It will be a busy summer in Texas for executions, again. Living in the death penalty capital of the Western World, this shouldn’t surprise us. Gayland Bradford will die for you and your state today at 6PM, and will be followed by 3 others this month. Bradford’s IQ is 68, 2 points below the legal level of “mild mental retardation.” In 2002, the Supreme Court held in Atkins v. Virginia that it is unconstitutional to execute defendants with ‘mental retardation.’ 2 different courts in Houston are also currently trying cases with the death penalty at this time. By the time summer is over, we’ll have executed 474 people since 1976, over 4 ½ times more than the next state in the union (Virginia).
We Christians are confused on this for some reason. On the one hand, Jesus message of forgiveness, mercy and nonviolence was unambiguous and clear. On the other hand, some support executions as a cultural icon.
Here’s an example of the disconnect. This morning I read an interview with a Christian preacher tying his authority to God’s word, “To see that His Word is good for conforming people to the image of Christ, for going into making radical changes in their lives, only the Word can do that—not my opinions, thoughts or ideas, but the power of the Word, the effect of the Word in that wisdom that is found in the Word (emphasis mine).” Now, let’s keep in mind Jesus said we are to love our enemies, receive forgiveness as we give it, and that when confronted with a perfectly legal opportunity to call for the death penalty, Jesus came to the rescue of the accused. He also offered absolution to the two terrorists beside him on the cross, then turned to ask God to forgive those who were killing him. So being “conformed into the image of Christ,” one would think, should look similarly.
Apparently, not so. His denomination has this to say on the issue: God “has established capital punishment as a just and appropriate means by which the civil magistrate may punish those guilty of capital crimes.” No mention of Jesus was given anywhere in their defense. Reminds me of a recent poll looking at the disconnect between Evangelical Christians and the teachings of Jesus. About the Poll, Phil Zuckerman says:
Evangelical Christians, who most fiercely proclaim to have a personal relationship with Christ, who most confidently declare their belief that the Bible is the inerrant word of God, who go to church on a regular basis, pray daily, listen to Christian music, and place God and His Only Begotten Son at the center of their lives, are simultaneously the very people most likely to reject his teachings and despise his radical message… Evangelicals are the most supportive of the death penalty, draconian sentencing, punitive punishment over rehabilitation, and the governmental use of torture. Jesus exhorted humans to be loving, peaceful, and non-violent. And yet Evangelicals are the group of Americans most supportive of easy-access weaponry, little-to-no regulation of handgun and semi-automatic gun ownership, not to mention the violent military invasion of various countries around the world.
And so the death penalty machine rages on with the ironic blessing of those who weekly gather to worship Jesus Christ, executed-now-risen, the Prince of Peace. I’m proud the Mennonite Church has doesn’t give its blessing. Perhaps if we won’t take our cues from Jesus himself, we could take some cues from Rais Bhuiyan, a Muslim man, who like Jesus was given second life. Mark Stroman, out for revenge against Muslims after 9/11, shot and killed 2 men in North Texas before shooting Bhuiyan in the face. He miraculously survived to advocate for Stroman’s life, against the death penalty, saying his Islamic faith led him to realize “hate doesn’t bring any good solution to people. At some point we have to break the cycle of violence. It brings more disaster.” Stroman is scheduled for execution in July.
Perhaps I shouldn’t be so hard on the church for supporting the death penalty. After all, without trial, against all laws (including our own), we executed a man before the watching world and then celebrated in the streets. Choosing violence is just who we are. American citizens have every right to support violence such as the death penalty. But as Zuckerman says, “it is just strange and contradictory when they claim these positions as somehow “Christian.” They aren’t.”
Dear God, we pray for an end to the hate and violence that led Gayland Bradford and Mark Stroman to kill, and to us wanting to kill them in return. We pray for healing and hope to flow through the victims’ families, for reconciliation and peace to flow through death row, and for courage to be conformed to your image. AMEN.
Also published on Marty’s Houston Chronicle blog, The Peace Pastor, at blog.chron.com/thepeacepastor