it, where I’m at right now: as a Christian, I can no longer justify support for capital punishment. 

But please don’t write me off just yet as some naive, kool-aid drinking, crunchy liberal–there’s some nuance here, I promise.

Why?

I was raised in Texas. The Death Penalty was such a normal part of our existence, we never batted an eye at its occurrence. I know both the reasoning behind the use of capital punishment and the over-simplistic and over-dramatic nature of many of the arguments against it–I get all that. I get that the Old Testament not only ordains capital punishment as a legitimate civil response to murder, but roots its reasoning in creation itself (Genesis 9:6) and not some cultural construct. I understand that many Christians see capital punishment as their expression of their own value and love for the life of the one murdered, and not as their de-valuing of human life.

But Jesus has got to change something.

The Bible is a story and not a system and it’s climax and clearest expression of the intent of God for human life and flourishing is found in Jesus and not in the Old Testament. Jesus makes it clear that every storyline or “sub-plot” that you think you see in the Old Testament is ultimately wrong and dead-ended if it does not point and lead directly to a God that takes on humanity, serves his enemies, and ultimately dies and rises again for the sin of the entire cosmos, thereby subverting the very earthly institutions that sought to end him.

And so, the “storyline” of “Old Testament civil law as rubric for modern Christian ethics” seems to me to be overly-simplistic and does not take seriously the life of Christ in this world.

To put it very simply: I cannot see a logically-consistent interpretive framework for the Old Testament that both supports capital punishment and discourages slavery, stoning of homosexuals, ethnic cleansing of non-Jewish peoples living in geographic Israel, and demeaning of women. If you think you can offer me something, then be my guest.

But wait, there’s some nuance.

As one of my favorite bloggers (and three-intialed theologians), J.R.D. Kirk, wrote about a few months back (and in a follow-up post), as Christians we have a responsibility to separate out two questions that we often combine into one. The first is how do I best love my God in this particular situation? The second is how do I best love my neighbor in this particular situation? The first question governs your behavior and what you think are “sins” and things that diminish–rather than express–your own truest humanity. The second question governs your behavior with others relationally, societally, and civilly. 

In other words, your own personal, moral, and spiritual convictions are not meant to be entirely reflected by the State.

And so, I think that a given State should have rights, privileges, and freedoms that are not afforded to individuals–rights that could include capital punishment or war (or as Paul calls it in Romans 13–“bearing the sword”). But this should be a right not furthered, supported or exercised by Christian citizens nor Christians in power.

Conclusion

In Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, there’s an interesting exchange between the atheist intellectual and a monk. The intellectual is bragging about an article he wrote in which he laid out (what he feels is) a perfectly logical argument about how the civil courts and religious institutions should hand out punishments together (jail sentences combined with excommunications). He believes this is logical because if a criminal thought he was transgressing both civil and God’s law, he would be less inclined to do so in the first place. The monk vehemently disagrees, saying (please bear with the extended quote. It’s worth it):

And what would become of the criminal, oh Lord, if Christian society, too–that is, the Church–rejected him the same way that civil law rejects him and cuts him off? What would become of him if the Church, too, punished him with excommunication each time after the law of the state had punished him?… But the Church, like a mother, tender and loving, withholds from active punishment… [because] at least someone should pity him. And it withholds above all because the judgment of the Church is the only judgment that contains the truth. and for that reason it cannot, essentially and morally, be combined with any other judgment, even in a temporary compromise.

I am so saddened that it seems that much of the Church in America has “combined” their judgment with the State’s, and therefore they believe the State’s judgment upon the criminal to “contain the truth”, and so give it the right to do the unconscionable. The Church is called to fight for life, knowing that Christ has fulfilled the law and has accomplished ultimate justice; the justice offered by the State can only be a mere imperfect shadow of justice and passing comfort to those hurt by injustice–it can accomplish nothing cosmically or of truest significance. Is that really worth the right to take a life?

Should Christians be more willing to see a guilty man go free or an innocent man be killed? I truly believe Jesus would say the former. If the Gospel meant anything for this situation, might it be that when the Church errs (as she will), she should rather err on the side of the criminal, the sinner, and the powerless (no matter how “lawfully” their power was taken from them)?

As for Troy Davis, all I can say is this: when Jesus had the chance to lawfully “capitally punish” a woman caught in adultery, he refused. And when he had the chance to escape from an unlawful capital punishment upon himself, he once more refused. He chose to taste the bitter reply of a broken justice system, the cogs of which moved more in line with their political and emotional ends in mind rather than justice and truth.

And so Davis, whether in guilt or innocence, in his passing moments, was closer to the divine experience and process of redemption than I will ever perhaps taste. I pray his soul knew his Father, and he was able to feel the rest that must surely come with being–in the most literal of ways–“united with Jesus in a death like his” so he might “certainly be united with Jesus in a resurrection like his.” (Romans 6)

Selah

[also read Kirk’s thoughts on the Troy Davis case in his post “Redeeming Grace“.]

[art credit: “Saturn” by Francisco de Goya & “Justice” by Lavar Munroe]

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5 thoughts on “Troy Davis, Capital Punishment, & the Death of Conscience

  1. I’m not sure where I wholly stand on the death penalty debate, but I’ll offer the following thoughts.

    First, I’m not sure how you make the comparison between capital punishment and stoning homosexuals, slavery, demeaning women, etc. It seems as if you’ve selectively pulled out what many would consider some of the most objectionable portions of the OT to prove a point, rather than drawing a clear cut and logical connection. I think you’ll have difficulty developing this relationship, but you can certainly try. I don’t think you can a priori make this connection, though.

    Secondly, I think you should carefully define what capital punishment is, and how and why it differs from other forms of punishment. I think this will probably clarify why the above point seems like such a stretch to me. I think it would be helpful in building your argument to first establish what capital punishment is (or at least what it’s supposed to be) before tearing down the argument for why it is legitimate.

    With that said, I’ll attempt to make one argument for why capital punishment should exist. Justice. This is obvious, but let me put a different spin on it. One might typically encounter a debate over whether or not it is just to take another person’s life under any set of circumstances. But think about this: In some cases, it may in fact be a horrible injustice to let a person keep their life. Some crimes are so blatantly horrendous and evil that it is an affront to justice to let that person continue to live. You might argue, in other words, that a society cannot be just if it allows a person to continue living after committing certain utterly unconscionable acts.

    Now perhaps Troy Davis should not have been put to death. Perhaps we need rules in place to further restrict when the death penalty should be on the table (e.g., there must be conclusive physical evidence). And certainly capital punishment does suffer from the rather challenging issue that it cannot be “undid”. But doesn’t any punishment, to some extent? If you throw a man behind bars for the rest of his life, aren’t you taking away all (or almost all) that he knew and loved? Should that merit less scrutiny than capital punishment? (Some might argue that they would rather die than have their loved ones, their passions, and their freedom taken from them. Look at the high suicide rates within prisons).

    Ultimately, as I think you would agree, Christ changed everything. Our imperfect systems of justice on Earth are temporal. Christ will be the ultimate judge and our Savior. But I think that should be a relief to use, because no matter how bad we screw up justice on earth, it will finally be perfected by Christ. In the meantime, we must do our best to preserve and further justice on earth. And I don’t think that inherently means that the most awful crimes should necessarily be outside of the punishment of having one’s life taken from him.

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  2. Sorry, forgot one final point. You asked the question, “Should Christians be more willing to see a guilty man go free or an innocent man be killed?” I think we are all familiar with quotes similar to this. I’m not one to embrace slippery slope arguments, so I write this half tongue-in-cheek, but consider this: we can guarantee that no innocent man will ever suffer injustice at the hand of the legal system simply by abolishing the legal system. But do we really want this? I can guarantee that by having a legal system, innocent people will be punished, some horribly unfairly. But consider the alternative. We should always strive to improve the system in order to make it as just as possible, but I don’t think anyone really believes that if innocent people will be punished, it inherently negates the whole system.

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  3. Pingback: A Death Penalty Follow-Up | the long way home

  4. Pingback: A Shout-Out to My Mennonite Pacifists Out There… | the long way home

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