Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Governor Kitzhaber and Jesus

“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.”Matthew 5:38-39
On Tuesday, Governor John Kitzhaber of Oregan announced that Gary Haugen, convicted of two separate murders, one in 1981 and another in 2003, would not be executed. “It is time for Oregon to consider a different approach,” he said. “I refuse to be a part of this compromised and inequitable system any longer; and I will not allow further executions while I am governor.”

Oregon has executed two inmates since voters reestablished the death penalty in 1984. In announcing his decision, Governor Kitzhaber noted that both of those previous executions were carried out while he was serving two terms as governor from 1995 to 2003. “They were the most agonizing and difficult decisions I have made as governor and I have revisited and questioned them over and over again during the past 14 years,” Governor Kitzhaber said. “I do not believe that those executions made us safer; certainly I don’t believe they made us more noble as a society. And I simply cannot participate once again in something I believe to be morally wrong.”

The governor could have commuted Mr. Haugen’s sentence, but he chose not to do that. Nor did he commute the sentences of any of the other inmates on death row in Oregon. The reprieve will last only as long as he is governor. In the meantime, he called on the legislature and the people of Oregon to “engage in the long overdue debate that this important issue deserves.”

Public opinion across the country is shifting against the death penalty and recent polls show that support for the death penalty is now at the lowest level in four decades. More than six in ten Americans still support it, but that is down from eight in ten two decades ago. Only 27 states have executed someone in the last ten years. Over that time, the number of executions has declined by about fifty percent. Governor George Ryan of Illinois stopped all executions in that state in 2000, and as he was leaving office he commuted the sentences of all death row inmates. The Illinois legislature banned the death penalty this year. New Mexico abolished the death penalty in 2009, and New Jersey ended the death penalty in 2007.

In his announcement on Tuesday, Governor Kitzhaber, a physician, noted the oath he had taken to “never do harm.” When asked whom he had consulted before making his decisioin, the governor answered, “Mostly myself.”

As I read his statement, I did not see a reference to any moral authority beyond his conscience and his oath as a physician. I don’t know whether he belongs to a community of faith, and I don’t know whether he would call himself a Christian.

But on this point, his actions and his statement, identify him as a follower of Jesus.

In the verses from the Sermon on the Mount quoted above, verse 39 is often translated as, “Do not resist evil,” or “Do not resist an evildoer.” And it appears that Jesus is calling for “passivism” as well as “pacifism.” The translation I used is probably closer to the original meaning of the text. Jesus is against revenge, but he is also against indifference or passivity. He is inviting his followers to oppose evil with creative non-violence.

It is not easy to think creatively about resisting evil without participating in the cycle of violence. Jesus did not oppose violence and revenge because he thought that “evildoers” were not really evil. He believed that ultimately we could not establish peace by violence.

As the great Christian pacifist A. J. Muste said, “There is no way to peace – peace is the way.”

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