Brandon Bernard was executed by United States authorities on December 10, 2020. He was convicted of participating in the murders of Stacie and Todd Bagley in 1999. Bernard did not commit the actual murders. The one who killed the Bagleys, Christopher Vialva, was executed in September. Bernard was the youngest person in seventy years to receive a death sentence in the United States. He was an adolescent when he was convicted.
Bernard is the ninth person to be executed this fall by federal authorities after a seventeen-year hiatus in federal executions. He is the first to be executed during a lame-duck presidency in 130 years. Five more people await executions before the presidential inauguration on January 20, 2021. Four of the five scheduled to be killed are black.
State-sponsored killing has been demonstrated to be ineffective as a public-safety policy. It is not a useful practice. State-sponsored killing has been and is currently highly racialized and discriminatory in its application and outcome. It is both unconstitutional and wrong in the state’s own terms. State-sponsored killing is contrary to ethical doctrine and practice in a large number of Christian traditions. Historically Christians have argued and organized against state-sponsored killing in a variety of settings.
So why do we continue to do it?
The racialized element is obvious to anyone who can remember a few statistics. Many would argue that targeting black and brown people with executions is not a bug in the system but rather a feature. I think that’s correct. The evidence for that argument is quite clear and compelling. State-sponsored killing is the only form of legally sanctioned lynching which remains in our state and federal criminal punishment systems. Other forms of lynching continue to occur by the hands of agents of the state. But, in theory at least, these actions are crimes which can and should be prosecuted.
In addition to the racialized, white supremacist dimension of state-sponsored killing is the punitive framework of our legal systems and of our culture. In 1885 Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, “Distrust all in whom the impulse to punish is powerful.” Nietzsche was no friend of democracy or “the people,” but he understood that few if any humans are good enough and wise enough to punish others without powerful limits and safeguards. We can talk ourselves into our own righteousness in about fifteen seconds. After that, we can justify most any behavior.
Why do we Americans have this penchant for punishing? We live in a system of myths and metaphors which, I believe, make this kind of punishing reasonable and necessary. We believe that we get to where we are in life on the basis of our own merit (or de-merit). If someone fails in this system, they are fully and individually to blame. Punishing another for evil undergirds my belief that I should be rewarded for my goodness. Only the worthy should be rewarded, and it’s surprising how often the worthy look just like me.
I think that our penchant for punishing is deeply rooted in our national theology. I don’t believe people share some sort of religious perspective consciously. But most of us come from religious tribes (somewhere in the misty past) that subscribed to the image of a God who punishes sinners. More than that, this God requires payment in order to be good and loving. So this God requires the death of God’s own son to make adequate payment for the sins of the rest of us. If God’s own Son cannot escape the realities of the punishment system, what hope do any of the rest of us have?
I would point out that this punishment system and god are not the only images available or possible. For another way to see things, I would refer you to my post on Aulen’s Christus Victor. You can read that at https://wordpress.com/post/lowellhennigs.com/391.
N. T. Wright points out that we tend to become like what we worship. So if our god is punishing and violent, it should be no surprise that many of us are as well. However, I think the process works even more powerfully in the reverse. We worship what we want to become. Often we engage in practices and then seek a story to justify them rather than the other way around. In this culture, we want to become powerful, successful, dominant, rich, secure, and blissfully ignorant of the suffering of others. So I don’t find it surprising that we would gravitate toward images of a god that reinforce these outcomes — at least for those who are already privileged and powerful (aka white).
We don’t fall into this punitive image of God by accident or default. We must choose this particular image, and do so assertively, because the primary images of God in the Bible are quite the opposite. Yes, there are images of violence, sacrifice, punishment and execution. Those appear, however, to be the minority report and are critiqued and rejected by other parts of the Bible.
For example, there is the irritated testimony of Jonah. The cranky prophet wants a god who will punish the sinners, but Jonah knows that God is not like this. Jonah “prayed to the Lord and said, ‘O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing” (Jonah 4:2, NRSV). Ready to relent from punishing! What a concept!
Some of us Christians tend to give pride of place to the words of Jesus, oddly enough. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy,'” Jesus preaches in Matthew 5. “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:43-45 NRSV). We Christians cannot dictate on our own how the secular state should operate, no matter how much some Christians want to do that. But we could at least listen to our own most important voice on the matter.
I am privileged to be part of a group reading and studying Bryan Stevenson’s book, Just Mercy. Who knows more about the misapplication of state-sponsored killing in our time than Stevenson? Perhaps no one. “The death penalty is not about whether people deserve to die for the crimes they commit,” he writes. “The real question of capital punishment in this country is, Do we deserve to kill?” (page 313). Given how state-sponsored killing is structured, administered, and applied, I think the answer is obviously, “No.”
But we continue to punish, and we’re not all that particular about who gets the punishment. We live in a culture that appears constitutionally incapable of self-reflection, honest admission of failure, and willingness to make corrections and amends. In spiritual terms, we seem incapable of confession, lament, and repentance. Confession, lament, and repentance require admissions of wrong and guilt. But we assume none of the responsibility for how the lives of others turn out. Our cultural and self-serving meritocracy requires that we blame and punish someone whether that makes a real difference or not.
We Christians claim to worship the God who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and who relents from punishing. It may be that our greatest mission in this or any society is to nudge the needle away from retribution and in the direction of grace. Unfortunately, many Christians in this society currently are helping to move the needle decisively toward irrevocable punishment (AG Barr is, after all, a practicing Roman Catholic). In light of that, I find it unsurprising that so many regard Christian witness as unconvincing and incredible.
“Each of us is more,” Bryan Stevenson writes in Just Mercy, “than the worst thing we’ve ever done” (page 17-18). If you asked me for a secular description of the Christian good news, I think I might just quote his words here. If he’s right, and he is, then state-sponsored killing is a surrender to despair and an insult to the image of God in which each of us is created. Until we stop this killing, we will continue to be a culture in moral decline and a faith tradition drowning in hypocrisy.
Here is a link to information on the ELCA social statement regarding the death penalty, adopted by the denomination in 1991:
And here is a link to information on the ELCA social statement regarding the criminal justice system, adopted by the denomination in 2013.