On Capital Punishment

During the “Pray-As-You-Go” exercise for Good Friday, I was challenged to imagine myself as one of the people in Jesus’ group o041314_1740_ACrossBetwe1.jpgf family and friends who were witness to the execution of Jesus on the cross. I found this very difficult. It wasn’t that I couldn’t imagine the scene – I have seen so many depictions of it in art and movie that my imagination didn’t have to work very hard – it was that I found that I could not remain among the group of people who were there with Jesus. My mind kept slipping over to view this scene from the perspective of the family members of the others who were being executed by Jesus. (If you want to read what became of this imaginative exercise, you can click here.)

Granted, the fact that Jesus was killed between two thieves has been something that has captured my theological imagination for quite some time. What does it mean that “a completely innocent man” was killed in the name of the state between two people who were also “convicted” of capital crimes?

Part of me imagines that Jesus would have chosen to be killed in exactly this way. He spent his life hanging around those who had reputations that were less than stellar. I think that it is only fitting that the man who gave up heaven to walk the earth spent his last few breathes on public display with exactly the type of people he loved the most – those who were always on the outside of any faith based on legalism. What were the crimes of these convicted felons? I know we have certain standards in our world today for executions, but what are those standards really based upon? And this says nothing of the “figurative” way that people are killed in the name of a group of people in power. I think of all the people who are ostracized by “the Church” in the name of legal interpretations of our Book as well. What about these people? Is Jesus still handing on a cross beside them and waiting for us to notice? It even happens in our communities. Not very long ago, a man in our community took his own life after being investigated for child pornography issues. Yesterday a man in South Korea took his own life rather than face the relatives of the children killed in a tragic ferry accident. What do these things say about us as a people? I know that this is not “capital punishment” but what does it say about our ability to stand with those who commit crimes or even those facing the tragic circumstances of which they played some part? Those who follow Jesus should be able to offer some hope, some joy, for even the worst among us. Jesus managed to do it on the cross.

Another part of me wonders about the justice issues that we as Christians cannot deny exist when we look at the cross. An innocent man was killed “by the state” for crimes he was convicted of by the judicial system of that day. Even an attempt at some sort of pardon by the state failed. It stands to reason, at least for me, that those who were hanging on the left and right of Jesus of Nazareth could have just as easily been every bit as innocent as Jesus. (Granted, one of those two confesses his crimes on the cross, but still, I have to wonder about any system that finds justified killing in the name of the people of a state somewhat suspect.) I know the stance of my church on this issue:

The Death Penalty

We believe the death penalty denies the power of Christ to redeem, restore and transform all human beings. The United Methodist Church is deeply concerned about crime throughout the world and the value of any life taken by a murder or homicide. We believe all human life is sacred and created by God and therefore, we must see all human life as significant and valuable. When governments implement the death penalty (capital punishment), then the life of the convicted person is devalued and all possibility of change in that person’s life ends. We believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ and that the possibility of reconciliation with Christ comes through repentance. This gift of reconciliation is offered to all individuals without exception and gives all life new dignity and sacredness. For this reason, we oppose the death penalty (capital punishment) and urge its elimination from all criminal codes.

From The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church – 2004. Copyright 2004 by The United Methodist Publishing House. Used by permission.

Is it possible that even one innocent person is killed today? I can’t imagine that we are that much better than those who led in Jesus’ day. Things do happen. People do let their eyes be blinded by certain preconceived notions of what is happening. I know I do.

And yet, at the same time, I hear so little about it…especially as it relates to the way we sometimes “kill the spirit” of those who are convicted of other crimes in the Church. Both are serious problems that our society and church face today.

Sunrise over Princeton, WV

Sunrise!

I know…pretty serious thought for the Saturday before we celebrate the Joy of Easter. However, I had to get this off my mind. As I go through this day and even tomorrow, I hope I find myself praying for all those who are on “death row” these days, in our prisons, in our communities, and in our churches. I know that Jesus is with them still. I know Jesus would offer hope. I know that since “joy is the serious business of heaven” (C. S. Lewis) then that same joy should be our serious business as well – “on earth as it is in heaven” and all.

May the Joy and Hope of Easter be with us all!

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