September 2011

Let me tell you why debate audiences who cheer the death penalty frighten me.

On January 5, 1527 the first Protestant reformer was killed by state-sponsored, church-approved authorities under what they believed to be “God’s will.” Felix Manz was the first of more than 25,000 Protestant martyrs known as Anabaptists (Mennonites are Anabaptists), drowned in the Limmat River in Zurich by Christians who claimed to base their entire faith one being “justified by faith alone.”  That same year, King Ferdinand declared drowning (called the third baptism) “the best antidote to Anabaptism” (a pejorative title that simply means “Re-baptism”). Michael Sattler and many others were not, however, lucky enough to die by drowning. The sentence against him read, “Michael Sattler shall be committed to the executioner. The latter shall take him to the square and there first cut out his tongue, and then forge him fast to a wagon and there with glowing iron tongs twice tear pieces from his body, then on the way to the site of execution five times more as above and then burn his body to powder as an arch-heretic.”

Anabaptist Dirk Willems, later recaptured after returning to the ice to rescue his pursuer from drowning. Dirk is executed days later by Christian authorities.


As my spiritual ancestors were killed by the thousands, they sang songs of praise and pleaded with their audiences to put their trust in God, all in the midst of cheers for their death. The angry chants for blood are reminiscent of ancient Roman chants for death in the Colosseum. The links between church and state are as valid to discuss now as then. I share these examples precisely because how absurd they sound on our American ears, so used to ecumenism and the religious diversity of our time. Sure, we disagree about doctrine and worship practices, but we sure as hell don’t kill each other anymore for them. We’ve all grown up a bit, haven’t we?

But here’s the thing: their executions were perfectly legal! Laws dating back over a thousand years prohibited re-baptism at the pain of death. Was it legal? Yes! Was it moral? Absolutely not. Was it “Christian”? Undeniably no. 20/20 hindsight proves the absurdity of practicing state sponsored killing for heresy. Jesus proved the absurdity of killing adulterers in John 8:7, teaching us what once was considered a just cause for execution can and should be modified over time. After all, the Hebrew Scriptures demand execution for a surprising number of offenses, most of which we would recoil from in horror, not stand up and applaud. For instance: adultery, lying about your virginity(Deut 22:20-21), blasphemy(Lev 24:14-16,23), breaking the Sabbath(Ex 31:14, Numb 15:32-36), and evangelism (Deut 13:1-11, 18:20) are all just causes for executions.  By these standards, Jesus was guilty as charged, his execution being perfectly legal. No wonder the crowds cheered!

So last week, and last night, when the GOP debate audiences cheered Governor Rick Perry’s execution record which today will increase to 235, I got scared. Scared because we’ve gotten it so wrong in the past. Scared because the church has never really gotten it right. We’ve so often been on the wrong side of the death penalty, supporting death in ways that today are clearly understood to be 100% incongruous with our faith. Like when my people were killed over the form of baptism, or when countless Jews were killed in the Inquisition because their commitment to God was too strong to be swayed by evangelism-by-sword, or when the German church worshipped God on Sunday’s then “rendered to Caesar” by executing millions of innocents during the week (it’s a marvelous thing to note that Germany has not executed anyone since WW2, having rightly learned the lessons of abuse of power).

When, dear readers, have we ever gotten it right? Perry’s claim that he’s gotten it right 100% of the time is perhaps (though unlikely) correct; but his absolute certainty is shameful and lacks historic precedent. Exploding in applause at the mention of such a widespread and unexamined  death machine is counter to both history and moral health.

Today I stand with history on the side of caution and humility against the state-sponsored, church-approved executions of Steven Woods (today), Duane Buck (Thursday), Cleve Foster (next Tuesday), and Lawrence Brewer (next Wednesday). The abolition of the Texas death penalty is inevitable. Either we will choose to stand for the humane treatment of all people (guilty or not), or we will, like everyone before us (see Germany post-WW2) make mistakes so horrendous and innumerable we will be forced to repent and change our policy. Either way, this absurd cycle of violence will come to an end.

Here I stand, remembering history. As a follower of one whose blood was shed by state-sponsored, religion-approved executions, I have no other choice. Dear God, forgive us for killing guilty people like your Son Jesus, Felix Manz and Michael Sattler, Steven, Duane, Cleve and Lawrence. I pray they come to know the grace and peace that comes only through knowing you. May their victims family’s be free from hate to know the peace of Christ which surpasses all understanding. May we learn from our past mistakes and stand with history against the death penalty. Jesus, executed and now risen, have mercy on us! AMEN.

Anyone who is without sin, feel free to pull that lever.

President Obama is not Christian enough for some mysterious reason even though he’s a professed Christian. Mitt Romney is not Christian enough because he’s Mormon. All kinds of litmus tests are established for when its ok or not ok for our national leaders to step outside of Christian wisdom and thought.

Recently, several candidates have taken a calculated step away from classic interpretations of Christian doctrine and ethics in at least one key area: war. Is it OK or not OK for our leaders to step outside the Christian faith on what should be one of the most central issues of our time?

At a weekend engagement with a Texas VFW, our fine governor distanced himself from Sixteen hundred years of accepted Christian practice, saying, “We must renew our commitment to taking the fight to the enemy, wherever they are, before they strike at home.” Having tried to blatantly establish himself as the “Christian” candidate of choice in his August 6 prayer “Response,” it can’t go unnoticed how novel an idea preemption is!

Indeed, herein lies the problem. The novelty of preemption should not be lost on Christians who come from nearly any and every branch of Christianity, including: mainline, evangelical, Pentecostal, Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox – all of whom have no room for preemptive strikes in their accepted doctrines of either Christian pacifism or Just War Theory.

Here’s a little refresher course in how we Christians have fought, and not fought, for the last 2 millenium. For the first 300-400 years of our history, Christians were largely pacifists and abstained from military service. After the Constintinian shift which attempted to “christianize” empire, theologians sought pragmatic ways to restrain violence and “fight fair.” The very concept of fighting fair would have been anathema to the early church, but nontheless, they developed tried and true rules for establishing what came to be known as a “Just War.” These principles have, with few exceptions, guided mainstream Christianity ever since. Here, according to, are the basics: 

  • A just war can only be waged as a last resort.
  • A war is just only if it is waged by a legitimate authority.
  • A just war can only be fought to redress a wrong suffered. For example, self-defense against an armed attack is always considered to be a just cause. Further, a just war can only be fought with “right” intentions: the only permissible objective of a just war is to redress the injury.
  • A war can only be just if it is fought with a reasonable chance of success.
  • The ultimate goal of a just war is to re-establish peace.
  • The violence used in the war must be proportional to the injury suffered.
  • The weapons used in war must discriminate between combatants and non-combatants.

So let’s be clear: there is absolutely no way for a pre-emptive war to be called a “Just War.” It’s a new thing, with zero support from the great ones like Augustine, Calvin, Luther, Wesley, etc… No one save the embarressing Crusaders (who even Wheaton College and Campus Crusade for Christ distance themselves from now) and perhaps the German Church have tried to Christianize preemption. So is it OK or not?

Perry is, unfortunately, not the only powerful politician (current or potential) who is trading his faith for a war ethic with little or no resemblance to the classic Christian thoughts and rules. Recent debates have brought out strong voices for war with Iran, claims that we need to do “everything necessary,” and strong militaristic language that echoes the drumbeats preceeding Shock and Awe. A former VP is touting for all to hear how torture needs to proudly be the new normal in American policy. Perhaps its just a sign of the times that our current President, as hawkish and war-minded as any, absurdly won the Nobel Peace Prize. His policies are as wrong as his receipt of the award.

One thing is becoming ever more clear: no matter who wins in November 2012, the myth of redemptive violence will live on.

How do you, dear Christian readers, feel about having one of your most ancient and sacred theories (Just War) trampled as if it were nothing? What does it mean when we cease trusting accepted Christian practices as normative? Do we today have the right to stray from the accumulated wisdom of our ancestors? When do Presidents have the moral authority to step outside of Christian wisdom and thought? And, when they do, who is willing to hold our candidates accountable on this key issue like we hold them accountable on various other issues?

As someone commited to making peace through peace and not war, I do not hold as most Christians do to the Just War Theory. But it makes sense to me that if you’re going to hold to a theory, you should hold to the theory. Particularly when lives (so many lives!) are at stake, and trillions of dollars, and our own moral health. Shouldn’t we be more commited than ever to those Christian convictions that have guided us? Now is not the time for novelty. Now is the time to make peace.

If I could just find a candidate willing to step away from Just War in the other direction, my vote might become a little more clear.