2016-06-30

"Rescue those unjustly sentenced to death."
Proverbs 24:11

"They shed innocent blood, the blood of their sons and their daughters...and the land was polluted with the blood."
Psalm 106:38

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.

You don't have to work for the ACLU (or believe that many officials are venal) to find thousands of cases of prosecutorial, police, and judicial misconduct. Students in journalism classes have investigated death cases for extra credit and rescued those unjustly sentenced to death in their spare time. Those who bother to look will find court-appointed lawyers who slept through trials, openly shunned their clients in front of the jury, or were so swamped with work and so underpaid that the "defenses" they mounted should insult the conscience of any red-blooded American, and certainly a God-fearing Christian.

Where is Operation Rescue? Where is the National Right to Life Committee's paralegal brigade combing through case files, recreating crime scenes, and praying on courthouse steps where a daylong slapdash death penalty trial (the kind most poor minorities face every day) is in session? Where are the gruesome life-size photos of wrongly convicted grown-ups whose electrocutions caused flames to shoot from one of God's creature's skulls for a crime of which they were innocent? Thirty-eight states have the death penalty; nationwide, 85 innocent people have been freed from death row since capital punishment was reinstated. Imagine the number of innocent dead (the Supreme Court has held that mere innocence is insufficient to overturn a death sentence as long as the defendant had earlier opportunities to make his case).

If a moderate pro-death penalty governor found it within himself to suspend the state's right to kill because inarguable travesties of justice were taking place, what kind of systems can those 37 other governors be presiding over? Further, if death penalty advocates have their way and continue agitating to speed up executions, many, many more of the wrongly convicted (almost always the most disadvantaged among us) will be railroaded to an unjust and certainly un-Christian death.

If Christian antiabortion activists were consistent and truly "pro-life," they'd demand an end to the soulless assembly line that shuttles the poor--innocent and guilty alike--to death row. It's easy to fight for a cuddly baby you'll never actually see, but what about a corn-rowed, gold-toothed homeboy, or a skinhead with Confederate flag tattoos? You can scream "murderer!" at a women entering an abortion clinic, get filmed for the nightly news, and still get to the office on time. It takes years and real sacrifice to keep "the meek" from getting the chair. Some Christian pity and compassion for these hard cases who may be guilty of lots of things but not of what they were convicted of would go a long way in convincing others to take seriously the beliefs that Christian activists claim to espouse.