Why this Conservative Evangelical Stopped Supporting the Death Penalty


    I used to support the death penalty.  After all, that’s what good Christians did, right?  Murderers received what they had measured out to others.  The death penalty was in the Bible and that was good enough for me.  But as the years went by, I began to wrestle with facts and ideas that didn’t fit.  It took time, years, even decades before I realized that I was changing my mind.  Even then, as a member in, and then as a pastor of, conservative congregations, I didn’t talk much about it. 

    I was troubled as I wondered how grace and mercy were served by the death penalty.  I was also troubled as I heard more about the costs of a death penalty conviction.  I suppose the last straw was when I first heard about the number of convictions being thrown out as DNA testing was first being used in the legal system.  Over the years, the evidence piled up until I had to surrender a notion that I once thought was reasonable.  I am not any different than I used to be.  My political and religious leanings are not significantly different than they ever were but I now believe that it is both logical and reasonable to oppose the death penalty from both a practical and a religious point of view.  Here’s why…
The Death Penalty is Not a Deterrent–Crime statistics in places where there is a death penalty are not statistically different from places where there is not.
Cost – It costs more to incarcerate a death row inmate.  Prisoners convicted under a death penalty statute are granted mandatory appeals and that process is expensive.  Estimates are that a death penalty inmate costs 2 to 5 times more over his or her lifetime than one who is incarcerated for life.
Fairness and Justice – The scriptural standard of evidence, particularly for murder, was from the beginning (Deuteronomy 17), two eyewitnesses.  In our modern world, having two witnesses is rare.  Mistaken identity is now one of the leading causes of error in our legal system.   Add a host of other errors, and suddenly a lot of people find themselves wrongly convicted.  For the last decade or so, an average of 18 death row residents per year were cleared by DNA evidence.  It’s so bad, that nationwide, a Columbia University study found serious errors in 68% of all death penalty cases and 2 out of 3 death penalty cases were overturned on appeal.  Of those overturned, 82% were retried on lesser charges.  Granted, no system is foolproof, but when ours is so messed up that we get it wrong 2 out of 3 times, its time to try something else.
Consistency – The church is usually among those who proclaim the sanctity of all life and declare to the world how God loves all people.  If we really believe that, then why is the life of a murderer not just as sacred?  Does God love murderers less? 
Grace, Forgiveness and Redemption – If we believe (and I do) that the Gospel message is all about grace, forgiveness and redemption, how do we justify the state sponsored killing of incarcerated criminals?  Where’s the grace and forgiveness in that?  How can God do a work of redemption in someone’s life when they’re already dead?  If we believe that God can change the hearts of human beings, then why are we so quick to assume that these men and women are unredeemable?
    As I wrestled with these questions, I realized that I didn’t have any answers that could make my continued support of the death penalty make any logical or spiritual sense.  That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a part of me that thinks the perpetrators of particularly horrible crimes shouldn’t die in some particularly painful way.   
What it means, I think, is that I’m beginning to understand the difference between retribution and justice.

Illegal Immigration – In Search of Justice (Part 2 of 2)

Immigration activists argue that the people crossing the border are no different than all the other immigrant migrations that our nation has experienced in previous generations. The argument is that these people are indeed the tired, the poor, and the huddled masses yearning to breathe free that we’ve invited to our shores in Emma Lazarus’ poem engraved on the Statue of Liberty. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_New_Colossus) Activist would have us understand that these migrants are simply coming to our shores in search of a better life and that we should therefore treat them with compassion and respect.

Arizona has had law enforcement officers shot and killed in an immigration related shootings, crimes committed by immigrants, including murder, is increasing and drug cartels have reportedly put a bounty on all law enforcement officers. From their point of view, it is glaringly apparent that something has to be done immediately, but after asking for Federal assistance, and receiving none, for more than twenty years, they felt compelled to take matters into their own hands. Worse, after the attacks of 9/11 and multiple terrorist plots on our homeland, our porous border is leaking not only Latino migrants, but potentially hostile Arab ones as well. (http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2005/jun/30/20050630-124933-1494r/)

If we pay closer attention, there are more than two sides that need to be considered and we can find people of faith on all sides. Migrant activists claim that our current process of legal immigration is too slow, too difficult, too expensive and generally too cumbersome. From their point of view, this lack of fairness is reflected in the rising numbers of migrants who feel compelled to flaunt the law in search of something that is unavailable at home. They question whether heavy-handed legal enforcement (or worse, outright prejudice) is necessarily directed at people whose only interest is in finding employment and caring for their families. Their opponents point out that, as an immigrant nation, we welcome newcomers to join the millions of us who have already come here but we invite them to do so legally. They ask, why we should not legitimately separate those who wish to join us as fellow citizens and those who wish only to use us as a convenient income stream but who do not desire to accept the responsibilities of citizenship.

On another side, we hear that the jobs being sought are jobs that American citizens don’t want. Still, others argue that when at least ten percent of our population is actively seeking employment (and some estimates double that), it seem doubtful that so many of our fellow citizens would refuse work of any kind.

The more we look at our immigration problem the more it is apparent that there are far more questions than answers. Why are asylum seekers who come to our shores seeking protection persecution, religious and otherwise, being systematically imprisoned? (http://www.humanrightsfirst.org/pdf/090429-RP-hrf-asylum-detention-sum-doc.pdf) What should we do with the children of illegal immigrants, children who were born here or who speak only English and who have known no other life than the life of an American? (http://www.kevindhendricks.com/2010/05/19/immigration-protest-its-not-about-us/) In this maze of questions it is apparent that our current system of immigration is in dire need of reform. Currently it seems to be unfair to everyone, immigrants, citizens, border-states and others.

I don’t pretend to have any answers but one thing seems obvious. Name-calling isn’t going to help. Partisan bickering and finger pointing isn’t going to provide a path to a solution. Everyone seems to have real issues that need to be addressed. Immigration needs to be reformed. Our current system is unwieldy, slow and expensive. Arizona and other border states are constitutionally entitled to a secure border. National security demands that we prevent terrorists from crossing our borders at will. In each instance, we need to find a way for human beings – regardless of their political motivations or immigration status – to treat one another with respect, compassion and justice. If a solution exists, it can only be found by having a reasoned and intelligent conversation, we will have to have an open mind are be willing to hear – and listen to – arguments from every sides.

The truth will not be found in the black and white but somewhere in the stew created by the gray in-between.

Illegal Immigration – In Search of Justice (Part 1 of 2)

Before I begin, I want to be clear that I have a significant personal interest in immigration. Both of my maternal grandparents immigrated to the United States after WWI and my father’s family also traces its heritage overseas (though somewhat more distantly). My Mother-in-law is an immigrant and my wife and I filed all the paperwork, wrote all the checks and visited all the government offices necessary to adopt and naturalize our three children. Having said that, I also note that all of these immigrations followed the legal processes required by our government even when they were unpleasant, expensive and time-consuming.

There is a lot of talk about immigration lately, specifically, illegal immigration. Most of the voices are loud and, unfortunately, most are quick to dismiss and even disparage any differing points of view. As is the case with many of our political discussions of late, I suspect that we won’t travel very far in the right direction (if at all) unless we have an open mind are willing to hear – and listen to – arguments from both sides.

Arguments over immigration most often seem to center on “fairness” and “justice” and while are important principles, we cannot allow our personal view of fairness and justice to blind us to what is fair and just to others. A one-sided view of what is just abandons real justice before it begins. To be truly just and fair, again, we need to determine what is fair and just from (and for) all sides.

Lately, the furor began when the State of Arizona enacted a law that allows the state to enforce existing Federal immigration laws. Arizona has since been accused of being anti-immigration, racist, fascist, and worse. In their own defense, Arizona insists that it only did what was necessary to secure is borders and to protect its citizens. So what is the truth? Like many things, the truth is not so black and white and seems to be a stew created in the gray in-between.

Immigration has been a hot-button issue for a long time. For as long as I remember being politically aware (since the Reagan era and a little before) there has been no clear consensus on immigration, especially as it relates to our Southern neighbor, Mexico. What I do remember is that border states, like Arizona, have been asking the Federal government (the part of government that is constitutionally responsible for border security and enforcement) since before the Reagan administration and from every administration, Republican and Democrat, ever since. President Reagan was known to be one of those rare persons who was able to create legislation that had true bipartisan support. Immigration reform was among those laws that were passed under his watch. The Reagan era immigration reform provided amnesty to migrants who had become permanent residents in the United States and 1.7 million of the estimated 5 million illegal migrants became legalized American citizens.

The Reagan era amnesty law was a great bipartisan success, but is also believed to be one of the root causes of our current dilemma. In order to secure conservative support for a bill that included amnesty, promises were made to increase border security and to make it more difficult for employers to hire non-citizens. The stated goal was to reduce the numbers of illegal migrants and amnesty was intended to be a part of doing that. Since then, while the amnesty part of the law was very successful, the enforcement part has not and we’ve increased from 5 million illegal immigrants to 12 million. The law that was intended to reduce the problem did nothing and perhaps made it worse (http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2008/jan/06/rudy-giuliani/yep-reagan-did-the-a-word/).

Today, we have pro-immigration voices shouting for more amnesty but those who have longer political memories see the world differently. If we remember the Reagan amnesty, a solution that clearly didn’t work, we might honestly question whether another amnesty program can be some kind of magic bullet.

Our church, The United Methodist Church, has been an advocate of social justice for over two hundred years and so it is naturally important to us to speak out for those who have no voice in our institutions and in our system of government. This view is not only the view of our founder, John Wesley but well established in scripture (Exodus 23:9, Leviticus 19:34, Deuteronomy 24:17). But again, we cannot choose to wave a banner of social justice without considering what is just for all parties involved.

(next week – Part 2)