So, now it’s over. The circus surrounding the execution of Tookie Williams is done. Whenever one of these executions occurs is one of the few times I’m not pleased to be a conservative.
It always amazes me when people who claim to be Christians applaud the ritual killing of others. We, as Christians, are people whose fundamental symbol is the wrongful application of capital punishment. Yet so many conservative Christians are eager to embrace this atrocity.
The bottom line is that there is *no* justification in the New Testament for capital punishment. Quite the opposite. While a good argument can be made for self defense — Christ Himself told his disciples to carry swords for self defense — *every* principle in the New Testament requires that we abandon judicial execution.
There are, of course numerous examples of judicial execution in the New Testament. All of those that are successful are wrong — from the execution of Christ to the martyrdom of the Apostles. The only judicial execution that the Christ came upon he stopped and pardoned the condemned (the adulterous woman). And, of course, in every breath, Jesus condemns vengeance and retaliation killing.
Christian apologists for capital punishment use the numerous statements by Christ and Paul that we should respect the power of the state — but even those are belied by the fact that both Christ and the Apostles did not think twice about standing up to temporal powers when it came to matters of faith. The argument that Christians should uphold evil governmental policies without exercising moral judgement should be laughable on its face, yet Christian proponents of the death penalty are reduced to it. One commenter on the beatitudes notes that they are tactical advice to a subject people; any other action would result in genocide — as demonstrated by the disastrous rebellion shortly after the death of Jesus that resulted in the destruction of the Temple. But whether the beatitudes and the teachings on subjugation are tactical or basic divine principle, they do not justify complicity with evil.
Bereft of New Testament justification for these killings, pro-death Christians are forced to rely on Old Testament prooftexting. Unfortunately, that flies in the face of their own faith. These same Christians reject the law of Moses, yet end up quoting it as their guide in this and this only. And they would apply it selectively even here — would these Christians stone heretics, adulterors, etc.? I hope not.
No. A Christian perspective requires that one reject capital punishment.
There are secular justifications for capital punishment, but all have sand as a foundation. The deterrent value of capital punishment is uncertain. The argument from necessity to avoid inadvertent parole is simply specious. The argument from justice is a tautology.
It boils down to this. There are two reasons for capital punishment. Collective vengeance and revenge, and secular liturgy. Collective vengeance is not a matter of justice. It is a matter of revenge. We want to kill these people because it makes *us* feel good. And it does. To be honest, it *pleases* me way down deep when some scum gets a long fall from a short rope. That is my failing. More important, it is not a basis for enlightened jurisprudence. Otherwise we might as well start executing loud mouthed Democrats and people who drive slow in the left lane; they piss me off, too.
A greater argument can be made for the existence of a secular liturgy and sacrement. People who watch our courts a lot sometimes get a little cynical and note that it is as much theater as it is justice. And it is. But that’s OK, because that theater is a matter of ritual that serves the purpose of all such ritual — it establishes a cultural framework whereby we structure our social lives and collective identity. Such rituals are an important part of our shared conception of our society — along with the other rituals of going to the voting booth, of organized protests with stupid chants and silly signs, of dressing up like an idiot and drinking green beer until you vomit on Saint Patrick’s day, etc. These rituals are very important in creating the common experience of our culture. Ritual killing, to whatever gods, has been an important part of this in many cultures, and it is a hard habit to break.
But we, as Christians, have made a tradition of replacing old, bad customs and rituals with good Christ-centered customs and rituals. We have taken Yuletide and replaced it with Christmas, even if we keep the tree. We take the sacrifices to Ishtar and replace it with the worship of Easter, even if we keep the rabbit. And it’s about time we got rid of the last, and most heinous, tradition of ritual sacrifice to the gods of vengeance. The gallows and the cross have very different messages, and we should choose the latter.