Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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In Prison and You Visited Me
Like any parent, I worried a lot during the year my son, David, was deployed with the National Guard in Afghanistan. Imagining him killed or wounded was not a daily preoccupation, but it loomed over life like a cloud, never fully absent. David came home alive, uninjured, and relatively free of the kind of post traumatic syndrome that afflicts so many. We were, and are, fortunate and grateful. Also accompanying me during those months was the question of how I would react should the awful news arrive at our front door. How would I think about the one who had fired the rocket or set the improvised explosive device? Would I want that Taliban fighter killed as retribution for my son’s loss? Could I forgive as my faith calls us to do? Would bitterness and vengeance overtake my soul, adding additional salt to the wounds of my grief? Would knowledge of the death of the killer of someone I loved bring any kind of healing or relief?
Last week when Governor Quinn signed the bill to end the death penalty in Illinois, I joined many citizens and people of faith in my new home state celebrating what we hope will be the beginning of a national trend. The arguments against capital punishment are well known and compelling. It has never been shown to be an effective deterrent. Its administration has disproportionately affected the poor and persons of color. DNA testing has shown how often the innocent have been mistakenly sent to death row. The list goes on and on. But what about the claims of those who have lost a beloved family member to murder? How should their interests be represented in this searing national debate?
Of course, not all the family and friends of the victims of horrific crimes call for the death of the person who committed those crimes. Some have written eloquent letters to judges at the time of sentencing, asking that the life of a convicted murderer be spared. Remember the powerful witness of the Amish community in Pennsylvania 2006 which went to the family of the man who had killed their children in a rural school house and offered forgiveness? But there are those who cry out for retribution, who see capital punishment as appropriate justice, who claim that the death of their loved one’s killer restores something of value to them. My year-long musings about how I might respond should my son come home in a box may not have converted me from my opposition to the death penalty, but they made me more sympathetic to those who confront this moral question in the most personally anguished way imaginable.
The Bible offers no simple yes or no to capital punishment. At the heart of the Christian story is an execution, sanctioned and justified by the law of the land. According to some atonement theologies, this execution is an appropriate sacrifice demanded by God’s justice in response to the crimes of humanity. For some, the crucifixion is even a “type” for the need humans have for their own claim to or need for justice in response to heinous blood crimes. Mark Heim, drawing on the work of René Girard, offers a resounding “no!” to this theology in his study of atonement, Saved from Sacrifice: A Theology of the Cross:
The victims of sacrifice die to keep things the same – to restore communal peace in the face of conflict and to validate yet again the ancient solution to social crisis, the eternal return of the scapegoat. Christ died as such a victim, subject to that same intention on the part of his executioners, but without sharing it. His death was an act of resistance to scapegoating death, not an endorsement of it. He died to change things, most specifically to end this way of keeping the peace. He died to change the repetitive dying to maintain the world, (p. 259).
What better way to describe the Cross than breaking the age-old allure of repetitive dying in all its forms to save the world?
Capital punishment may or may not bring closure, relief, or peace to the grieving relatives of victims. My brush with the very real possibility of being in their shoes makes me less quick to dismiss their feelings on this subject. But let’s not allow anyone to vindicate execution’s “repetitive dying” through the use of the Bible at whose heart are texts that speak of forgiving our enemies, blessing those who persecute us, and not answering evil with evil. I’d like to think I would be able to forgive should the unthinkable happen to a member of my family, that I’d be able to rise above understandable feelings of rage and vengeance. It would be hard, and I’d need the help of many to bring forth the better angels of my very human nature. Living in a state that refuses to be complicit with my basest human instincts would certainly help.
In Matthew, Jesus portrays the last day as a judgment between those who saw Him in the face of their neighbor, feeding, clothing, welcoming, and those who refused Him in His hour of need. Here we’re reminded that blessing comes to those who visited Him in prison, not those who came to administer a lethal injection. Governor Quinn did a good thing last week. May his colleagues in 36 states around the country have eyes to see and ears to hear.
John H. Thomas