Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Troy Davis and the Death Penalty in America

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not use violence to resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.”
Matthew 5:38-42

Tomorrow evening Troy Davis will be executed in Georgia, for killing an off duty police officer over twenty years ago in a Burger King parking lot in Savannah. There is considerable doubt that he actually committed the crime. Witnesses have said that they were pressured by the police to implicate Davis, and there is no physical evidence tying him to the crime.

There is a huge world-wide movement for clemency. As the campaign says, there is “Too Much Doubt” to take his life. But honestly, I would be against the execution even if I were certain of his guilt.

In the late 19th century a mid-western preacher, educated at Brown University, preached a Sunday evening sermon series about a young man in tattered clothes coming into a church and confronting parishioners as Jesus confronted his listeners. Henry Sheldon's sermon series became a best-selling book called, “In His Steps,” and it launched the classic question, “What Would Jesus Do?”

As an ethical system, that question may often seem naïve and simplistic. But as a starting point, it is hard to improve on it. When it comes to the death penalty, we know the answer before we have even asked the question.

It is ironic that the United States, which claims to be a “Christian” nation, is one of the last countries still allowing executions. The undisputed world champion in executions is China. The statistics are a closely guarded secret, but they execute thousands per year. Over the past four years, Saudi Arabia is second in executions, followed by Iraq. We come in fourth, just ahead of Pakistan.

It’s hard to feel good about our place on that list.

In case you are wondering, we are number one in the rate of incarceration. We have 743 people in jail for every 100,000 in our population. Russia is number two, but at 577 they trail us by over 22%. In fairness, I don’t think the Chinese are on the list because, as with executions, they don’t make the data public. One of the reasons we have so many people in jail is that we keep them there longer than other countries do for the same offenses. Another reason is that we have more murders (mostly with guns) than other “civilized” nations.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus specifically rejected “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” but the next verse frequently leaves modern readers confused. It is often translated as, “Do not resist an evildoer,” which gives the impression that in the face of evil Christians should either passively accept the evil or run away. But the more correct translation is, “Do not use violence to resist an evildoer.” Disciples are called to reject passivity and indifference as well as violence. Instead, we are called to non-violent resistance. In his life, Jesus gave witness to the power of non-violence to confound the powerful and restore dignity to the poor and oppressed.

We need a system of justice that aims at restoration rather than retribution. In the meantime, there is "Too much doubt" to execute Troy Davis.

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