Rooted and Grounded: Death Penalty Abolition
October 29, 2017
Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Matthew 5:38-45
I’m not really big on celebrity culture. I don’t belong to any fan clubs or have celebrities as screen savers or anything like that. If a movie star walked into church right now . . . well, there’s a decent chance I wouldn’t even recognize them, and if I did, I imagine I’d just keep preaching. I mean, athletes and musicians and actors are just people, right?
But several years ago I was sent an email of a scanned copy of a letter. A hand-written letter addressed to me and four colleagues. The first word of the note was “Joanna,” and it was signed, “From the heart, Sister Helen Prejean.” Getting that letter made me realize that I do care about celebrities—to the extent Sister Helen, a fierce anti-death penalty activist, can be considered a celebrity.
She was writing to thank us for our role in writing and disseminating a sign-on letter for Kansas faith leaders to encourage the abolition of the death penalty in our state. This is work I did on behalf of, with the blessing and encouragement of, this church. So the thanks goes to all of you as well.
We’re in the midst of our worship series on being “Rooted and Grounded.” Looking at the theological and biblical reasons for some of the values we—as Mennonite Christians—hold most dear. And supporting life by opposing the death penalty is definitely an important Mennonite value.
In 1965, both the General Conference Mennonite Church and the Mennonite Church passed resolutions calling for an end to the death penalty. Then, when those two denominations merged, 36 years later, the newly formed Mennonite Church USA passed an anti-death penalty resolution at its first delegate assembly urging “congregations to take action to support abolition of the death penalty through prayer, letter writing, and public vigils.” In addition, our church conference, Western District, has a statement against the death penalty as well as a task force working specifically on abolition efforts in the state.
So, for all the disagreements within the Mennonite church right now, being against the death penalty is one point of certainty and agreement. It is certainly worth thinking about why we hold that position.
And, with over 1,400 executions in the U.S. since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, with over 2,800 people on death row now, this is a topic we need to address.
I will admit that, as much as I loved getting a “thank you” from Sister Helen Prejean, I always have mixed feelings about writing anti-death penalty letters and statements for political purposes. I struggle some because I feel obligated to talk about all of the reasons the death penalty is bad: the unjust application based on issues of race and class; the danger of killing an innocent person; the exorbitant financial costs of carrying out the death penalty (which more and more politicians of both parties are recognizing); the trauma experienced by victims’ families in the process; the fact that there is no notable deterrence effect. I mention all of these things in my letters. And they are all true. And they are all sincere concerns.
But all of these reasons to abolish the death penalty are really beside the point of why we, as Christians, oppose it. Ultimately, our grounding against the death penalty is the same as our grounding against racism and our commitment to non-violence. The most basic principle articulated in the first chapter of Genesis and affirmed by Jesus’ life and teachings: all human beings are created in the image of God.
Because we all bear the divine image, killing another person is always wrong. And the pre-meditated, state-sanctioned killing involved with the death penalty seems a particular kind of violation of the sanctity of human life.
In my letters and statements, I write about the danger of convicting the innocent and the cost of death and whatever else I think will convince politicians to vote to end the death penalty. But the truth is, I would argue for abolition even if the court systems were perfect—treating people of all races and socio-economic statuses the same, never ever convicting innocent people. I would argue for abolition even if the death penalty was a less expensive option than life in prison without parole.
I argue for abolition because: “God created humankind in the divine image,/in the divine image God created them.”
And the greatest commandment, according to Jesus, is to love God with all of our hearts and souls and minds and strength. And the second is to love our neighbors as ourselves.
Because the scriptures—as we heard in the reading from Deuteronomy–urge us to choose life.
Much of our grounding in opposition to the death penalty is the same as our grounding in anti-racism, in non-violence. These basic principles that we hold lead us to a consistent ethic of life, of peace, of justice, of love.
There are also some scripture passages that relate more specifically to this question of how to treat those who have committed horrible sin, who have killed other people.
One of these passages we heard this morning, from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. . . . “
This general principle, of course, can be applied to a lot of issues beyond the death penalty. But I believe Jesus’ words here speak to the death penalty in a particular way because of the Old Testament reference. “You have heard it said.” The specific passage is from Leviticus 24:
“If anyone takes the life of a human being, he must be put to death. . . . If anyone injures his neighbor, whatever he has done must be done to him: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth.”
In overriding the “eye for eye” standard of punishment, Jesus condemns the death penalty in particular.
And in case his teaching in the Sermon on the Mount is not enough to make his position clear, we have the story of the woman caught in adultery. You may be familiar with this story from John’s Gospel, which really deserves a sermon in its own right. But for our purposes this morning, it is important to note that Jesus thwarts the Scribes and Pharisees attempt to carry out the death sentence against the woman.
The men point out that the law of Moses calls for those who commit adultery to be stoned to death. (We’re not sure why her “accomplice” is not also facing death.) They ask Jesus what he has to say about this situation. “Whoever is without sin, be the first to throw a stone at her.”
On the one hand, this is not an impassioned condemnation of the death penalty. It’s not a soundbite I can use in the letters I write to legislators. We might wish for a more direct anti-death penalty statement.
On the other hand, Jesus’ statement takes us back to our grounding principles, roots us again in the truth of the foundational Genesis story. His statement humanizes the woman; it makes her the equal of the religious men and affirms that she, too, is made in God’s image. And Jesus’ statement reminds people of the universality of sin. The woman may have sinned, but sinning against her because of her sin would also be sin. And there is, clearly, no one in the crowd who is perfectly innocent. (Except, theoretically, Jesus himself who does not condemn her.)
Finally, when thinking about biblical teachings against the death penalty, we cannot ignore the fact that Jesus himself was a victim of capital punishment. Crucifixion was a form of execution carried out by the Roman government. In the story of Jesus’ death, we see many of the same injustices present in today’s system of state-sponsored killings: unfair trials, politics over truth, the sheer cruelty of organized killing.
Throughout history, the death penalty has functioned in opposition to the will of God. Our stance against the death penalty is good and right, biblical and godly.
Perhaps some of you are growing wearing of hearing me say things you already know week after week as we go through our rooted and grounded series: Gun violence is bad; racism is evil; we are called to non-violent action; worship is good; we should oppose the death penalty. These are all things you know. And maybe you don’t need to hear them.
But maybe you do. I know that I need to hear them and say them. And Andrea posted a link on Facebook this week that helped me understand why I feel like I need this series. These reminders. It was to an article titled: “No, It’s Not You. This is Crazy.”
It feels these days like there is a normalizing of some very dangerous values and actions: sexism, racism; violent speech; gun wielding; intimidation and insults . . . We can feel like we are the ones who are crazy for thinking these things are a problem.
What I desperately want you to know is that you are not crazy for holding on to your values of respect and love, of peace and kindness. You are not alone and you are not crazy.
What you are is faithful. What you are is beloved—by God and by this community.