When I was in seminary, I wrote a paper in Dr. Cheryl Anderson’s Biblical Law class. It was an exegetical on the Leviticus 24 passage addressing lex talionis, one of the Hebrew writer’s phrases for retaliation or punishment. In a different class, Dr. Larry Murphy assigned us to research different responses in the Christian Tradition as it relates to capital punishment. I thought about those two experiences during my ride to work this morning.
I listen to the Santita Jackson show on WVON as much as I can. She’s a great communicator. She helps me think. She tells me things I wouldn’t know without her. And today during her first hour, she was hosting callers and questions and comments about the scheduled execution of Troy Davis. In 1991 Mr. Davis was convicted of murdering a police officer. Since that time he has fought for his freedom. Yesterday the Georgia Parole Board met and didn’t vote to stay the lethal injection.
Judges, FBI agents, preachers, lawyers, people you wouldn’t know, and the pope have joined a chorus in support of Mr. Davis and in opposition, more broadly, to the application of the death penalty in this particular case. Callers into Ms. Jackson’s show highlighted not only the suspicious nature of Mr. Davis’s case but also the twisted and distorted ways executions have mostly affected black folks and poor folks. They asked and answered the penetrating question, who’s being sentenced to death? Who’s being put to death?
Since I left my car, I’ve been turning over a response to what I heard. It’s unfair and inhuman that people are wrongly accused and convicted and sentence to death. Indeed I’m thankful to live in a state that’s outlawed that penalty. And beyond that, I’m trying to pull my beliefs into and out of my life practices. I’m trying to make sense of Jesus, a man who didn’t overlook his enemies–perhaps making sense is impossible and wrong as well–but who died for them. I don’t think I ask the hard question enough when people commit crimes against me and against the world. Not what would Jesus do. But what should I do? What should I do as a person whose life is supposed to be God-ward? What should my response be since I’m a follower of a servant named Jesus?
I’m having trouble because for some reason most of the people who promote life and really good at advocating punishment by death. Most of the people who’d read Leviticus 24 literally wouldn’t read Matthew 5 as literally. I’m troubled because I think violently more than I do lovingly and am probably as much a literal reader of some canon-within-a-canon as the next person.
The meditation I read this morning from Howard Thurman’s Meditations of the Heart is entitled “Myself, a High Priest of Truth.” While he doesn’t talk about Jesus Christ per se in the meditation, Jesus is inside Thurman’s overall framework. Of course, Jesus is in my view as well. So when I read the title it intrigued me on its own. Here’s one blurb from the short reflection,
I purpose in my heart that I shall not use my memory to store up those things which fester, poison and destroy my living, my life, or the living and the life of others. I shall make it my study to preserve my soul in balance and liberty. I will use my memory to store up the excellent things of my experience.
I can’t help but pull together the image of Jesus as a Priest, my own struggles with what it means to follow Jesus, and what I heard about Troy Davis on Santita Jackson’s show. I’m not at all ready to launch into the larger contemporary debate about capital punishment. Perhaps that’s an entrance that life will make to engage in, but today isn’t that day. Yet as a pastoral theologian or, better-said, as a pastor who encourages critical reflection in my congregation and as a man who tries to live theologically, it is hard to close my ears to how the person and work of Jesus comes to the issue of punishment. It would be hermenuetically irresponsible to use the scriptures to discuss our conceptions of justice and law and punishment–at least doing so without a good amount of pre-interpretation.
So, here’s an attempt to invite your comments and thoughts. Questions for you. How do you hold together your faith and practice that faith, whatever that faith, when it comes to capital punishment? Does your faith tradition say things that help you “come to” the issue and respond to capital punishment?
If you’re interested in knowing more of my thoughts about related things: