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Monday, March 28, 2005

Would Jesus Flip the Switch?

The replies I received on the William Payton case made me do some hard thinking. Is it possible for a just society to have a death penalty? There are two answers to that: one is political and one is theological. My belief is that the political should be derived from the Bible, but not dictated by it. Theology should guide politics, but it should not define politics.
Looking to the Bible, then, we find the Old Testament has many instances where death is not only seen as morally right as an option, but it is the only morally right option allowed. While I do not want to see anyone impose the Law of Moses on modern society, it does give us some insight on how God looks at man’s life. It is precious, yes, but it can also be forfeit righteously.
As Christians, we like to think all that was changed by Jesus. His great commandments were “love thy neighbor as thyself” and “love each other as I have loved you”. He taught forgiveness, not retribution. He told his followers to settle any issue with their neighbors before it went to the courts. If they want the shirt off your back, give them your pants as well.
It is important to realize, however, that Jesus was not setting out a political discourse. He was directing individuals on how to behave in their dealings with one another. He did not say, “If a thief takes your wallet, give him your ATM card as well.” Nor did he say, “If a man slays your wife, open your daughter’s door to him as well.” He was not talking about settling criminal behavior with total forgiveness.
When the Pharisees sought to trick him, they brought him a woman who they accused of adultery. The penalty for this under Mosaic Law was death – not only for the woman, but for the man as well. When Jesus saw that no man was charged, he demanded that her accusers provide proof of her actions. They fell away, and Jesus did not say the woman was forgiven, but “I find no fault in you, either.” In other words, it takes two to tango and I’m not going to find fault with only one of the dancers. With no evidence, Jesus refused to convict.
It is significant that there is no record of Jesus participating in a stoning and many instances of him stopping them. It is also significant that he did not speak against the death penalty of his day. Rather, he intervened on behalf of those who were singled out for it because of their place in society. You should not be executed because you are poor, black, female, or ugly. Execution should be reserved only for the guilty – even if they are pretty, white, and wealthy.
There are crimes so heinous that they demand the death of the one who acted. Jesus said plainly that we should pluck out an evil eye or chop off an evil hand. If society is the body of mankind, then those who murder innocents are the evil limbs we should prune. It is a cold blooded manner of viewing the world, but the world is a cold blooded place.
I believe there is ample room in a liberal theology of Christianity to approve of a very limited use of the death penalty. William Payton lived on death row for twenty-four years and had plenty of time to repent and save his soul. Karla Faye Tucker lived on death row fourteen years and also had plenty of time to repent and save her soul. That is mercy. It is an infinite amount more merciful than the warning any of their victims had.
The method of their death will also be much more merciful than that of their victims. Payton snuck into the room of a fellow boarding house dweller and raped her before stabbing her with a butcher knife. He then went to the owner of the house’s room and stabbed her in her sleep while her ten year old son watched. When he screamed, Payton stabbed him so hard he snapped the knife blade. He then went downstairs to get anther knife and finish the job. Tucker used a pick axe to kill a man who had let oil drip onto her carpet and his one-night-stand girlfriend. Tucker claimed she had an orgasm every time she sank the pick axe into her victims.
Both of these people claim they are now Christians and work inside prison to lead others to Christ. It’s valuable work that should be applauded. I’m certain that Jesus will credit them with their efforts. I suppose you could argue that it was worth having such a slow and tortuous process to allow them to find salvation and share it with others.
Tucker’s last words were “I am going to be face to face with Jesus now.” Compared to the screams of horror each of the victims spent their last seconds releasing, this is much more mercy than either Tucker or Payton deserve in this world.


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