Stop State-Sponsored Killing in the United States

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.

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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:

https://www.elca.org/Faith/Faith-and-Society/Social-Statements/Death-Penalty.

And here is a link to information on the ELCA social statement regarding the criminal justice system, adopted by the denomination in 2013.

https://www.elca.org/Faith/Faith-and-Society/Social-Statements/Criminal-Justice.

Knowing Love

Krista Tippett had a conversation with Bryan Stevenson on the latest “On Being” podcast. You might find that on a local public radio station this weekend. But the podcast can be accessed at https://onbeing.org/series/podcast/.

Tippett is the founder and long-time host of the programs and the beating heart of a much larger enterprise devoted to, for lack of a better phrase, faith, hope and love in a changing world. Stevenson is the author of Just Mercy, and the founder and director of the Equal Justice Initiative, another enterprise, as he notes in the interview, that has grown into a much larger and multi-faceted effort than he originally envisioned.

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Stevenson is committed the need for “proximity” in the work he does. “I think sometimes when you’re trying to do justice work, when you’re trying to make a difference, when you’re trying to change the world,” he said, “the thing you need to do is get close enough to people who are falling down, get close enough to people who are suffering, close enough to people who are in pain, who’ve been discarded and disfavored — to get close enough to wrap your arms around them and affirm their humanity and their dignity.”

This is a very Advent-y sentiment, for us Christians who are into such things. We are in the season of remembering and celebrating the God who chooses proximity to humanity as the path to redeeming Creation. It shouldn’t surprise us to hear that we, who are made in the image of that God, do best when we choose proximity as well.

Stevenson knows that getting close to people is one thing. How we see people is an additional thing. In his writing, he talks repeatedly about seeing ourselves and loved and seeing those around us as beloved. “Beloved in the Lord,” one of my seminary professors would regularly announce, “God knows you better than you know yourself — and loves you anyway!” No matter how many times I heard Jim Qualben say that to a class, a congregation, or a meeting of conflicted parishioners, it made my spine tingle.

In my atheist years, I was drawn back to the church in part by way of Psalm 139.

O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
 You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
   you discern my thoughts from far away.
 You search out my path and my lying down,
   and are acquainted with all my ways.

At first I found these words offensive. I didn’t want anyone that far up in my business. And I certainly didn’t want some purported deity there. But I came to treasure these words as a source of great comfort and peace. The gift of being fully known — deeply searched out and understood (and loved anyway!) — was a source of calm and joy like no other. That hasn’t changed.

N. T. Wright talks about the “epistemology of love.” He often quotes the line from Wittgenstein, who wrote, “It is love that believes the resurrection.” He writes of this way of knowing in a recent article in First Things.

Pure objectivity about other persons would appraise them at a distance, rather than engaging with them; pure subjectivity would use them to gratify one’s own whims or desires. Love means not just allowing others to be themselves but relishing them as being themselves, as being both other than ourselves and other than our initial hopes and expectations of them.

Bryan Stevenson practices the epistemology of love. He knows by coming close, by engaging, by becoming involved. He doesn’t maintain the distance of cool objectivity. He doesn’t have good boundaries when it comes to connection with his clients and causes. He is perhaps obsessed and is certainly consumed by his work. A certain perspective would describe this as unhealthy behavior. Stevenson would describe it as his life, his work, his love and his passion.

Objectivity is an Enlightenment conceit. It can never be achieved, even though it can be approximated. Objectivity may be useful in theoretical physics or higher mathematics or similar disciplines, although the best scientists are always the most passionate about their work. But objectivity leads so easily to privileging one position or perspective above all others. In the West this leads to privileging whiteness and making it the norm and standard by which all others are measured.

Engagement — the epistemology of love — is part of the Christian account of the good news of Jesus Christ. God comes close to you and me — closer than our very breath. God is a slob just like one of us and knows us better than we know ourselves.

The deepest element of an epistemology of love is enacting that love. Stevenson calls it “stone catching.” In his conversation with Krista Tippett, he remembers the story of the woman caught in adultery in John 8. He says, “it’s a powerful story about mercy and redemption and grace, and what I’ve realized is that in this era, I don’t think our righteous would put their stones down. I think that we have too many people who would, despite that exhortation, would still cast the stones. They feel insulated from the hypocrisy and judgment that that implies.”

That assessment could leave us hopeless and despondent (dare I say “acedic”?). But not Stevenson. If people are going to throw the stones anyway, then some of us must dare to become “stone catchers.” He describes it this way: “just because people won’t recognize what the right and just thing is to do, that it’s not right and just to cast those stones, doesn’t mean that that’s the end of the struggle. We have to stand up. We have to stand in front of those who are vulnerable and we have to catch those stones.”

Seeking proximity, looking with love, and then catching the stones — who says that Advent waiting is passive!

Unburying Brokenness

Bryan Stevenson’s memoir, Just Mercy, has dozens of stories of triumph. Stevenson and his colleagues at the Equal Justice Initiative have advocated for and freed hundreds of people who were unjustly convicted and sentenced. Those stories are all deeply moving. But I was most affected by a story of failure toward the end of the book.

Jimmy Dill was wrongly accused, convicted, and sentenced to death. He was mentally disabled and suffered a significant speech impediment. Stevenson and his colleagues worked feverishly to have Dill’s sentence reviewed and his execution stayed. But all their attempts were defeated.

Stevenson narrates his last phone call with Mr. Dill, just a short time before the execution. Some of Mr. Dill’s last words to Stevenson were, ““Mr. Bryan, I just want to thank you for fighting for me. I thank you for caring about me. I love y’all for trying to save me.”[i]

As Stevenson sat at his desk, Mr. Dill was executed. Stevenson teetered on the brink of despair. He wondered why he did all this. “I can just leave,” he said aloud to no one but himself. “Why am I doing this?”[ii]

In a few moments, the answer came to him. “I do what I do because I’m broken, too,” he wrote.

My years of struggling against inequality, abusive power, poverty, oppression, and injustice had finally revealed something to me about myself. Being close to suffering, death, executions, and cruel punishments didn’t just illuminate the brokenness of others; in a moment of anguish and heartbreak, it also exposed my own brokenness. You can’t effectively fight abusive power, poverty, inequality, illness, oppression, or injustice and not be broken by it.[iii]

Bryan Stevenson was tempted to bury his brokenness in denial and despair. Fortunately for him, and for all of us, he was saved from that tomb.

The Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30) tells the tale of a fearful slave who buries his brokenness and inters his insecurities. Jesus makes clear that this behavior is not consistent with what it means to be fully and functionally human. I can’t help but think about President Trump, buried in the White House in denial and despair. What little humanity remaining in that poor soul is draining away from him by the second.

What does the third slave bury? He buries his fear. He fears the punishing power of the master if he gets it wrong. So rather than risking failure, he tucks his fear in a napkin, lays it in a hole in the ground, and covers his anxiety. With his terror safely tucked away, he can get on with his normal life. Normal, that is, until the time comes for the accounting.

With his fear, he buries his sense of vulnerability. But if Matthew is right, it is the vulnerable who are blessed. It is not in the absence of vulnerability but right through it that we find blessings. We can be broken open by our suffering. Or we can become unbreakable. This is the choice the third slave makes. In securing his skin, he loses his soul.

With his fear, he buries his capacities for joy…and love. I return over and over to the words of C. S. Lewis in The Four Loves.

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in the casket — safe, dark, motionless, airless — it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside of Heaven, where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.[iv]

It seems that President Trump is simply refusing delivery on the reality of his election loss. The consequences of this refusal range from the comic to the consequential. I know most people are distressed but not surprised by his response. After all, walls are his answer to everything from immigration to protests outside the White House. He seems sure that if he simply denies the loss, it will eventually go away.

Passing judgment on this behavior is easy. But in his current actions, I think Donald Trump is the most American of presidents. After all, we have refused delivery on tragedy, loss, and accountability for much of our history. In this moment, Donald Trump and I are uncomfortably alike in our responses. Too often, Donald and I have believed that brokenness is best managed when it is buried. I know such a response is pathological, even when I do not resist the temptation. President Trump believes such a response is both normal and necessary. I feel sorry for him (a little bit).

What does Joe Biden offer that Donald Trump does not? He offers his brokenness. For me, the most telling line in his speech the other night was when he said he knows about losing. He wasn’t talking about election defeats. He was talking about a cherished wife and daughter, a beloved son. He was talking about how his losses have broken him open.

I do not have 20 years of income to protect and hide (does this refer to the third slave or the forty-fifth president?). I have not lost a national election. But ten years ago right now, I did lose my first spouse, Anne. Repeatedly, since then, I have struggled to keep my heart out of the hole that beckons for its burial. I have not been particularly successful in resisting, so I have a bit of empathy (for a few seconds now and then) for poor Donald.

This parable drives me every three years to another quote from The Four Loves. “If I am sure of anything,” Lewis writes, “I am sure that [Christ’s] teaching was never meant to confirm my congenital preference for safe investments and limited liabilities. I doubt if there is anything in me that pleases [Christ] less. And who could conceivably begin to love God on such a prudential ground — because the security (so to speak) is better?”[v]

I want to bury my brokenness. In the process I become unbreakable. That’s a living death.

The Christian good news is that God embraces our brokenness, finally and fully. That brokenness is wrapped in a napkin and put in the ground…for a little while. But it cannot stay buried. The brokenness of love always gives life. We Christians worship the breakable, and broken, God on the cross.

The third slave buried his brokenness because he did not trust the character of the master. He expected that failure would be punished, that the beatings would now commence. He did not know (or trust) that the master blesses vulnerability and makes risking holy. After all, Creation itself has always been the risk that Divine Love takes for the sake of relationship.

When we bury our brokenness, we lock up the very sources of blessing in our lives. It’s back to the Beatitudes again — poverty of spirit, mourning, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, peacemaking — in our fear we lock away precisely these pains. In the process, we make our hearts unbreakable. We make ourselves unblessable. That is what happens to the third slave. His fear makes him impervious to blessing, so the outer darkness is the only place that can accommodate him.

It is vulnerability which makes God fully human (if we can trust Paul’s words in Philippians 2). And we, who are created in God’s image, can only be fully human in our vulnerability. Becoming unbreakable makes us sub-human, inhuman, and inhumane. If we cannot unbury and welcome our own brokenness, we cannot welcome the brokenness of others. Instead we must punish them for their imperfections and failures.

That practice has been raised to the level of national policy and political philosophy.

As part of our morning ritual, Brenda and I read devotionally from a selection of Henri Nouwen quotes. A few days ago, we read this passage. “Your whole life is filled with losses, endless losses,” he wrote in Finding My Way Home.

And every time there are losses there are choices to be made. You choose to live your losses as passages to anger, blame, hatred, depression, and resentment, or you choose to let these losses be passages to something new, something wider, something deeper. The question is not how to avoid loss and make it not happen, but how to choose it as a passage, as an exodus to greater life and freedom.[vi]

Unburying my brokenness – that’s not a bad description for the daily path of discipleship. And it is my prayer that the current inmate at the White House might, miracle of miracles, discover a bit of his true humanity in the time to come.

Notes:


[i] Stevenson, Bryan. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, p. 288. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid., page 289.

[iv] Page 121.

[v] Page 120.

[vi] Quoted in You are Beloved: Daily Meditations for Spiritual Living, page 343.