On Sept. 8, 2021, the United States Supreme Court took the unusual step of staying Texas’ execution of John Ramirez, a convicted murderer. The question the court has decided to consider is a narrow one. Notably, the question is not whether the execution should take place.
Instead, the only question is whether Texas may constitutionally deny Ramirez’s plea that his pastor, a Baptist minister, pray out loud and place his hands on Ramirez at the moment of execution. That question may be narrow, but it speaks broadly to our continued embrace of our national sin of capital punishment, and it sheds a not very flattering light on white evangelicals who claim to worship a crucified Christ, yet who disproportionately support the state’s right to kill without mercy.
Capital punishment in America is inherently unjust
While arguments rage in certain circles about the moral and ethical viability of the death penalty, there can be no reasonable debate on one crucial point: As a nation, we have murdered scores of wholly innocent people, all under the sanction of the law and in the name of “justice.” In this regard, the facts simply do not lie, no matter how much capital punishment proponents wish that they would.
“As a nation, we have murdered scores of wholly innocent people, all under the sanction of the law and in the name of ‘justice.’”
As tabulated by the Death Penalty Information Center, 185 Death Row inmates have been exonerated prior to their scheduled execution, and it bears stressing that such exonerations were not, in all cases, simply a question of finding an existence of reasonable doubt. Instead, in at least 28 known cases, later-tested DNA evidence has conclusively eliminated the man convicted and sentenced to death as the perpetrator of the crime. The question is not whether we have killed innocent death row inmates. The only question is how many.
A shameful example is offered by the case of Claude Jones, who was executed in Texas in 2000 for the 1989 killing of a liquor store clerk. He had been tied to the scene of the crime by a single hair — a hair that the prosecutors convinced the jury had come from Jones. It hadn’t. While DNA tests were sought as a part of a last-minute stay request, that stay was denied by then-Gov. George Bush. As a result, such tests were not performed until 2010, a decade after Jones was killed by the state of Texas. They conclusively proved that the hair did not come from Jones but was, instead, from the victim. Jones had not killed an innocent man. Texas had.
The injustices inherent in the death penalty are accentuated by a very ugly truth. Often, the determinative factor in a jury’s choice between life and death turns more on the color of the accused person’s skin than on any other single factor. That chilling truth has been repeatedly demonstrated, perhaps nowhere more clearly than in a pair of studies by University of Iowa Professor David Baldus in the 1980s and 1990s, who determined that, in America, Black persons are 38% more likely to be sentenced to death based solely on their race.
Combined with the fact of the death penalty’s known “error rate,” this means that it is exceedingly likely that we have, as a nation, executed dozens if not hundreds of innocent persons solely for the crime of being Black. This horrifying truth perhaps explains the wide gap in white and Black Christian views on the death penalty, with one 2014 study finding 59% support for capital punishment among white evangelicals but only 25% support among Black Protestants. The fact that white evangelicals do not share their Black brothers and sisters’ concern for the sanctity of Black lives is simply one of the many sickening truths laid bare by the death penalty.
Interestingly, while pro-death-penalty Christians often avoid Jesus altogether and resort, instead, to a full-throated endorsement of the “eye for an eye” passages of Mosaic law to justify their position, they do so without realizing that the travesty of “justice” embodied by the death penalty in today’s American legal system bears no resemblance whatsoever to its Old Testament ancestor. Under that system, no execution could be had absent two direct eyewitnesses to the crime itself. (See Numbers 35:30 and Deuteronomy 12:6). The extent to which this requirement was to be rigorously enforced is reflected in the following example provided by the Talmud:
Even if the witnesses saw (the assailant) chasing (the victim), gave him warning, and then lost sight of him, or they followed him into a ruin and found the victim writhing, while the sword dripping with blood was in the hands of the slayer, the court does not condemn the accused to death, since the witnesses did not see him at the time of the slaying.
Leaving aside for a moment the question of whether the state is ever morally or ethically entitled to kill, it’s clear that our modern-day thirst for vengeance is given much freer rein than we see authorized by the Old Testament. Who needs an eyewitness, much less two, when a death penalty conviction can literally rest on a single hair that may, or may not, be from the accused?
“Even the most cartoonishly drawn image of a wrathful God of Old Testament justice and vengeance cannot hold a candle to the cavalier way in which we are willing to kill the accused.”
No. Even the most cartoonishly drawn image of a wrathful God of Old Testament justice and vengeance cannot hold a candle to the cavalier way in which we are willing to kill the accused. Quite the contrary, we hear God solemnly swear in Ezekiel 33:11, “As surely as I live, … I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live.” I wonder how many Bible-believing white evangelicals who support the death penalty today despite all of its flaws would lend their “amen” to that statement.
Capital punishment is woefully counterproductive
Credible research shows that, rather than deterring murder, capital punishment tends to have a brutalizing effect on society, desensitizing us to the sacred value of life and actually increasing the homicide rate, at least in the immediate aftermath of an execution.
Simply by way of a single notable example, in the October 1980 edition of the journal Crime and Delinquency, Northeastern University researchers W.J. Bowers and G.L Pierce published the results of their meticulous study tracking homicide rates in comparison to executions in New York from the early 1900s through the mid-1960s. These researchers found no deterrent effect from the death penalty whatsoever, and, in fact, found a brief uptick in homicide rates immediately following executions, amounting to — on average — between two and three excess murders correlating to each of the executions during the time period studied.
“It is a damnable lie that our government, or any other government, can point the way toward a greater respect for the sanctity of human life with blood-soaked hands.”
In short, it is a damnable lie that our government, or any other government, can point the way toward a greater respect for the sanctity of human life with blood-soaked hands.
Capital punishment is inherently irreconcilable with Christian faith
It would be a gross understatement to say the church’s past views on the death penalty have been vacillating and inconsistent but — with the notable exception of America’s white evangelicals — its present voice is now being heard with growing clarity and insistency. By way of example, Pope Francis, in his encyclical Tutti Fratelli, sought to settle the question once and for all, unequivocally declaring the death penalty “inadmissible” in all cases, and committing the Catholic Church to seeking its abolition worldwide.
Of note, Pope Francis’ call for the death of the death penalty did not rest on the ugly truth that some of the executed may be innocent. Rather, even as to persons unequivocally guilty of the crimes for which they have been convicted, Pope Francis echoed the caution of Saint Augustine that we must not, as a society, allow their crimes to “feed a desire for vengeance,” that we must “desire instead to heal the wounds which those deeds have inflicted on their souls.”
At its very heart, Pope Francis’ unwavering opposition to the death penalty is rooted in his recognition that not even the vilest murderer can, by his crime, shed himself of the dignity of being made in God’s own image or separate himself from the love of Christ.
Or to quote Karl Barth, “The death penalty has been abolished on earth by the execution of Jesus Christ on Golgotha. The atonement of the Son of God has annihilated it completely; nothing speaks for it, everything speaks against it.”
For Barth, and an increasing number of Christians worldwide, there is simply no room for lynch mobs or executioners at the feet of a Christ who rejected the chance to condemn the guilty (John 8:11) and who spoke words of healing, mercy, grace and life to both the just and the unjust, and even to those agents of the state who had unjustly nailed him to the Cross.
Choosing life over death
Ending where we started with John Ramirez, we are struck in the face with the ugly truth of the incompatibility of the death penalty and our Christian faith. Why would Texas be so desperate to deny a convicted murderer the spiritual consolation of touch or of prayer by a trusted minister at the moment of execution? Because the death penalty demands, for its supposed legitimization, the utter dehumanization of the executed criminal. It needs the fiction that we are “putting down” a mad dog. An animal. A monster. It simply cannot bear any evidence of the truth that, with every execution, we are killing a human being.A child of God, made and loved by God with a love greater than any sin or crime. A fellow Christian, forgiven through the shedding of the same blood of Christ shed to forgive you and me, yet still in need of our help to find wholeness and healing from the damage inflicted upon himself by his own crime.
It is jarring for us to hear a call to view a killer as a victim to be rehabilitated and saved because, deep down, we — unlike God — do, in fact, take pleasure in the death of the wicked and have no desire whatsoever to help them turn from their ways and live. It is shocking because we have allowed the merciless retribution demanded by Fox News to all but extinguish the unmerited love commanded by Christ.
John Ramirez is not alone in his need for prayer and forgiveness in the shadow of the gallows. I pray that our eyes are opened more fully to our own sin and that we, as a nation, grasp hold of life not death, love not hate, faith not fear. I pray that we finally put to death the death penalty that is slowly but surely killing us as well as the accused.
Chris Conley is an attorney and graduate of the University of Georgia and of the Emory University School of Law. He and his wife, Mary, live in Athens, Ga., where both are members and deacons at First Baptist Church. They have one son, Aaron, who also is an attorney, and a miniature schnauzer, Oso, whose career path remains uncertain.
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