"Rescue those unjustly sentenced to death."
"They shed innocent blood, the blood of their sons and their daughters...and the land was polluted with the blood."
When it comes to morality-based decision making in politics, almost nothing sums up the bottom line like chapter and verse from the Good Book. Surfing Christian anti-death penalty websites and databases, I was struck by the clarity that the Bible offers on the most vexing modern issues: "Thou Shalt Not Kill." "Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery." "Honor Thy Father and Mother." "Rescue those unjustly sentenced to death."
Hard to live up to, certainly, but not in the least ambiguous. The Bible offers no clear answers to esoteric political questions like campaign finance reform or affirmative action, but many fundamental propositions--"Love Thy Neighbor as Thyself," or "The Meek Shall Inherit the Earth," for example--would seem to provide a sturdy template for living the Christian life. Certainly, it's Scripture and the theology it has spawned over millennia that activist Christians rely on--indeed, that they're commanded by--for the beliefs they put forth in the political arena so determinedly, as with those anti-death penalty sites mentioned earlier.
Well, only two paragraphs in, I've already broken a Commandment. I lied (even though I know Thou Shalt Not). Those Bible verses were lifted from Christian antiabortion websites, not anti-death penalty ones. Tellingly, few antiabortion sites refer to the death penalty at all, even though the issues are glaringly similar, equally controversial, and produce the same result (a mutilated corpse). These most fervent antiabortion activists are often either unable or unwilling to follow their stated beliefs through to their logical conclusions.
Born-again presidential contender and Texas governor George W. Bush cites Jesus as his "favorite philosopher" and grotesquely refers to himself as a "pro-life governor," even though the 113 executions that have taken place on his watch make up more than a sixth of all Americans put to death since 1976, when the death penalty was reinstituted. Another believer certainly gave away more than she intended when she posted a message on God'sgrrl that read: "Pro-life is the name of a movement to save unborn children, a child who is not a criminal."
So, in her determination to protect an innocent's right to life, why didn't she include a commitment to an adult who's not a criminal?
Why don't "pro-life" activists push for scrupulously fair death penalty trials and zealous crime investigations? Why don't they court imprisonment and federal prosecution until every defendant facing the death penalty has a competent, committed lawyer? Why aren't they dividing their time between blockading access to abortion clinics and access to death rows until they're satisfied that the condemned person was justly condemned? Why don't they stalk abortion providers and clinic workers on Monday and prison wardens in states with the death penalty and no public defenders on Tuesday?
Let me be clear: This is not an argument that Christianity forbids the death penalty. This is an argument that the same believer who cannot stand idly by while innocent "preborns" are killed in the womb cannot stand idly by while innocent "postborns" are killed outside the womb.
On January 31, George Ryan, the pro-death penalty governor of Illinois, declared an indefinite moratorium on executions, saying, "I cannot support a system, which, in its administration, has proven to be so fraught with error and has come so close to the ultimate nightmare, the state's taking of innocent life." Numerous subsequent Lexis and website searches have failed to turn up the many statements of support for the moratorium and outrage over the murder of innocents from antiabortion Christian activists that one might have expected to find.
Since 1976, Illinois has executed 12 people but has been forced to free 13 who were wrongly convicted. Some escaped the death chamber by mere hours. The day after Ryan declared the moratorium, a California judge threw out nine convictions from a list of 32 convicts who, the prosecutors now admit, were framed by corrupt LAPD officers. DNA testing has given rise to a plethora of new innocence cases in California, Texas, Florida, and Louisiana. Certainly, thousands more will arise.