Rev. Neal MacPhersonSaturday, June 23, 2001
It seems that in the past two years, a remarkable shift has been taking place in the way Americans view the death penalty.
Today, there is a lot less support for capital punishment, in spite of the fact that the news media would have us believe that the execution of Timothy McVeigh was well received by the American public.
The truth is that minds have begun to change. Polls show a sizable drop in public support for state- and federal-sanctioned executions.
George Ryan, the Republican governor of Illinois, declared a moratorium on executions in his state.
The New Hampshire Legislature repealed the death penalty, even though Gov. Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat, vetoed the bill.
There are lots of arguments that would support an end to this practice.
The United States is one of the last so-called "civilized" societies to sanction death as a penalty for criminal behavior. It is not proven that capital punishment lowers the murder rate in our nation.
In fact, some would argue that executions actually increase the murder rate. Are not executions state-sanctioned murders?
It is important, however, to note that these days, opposition to the death penalty is not being waged on statistical and moral grounds alone. Increasingly, arguments against capital punishment are based upon legal principles such as equal protection, due process and fairness.
What surprises me as an ordained Christian minister is that the Christian community has been so silent on the subject. One would think the Christian churches would be adding their voices in insisting on an end to capital punishment.
I find, however, that when good Christians are questioned about their support for the death penalty, they quickly quote the Bible: "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth." Actually, that is the old Levitical law (Leviticus 24:18-20).
The fact is that Jesus turned it all around: "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 resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also." (Matthew 5:38, 39).
The Apostle Paul takes up the theme: "Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, 'Vengeance is mine, says the Lord.'" (Romans 12:19)
President Bush, who declares himself to be a follower of Jesus Christ, when asked about the execution of McVeigh, said his execution was not about vengeance; it was about justice.
That, to me, is a strange statement, when so many seemed to be disappointed that McVeigh did not squirm more just before his death. Moreover, justice, in the Biblical tradition, is rooted in provisions for neighborly mutuality and respect.
It is therefore fair to ask, How does the taking of a life, even the life of McVeigh, increase neighborly mutuality and respect in our society?
Would not a sentence of life without parole send a clearer signal that the taking of a life is wrong, and therefore preserve that respect and neighborly mutuality for which we long and which we so desperately need in our society?
Now is the time for members of the Christian community to add our voice to the voices of others who are calling for an end to capital punishment.
The Rev. Neal MacPherson is with the Church of the Crossroads on University Avenue.