Do Not Kill
Do not kill. (Exodus 20:13 CEB translation)
Do not kill. (Deuteronomy 5:17 CEB translation)
You have heard that it was said to those who lived long ago, Don't commit murder, and all who commit murder will be in danger of judgment. But I [Jesus] say to you that everyone who is angry with their brother or sister will be in danger of judgment. If they say to their brother or sister, 'You idiot,' they will be in danger of being condemned by the governing council. And if they say, 'You fool,' they will be in danger of fiery hell. (Matthew 5:21-22 CEB translation)
When they arrived at the place called The Skull, they crucified Jesus, along with the criminals, one on his right and the other on his left. Jesus said, "Father, forgive them, for they don't know what they're doing." They drew lots as a way of dividing up his clothing. The people were standing around watching, but the leaders sneered at him, saying, "He saved others. Let him save himself if he really is the Christ sent from God, the chosen one." The soldiers also mocked him. They came up to him, offering him sour wine and saying, "If you really are the king of the Jews, save yourself." (Luke 23:33-37 CEB translation)
A couple of years ago, I killed Jesus. Actually, it is more accurate to say that I ordered others to kill Jesus. I stood by and watched it happen. Over. And over. And over.
We put him to death by lethal injection. Because that is what we do these days.
That is what Arkansas is about to do to 7 (maybe 8?) men, beginning the day after Easter and occurring over the next 11 days. The reason given for the time frame is that one of the drugs in the lethal injection cocktail is about to expire. I have to say, though, the placement of the executions feels a little like the leaders and soldiers who mocked Jesus. It feels a little like the state is saying, “Oh, you believe in the resurrection? In forgiveness of sins? Well, watch this. Where’s your forgiveness and resurrection now, huh?”
The United Methodist Church has a longstanding opposition to the death penalty. That being said, I know I go to worship every week with people who support it. I admit, despite my careful placement of biblical passages above, there are certainly plenty of passages that could justify the other side of this argument. One of these days, I will do a blog dealing with “An eye for an eye…” but for brevity’s sake that will have to wait. I just acknowledge that biblically there is variety, and there is that same variety in the people of faith.
But tonight someone asked at dinner whether the people at the table believed in the death penalty or not, and expressed that she herself struggles to have a clear position because the topic is so complicated. She is right. But I still do not support the death penalty, and it boils down for me to four main points.
1. We execute “innocent” people. I do not particularly agree with the dichotomy of innocent v. guilty, for we are all both of those in our lifetime. The only truly innocent person to walk this earth was himself a recipient of capital punishment, and let me echo again how truly offensive it is to me that my home state feels it appropriate to continue such a grand tradition in the shadow of the cross.
2. We ask other people to kill other people. Someone has to perform the execution. Someone has to take another person’s life. Remember how I mentioned that I ordered another person to kill Jesus? It was in the context of an updated telling of Jesus’ trial and execution as part of a church drama. Those rehearsals were draining, though. And I had to reassure our executioner that we had to remember we need this execution to get to the resurrection. He struggled with it anyway. But remember, this was in the context of a performed drama. It was not “real,” no matter how real it came to feel. Like soldiers who have to deal with PTSD from combat situations in which they have killed another human or have watched fellow humans get killed, we are putting our executioners in an untenable situation, and experts agree that we do not know what the ramifications will be in this unprecedented parade of executions before us. As long as we are asking someone else to kill on our behalf, we carry the responsibility for the action.
3. We deny someone the opportunity for repentance. Maybe these 7 or 8 men on death row will never repent, or maybe they have. That is really between them and God. If we interfere in that process, however, that blood is on us. That means, theoretically, God could save the condemned, and condemn the free. I wonder what happened to the second criminal next to Jesus, the one that taunted him. I wonder if God said, “You know what, you didn’t get a good chance to accept Jesus. You are forgiven. Those people who nailed you to the cross, however….”
4. Jesus never chose retaliation. I cannot imagine what it must be like to be a family member of a murder victim. There is probably no justice that makes things right. Maybe not even God’s. At least not from our human perspective. I am driven to my knees by the brokenness of this situation. But I am called to follow Jesus, to try to model my life after his. He didn’t face the cross, then come back resurrected and start putting people to death for what they did to him. Jesus chose a radical path of love and forgiveness. To choose otherwise in his eyes is tantamount to murdering someone. I fail miserably at following the way I should, but it does not mean I don’t try.
I have not always been against the death penalty. It has been a long journey. Honestly, I am still on it. I am still trying to see every person, including 8 condemned men, as my equal before God. I will probably never get all the way there. But I still walk on. And I pray for all of us, and for a world fully in the reign of God when such a debate is no longer even necessary, for that will be a day when “Death will be no more. There will be no mourning, crying, or pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:4 CEB translation)
In the meantime, Father forgive us, because we do not know what we are doing.