The Death Penalty and Theological Liberalism
In the last issue we were discussing Jim Wallis’ notions about various ethical questions in the culture war. His repeated claim is that he is neither Democrat nor Republican, but his statements belie his liberal religious Left position. Early on in his book, writing about why the “Religious Right” was encouraged to vote for Bush instead of Kerry, Wallis expands the wide gamut of religious and moral values facing both candidates such as “poverty, the environment, war, truth-telling, human rights, our response to terrorism, and a ‘consistent ethic of human life’ that included abortion, but also capital punishment, euthanasia, weapons of mass destruction, HIV/AIDS and other pandemics, and genocide around the world.”
Just to give you a little insight into Wallis mindset, he equates abortion, euthanasia, and capital punishment. To his way of thinking, it’s inconsistent to be pro-life and pro-death penalty. Of course, both involve killing, but, as I shall argue below, according to Scripture, not all killing is murder although all murder is killing. I just want to give you a “heads up” early on so that you’ll be aware of how he reasons.
Wallis cites Chicago Roman Catholic Cardinal Joseph Bernardin in the following manner to support his case for his ethical stances on abortion and capital punishment in the following manner: “It was Chicago Cardinal Joseph Bernardin who coined the phrase ‘a seamless garment of life,’ which clearly links the ‘life issues’ of abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, nuclear weapons, poverty, and racism as critical components of a consistent ethic of life.” He cites Bernardin because Wallis wants to discuss the “other” most controversial “life issue” which is the death penalty.
The central figure in the discussion of the death penalty in this chapter in God’s Politics is Timothy McVeigh. Wallis chose this egregious example for a reason. One of the relatives of a victim of the Oklahoma bombing, Bud Welch, stated, “To me the death penalty is vengeance, and vengeance doesn’t really help anyone in the healing process.” Really? It is telling that out of all of the victims in the Oklahoma bombing, Mr. Wallis chooses one who supports his view. More balance and perspective would have been achieved if he had included some statements from distraught and saddened family members who were glad that justice had been served to McVeigh. I also would have thought Mr. Wallis would have cited passages of Scripture such as Romans 12:19; Hebrews 10:30; and Deuteronomy 32:35, all of which speak to the fact that vengeance is God’s and that there’s nothing intrinsically or inherently wrong with God’s vengeance on evil and wrongdoing.
Moreover, Romans 13:1-7 teaches us that the state is the “avenger” against the wrongdoer. The premise is that the state understands what is right and what is wrong. The Greek word όργή (orgē) translates into English as wrath, anger, retribution, and punishment. The fact that Paul mentions the “sword” (μάχαιρα, máchaira) in conjunction with the state alludes to the death penalty, since this word connotes violent death. Funny that Mr. Wallis neglected to mention this in his consistent ethic of life. Jesus would have been selectively, morally pleased. The caveat for Mr. Wallis and all of us is that if we truly aspire to a consistent ethic of life, we must have constant recourse to the Bible.
What Mr. Wallis does is to line up people on both sides of the aisle on the capital punishment issue, including, as we have seen, select relatives of the victims of McVeigh’s bombing. It’s rather too bad that he didn’t also cite something like the sixth commandment to make his case since that commandment prohibits murder, but not all killing (תִּרְצָח לא). We search in vain for anything akin to a biblical reference to what the Bible—and therefore Jesus—says about this matter in Wallis’ argument.
What we do get is Mr. Wallis’ fractured logic that runs this way: “I am against the death penalty in principle. We simply should not kill to show we are against killing.” I’m appalled at the blatant lack of scholarship and nuance demonstrated by a man who has been an Institute of Politics Fellow at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and who has taught on faith, politics, and society both there and at the Harvard Divinity School.
Let me break down what I just said. In the first place, it is not unreasonable for a teacher at Harvard Divinity School to bring the “Divine” into his principal objection to capital punishment. In other words, I expect a pastor to speak from the Bible and what the Lord reveals in there about ethical issues.
My second objection is that Mr. Wallis’ opposition to the death penalty is, at best, very sloppily stated. He facilely and wrongly equates “killing” and “murder.” The two are quite different realities in important respects. All murder is killing, but, according to the Bible, not all killing is murder. Allow me to rephrase Mr. Wallis’ statement in a much more biblically oriented direction: There are instances where we should put convicted murderers to death (kill them) to show we are against murder.
Wallis continues in his opposition to the execution of convicted murderers with one of the most worn-out, hackneyed slogans in the world: “And there is no real evidence that it (the death penalty—RG) deters murders; it just satisfies revenge.” I, for one, am very interested in what constitutes for Mr. Wallis “real evidence,” because I have a piece of the puzzle that might fit: the death penalty deters the murderer—permanently. He or she will never murder again. I would have thought that a teacher at Harvard Divinity School would recall what the Bible teaches in Genesis 9:5-7, “And for your lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it and from man. From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.” (Comp. Ex. 21:12; Lev. 24:17, 21; Num. 35:9-21; Deut. 21:22).
In addition, one of the forgotten reasons for the death penalty in the Bible is that the evil will be purged from the midst of the people (Deut. 13:5; 17:7, 12; 19:19; 21:21; 22:21-22, 24; 24:7; Judges 20:13). America has neglected this concept for the longest time, but surely it gives us some very thought-provoking to ponder. How much better would the U.S. be if we had put convicted murderers to death? Mr. Wallis fails to bring it to our attention, but the recidivism rate among murderers released from prison is alarmingly high; if there were but one that murdered again it would be too many, but unfortunately, there are more.
Ironically, Wallis’ conclusion is that if anybody deserved death it was McVeigh, but, he says, “I still didn’t think we should kill him.” Huh? Wallis’ analysis is that “McVeigh was a mass murderer, but he was no longer a threat in prison.” That’s hardly the point! Who gives a big rat’s behind whether he was not longer a threat in prison? McVeigh was a mass murderer. Wallis continues, “McVeigh wanted to be executed. Why give him what he wanted?” Again, that’s not the point. Who cares what he wanted? Wallis takes off down the rabbit trail of McVeigh becoming a martyr for his cause. I don’t care what McVeigh wanted. He got what he deserved.
But Wallis has another question for us: “Why stoop to his level and kill him as he so ruthlessly killed others?’ How foolish! The proper use of the death penalty is not “stooping to McVeigh’s level,” it is doing what God says is just. Again, I’ll rephrase Wallis’ question, Why kill him as he so ruthlessly murdered others? The answer is not all that complex. It was right to have the state “kill” McVeigh precisely because he “murdered” others. Does that put it in perspective?
There is another important consideration that must be taken into account: a sense of “closure” for the victim’s loved one. Since I mentioned the recent Supreme Court case of Roper v. Simmons earlier, allow me to quote from Justice Kennedy, who delivered the opinion of the Court. Describing Christopher Simmons’ actions Kennedy writes, “Before its commission Simmons said he wanted to murder someone. In chilling, callous terms he talked about his plan, discussing it for the most part with two friends, Charles Benjamin and John Tessmer, then aged 15 and 16 respectively. Simmons proposed to commit burglary and murder by breaking and entering, tying up a victim, and throwing the victim off a bridge. Simmons assured his friends they could ‘get away with it’ because they were minors.”
Justice Kennedy proceeds to describe in rather graphic detail the grisly manner in which Simmons carried out his plans. Ready for this? Here are Justice Kennedy’s words. “Using duct tape to cover her eyes and mouth and bind her hands, the two perpetrators (Tessmer “chickened out” but was charged with conspiracy, but the charges were dropped when he agreed to testify against Simmons—RG.) put Mrs. Crook (she was married with a daughter—RG.) in her minivan and drove to a state park. They reinforced the bindings, covered her head with a towel, and walked her to a railroad trestle spanning the Meramec River. There they tied her hands and feet together with electrical wire, wrapped her whole face in duct tape and threw her from the bridge, drowning her in the waters below.”
Simmons was charged with burglary, kidnapping, stealing, and murder in the first degree. Kennedy adds, “As aggravating factors, the State submitted that the murder was committed for the purpose of receiving money; was committed for the purpose of avoiding, interfering with, or preventing lawful arrest of the defendant; and involved depravity of mind and was outrageously and wantonly vile, horrible, and inhuman.” But here’s the “kicker,” “The State called Shirley Crook’s husband, daughter, and two sisters, who presented moving evidence of the devastation her death had brought to their lives.”
Clearly, the Crook’s are only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Justice Scalia cites this example in his dissent: “In their amici brief, the States of Alabama, Delaware, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah, and Virginia offer additional examples of murders committed by individuals under 18 that involve truly monstrous acts. In Alabama, two 17-year-olds, one 16-year-old, and one 19-year-old picked up a female hitchhiker, threw bottles at her, and kicked and stomped her approximately 30 minutes until she died. They then sexually assaulted her lifeless body and, when they were finished, threw her body off a cliff.” Keep in mind that these are only cases of minors. As I reflect what I just wrote my mind races and I fight back tears. The brutality of the perpetrators is only surpassed by what must have been horrific fear on the part of that female hitchhiker. Society needs to take retribution on murderers like these. If murder is not a clear case of purging the evil from our midst, I don’t know what is.
Why should the State have executed Timothy McVeigh? The answer is because he took human life with malice aforethought. The same holds for Christopher Simmons. For being such a prominent “evangelical,” Wallis surprises me with his assertion that the death penalty is “foolish.” Is Mr. Wallis wiser than God? Is Harvard? Deuteronomy 19:21 is an often-misunderstood text. Rather than being a primitive vindictive statement of justice, it clearly, definitively limits retribution. It restrains escalation. Where the life of a perpetrator is required by God, the real fools are those who disregard what the Almighty says—even if you’re from Harvard.
Wallis’ solution is for the opponents to the death penalty, however, is to “offer alternatives commensurate with the crime.” Wouldn’t it be easier to allow God to give the appropriate punishment for the crime? Mr. Wallis obviously finds references to what God desires too fundamentalistic and opts for Gallup polls that show that in 2003 74 percent of those polled found the death penalty a good idea. Later, however, when asked, “If you could choose between the following two approaches, which do you think is the better penalty for murder: the death penalty or life imprisonment with absolutely no possibility of parole?” the percentage dropped to 53. Apparently, for Mr. Wallis, it’s a question of God or Gallup, with the scales being tipped in Gallup’s favor. When it comes to choosing between Jerusalem and Athens, Mr. Wallis’ choices are clear.
Supreme Court Sandra Day O’Connor weighed in on this subject in a speech delivered to the Minnesota Women Lawyers organization in July 2001. Even though Justice O’Connor has supported the death penalty in previous decisions, in this particular speech she “emphasized the importance of effective counsel, noting that in Texas, for example, defendants with appointed counsel are 28 percent more likely to be convicted than those who can hire their own attorneys and are 44 percent more likely to receive death if convicted.” My question is this: if they are duly convicted of murder and received a fair trial, what is Justice O’Connor’s point? Her comments lend themselves to the situation (appointed counsel) or status (poorer individuals) than their actual actions (murder).
While it is a popular argument that when felons are convicted of murder that they received inadequate counsel. The recent Roper v. Simmons is a classic case in point. In Kennedy’s concurring opinion addressed this matter. After telling us that Simmons obtained new counsel after the verdict of the death penalty was handed down, he sought to set aside the conviction and sentence. He continues, “One argument was that Simmons had received ineffective assistance at trial.” In spite of Simmons’ efforts, Kennedy is forced to report the truth which is that “The trial court found no constitutional violation by reason of ineffective assistance of counsel and denied the motion for postconviction relief…. The federal courts denied Simmons’ petition for a writ of habeas corpus.”The long and short of all this is that even though Wallis denies being a liberal, he certainly acts as if he’s had big gulps of their Kool-Aid.
 Jim Wallis, God’s Politics, (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2005), pp. 8-9.
 Ibid., 301.
 For a more detailed analysis of my position on McVeigh’s execution, please visit my web site at http://www.rongleason.org/ and click on “Ethos” and you’ll find the downloadable article.
 Wallis, GP, 302.
 The Greek word is ekdíkēsis, which bears the meanings of retribution, punishment, and revenge.
 For a more in depth discussion on Romans 13:1-7 and the death penalty, see my web site under “Ethos for Everyone.”
 The Hebrew verb רָצַח means to murder with premeditation or, as we would say today, with malice aforethought.
 Wallis, GP, 303.
 According to the back inside dust jacket cover.
 Wallis, GP, 303.
 Ibid. Emphasis mine.
 Roper v. Simmons, Kennedy, concurring, pp. 1-2.
 Ibid., 2.
 Ibid., Italics mine.
 Scalia, Roper v. Simmons, 13.
 Wallis, GP, 304.
 Kennedy, Roper v. Simmons, 4.
 Ibid., 5.