Wherever you come down on the issue of capital punishment, it’s impossible to deny that what happened last night in Oklahoma was horrific.
Last night also reminds us of a broader horrific truth that so many of us deny or simply ignore: Capital Punishment is murder at the hands of the State.
Yes, we’re killing a human being, in the name of all of us, but we’re doing it kindly and gently. You know, like we might put down an old dog.(1)
Last night ripped the pretense off this view. Murder is intentionally taking the life of another human being. Capital punishment is murder at the hands of the State, however “nicely” it happens.
If this offends you, I will remind you that the prosecutors in every capital murder case in every state in the nation act in the name of the “The People.”
When they call witnesses during trial, they say “The People call….”
In other words: those prosecutors are speaking for YOU. When they convict a human being and sentence that human being to die, they are speaking on behalf of YOU. And me. And all of us.
There are few situations quite as morally clear as this one. All of us, as citizens of our respective states, commit murder together every time capital punishment takes place.
May God have mercy on us all.
The problem with most analysis of capital punishment is that it focuses only on the “defendant.” The defense of capital punishment says (whether it’s true or not) “Well, it’s a deterrent to crime.”
What this fails to account for is that is that capital punishment never takes pace in a vacuum of a sanitized jail cell alone.
In addition to the death of a human being, capital punishment creates another set of grieving parents, siblings, children. It exponentially increases the numbers of those mourning the loss of a loved one. Those whose grief can turn to future anger…future violent actions.
Two sets of grieving, angry families: those killed by the perpetrators, and those later killed by the state.
Martin Luther King Jr. was right: “Hate cannot drive out hate.” An act of hate, even if justified, sanitized, or done in the name of the rule of law, cannot eliminate hate in the world. Even if we call it “justice.”
Many people claim that capital punishment is sanctioned by the Bible. I cannot, for the life of me, think of a a single time Jesus said, “Be sure and kill a person for their crimes.”
Some say that Jesus sanctioned it when he suggested that “If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out.”
Two problems with using that passage to “proof text” capital punishment…
a) Jesus is clearly talking to individuals. He’s suggesting that they —morally, not literally— might consider doing this to themselves. He’s not sanctioning what the State might want to collectively do on behalf of all us.
b) Jesus was not being literal. You get that, right? He didn’t literally want folks to pluck their eyes out. If he had, by the time he was hanging on the cross, nobody looking up at him would have been able to see him. They’d all be standing below with empty, bloody eye sockets, unable to “survey the wondrous cross.”
What an irony that would have been…
But even more powerful than this is the story of how Jesus prevented a woman from being stoned to death. He comes upon a group of angry men, clutching stones and ready to throw.
Jesus effectively says, “Ok. Whoever has never sinned before, they get to throw the first stone.”
One by one, the stones thud on the ground.
Except, in our time, they don’t. And they’re not stones.
In our time, we pick up prescription drugs, not stones. Every now and then, like last night, something goes horribly wrong and it again looks more like a bloody stoning than somebody gently going to sleep.
But make no mistake, every time we execute someone in the name of “The People,” that person does not just drift off to sleep.
They die. Because we sanction it.
In my mind, I always imagine that Jesus comes up on that group of men —white knuckle-gripping their stones, surrounding that trembling woman— and finds them standing in a circle.
I always imagine that when he tells them “Those who are without sin cast the first stone,” he’s not only saving her life, he’s saving their’s too.
Because unless they have really really good aim, they’re gonna hit each other as much as they hit her.
I think Jesus knew both these things. He knew he was saving a bunch of stupid, angry men from killing themselves in collateral damage.
But he also knew he was saving their souls too, by asking them to look inside and see just how wrong it was to take her life.
Last night reminded us horrifically how every time “We The People” pick up the stone of lethal injection, we die too. Some mornings, like today, we wake up and feel the collateral damage in the depths of our souls.
May God have mercy on us all.