The Continuing Travesty of the Arkansas Executions

The death penalty continues to make headlines in the United States.  Tonight (4/27/17) Arkansas seeks to execute Kenneth Williams, a man convicted of multiple murders.  A few facts worth knowing about the Williams case:

If Arkansas carries out Williams’s execution, it will mark their third execution in less than a week.  On April 24, 2017, Arkansas executed Jack Jones and Marcel Williams; it marked the first double execution in the United States in 16 years.  Jones, a diabetic amputee in a wheelchair, suffered from mental impairment, bipolar disorder and, like Williams, had a past that included physical and sexual abuse.  

During Jones’s execution, officials searched for approximately 45 minutes to find a vein to insert the IV in.  They even attempted to insert the needle into Jones’s neck.  According to witnesses, Jones gulped and gasped for air during the consciousness check (a claim the Arkansas AG disputed – http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/this-activist-nun-live-tweeted-the-arkansas-executions_us_58ff4bfce4b0288f5dc7edc8).  These irregularities lead to a temporary stay of execution for Marcel Williams due to concerns that his obesity would make it impossible for officials to find a vein.

One of the drugs used for the execution, Midazolam, has a past of leading to botched executions in Oklahoma and Arizona.  In those cases, the executed were said to writhe in pain on the gurney as the execution was carried out (http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/04/arkansas-executions-170425003426592.html).

The State of Arkansas has sought to push through these executions and others (originally planning eight in an eleven day period – the highest number in 40 years for the United States) because their supply of midazolam expires on April 30, 2017.  Further complicating matters is the fact that the State of Arkansas essentially acquired the drugs illegally. (https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/04/arkansas-wants-to-execute-seven-inmates-before-their-drugs-expire/522861/).

Taken on their own, these issues are troubling enough.  They are made more troubling when seen through the lens of Christianity, a religion whose central figure was executed by the state.  The death penalty stands in direct contradiction to the teachings of mercy, grace, and forgiveness taught by Jesus.  As followers of Christ Crucified, we have a responsibility to speak out against this violence.  

The death penalty is immoral.  It is inhumane.  It does nothing to deter violent crime and it does not heal the vicious wounds left behind by violent crime.  It is time to end the death penalty.

For more on this subject I strongly recommend this article:  http://www.americamagazine.org/faith/2017/04/26/last-suppers-jesus-christ-and-ledell-lee

Postscript (written 4/28/17): After a temporary stay during which the Supreme Court debated the Constitutionality of executing a mentally impaired individual, the State of Arkansas executed Kenneth Williams.  Media witnesses describe Williams as coughing, spasming, jerking, and more during the execution after movement should have ceased:

http://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/lethal-injection/arkansas-executes-kenneth-williams-4th-lethal-injection-week-n752086

Blessed are the Merciful: Thinking about the Death Penalty

I am troubled by the death penalty.  As a Christian, I believe that the teachings of Jesus stand in opposition to capital punishment.  I believe that Jesus meant it when he said, “Blessed are the merciful.” (Matthew 5:7).  As the follower of a crucified Savior, I believe that we are called to stand against the deliberate taking of life.

In the Gospel of Matthew Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also..You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get?”  The entire concept of grace rests on the foundation of forgiveness and love when justice calls for condemnation and death.

Over the past few weeks American Christians have been forced to reckon with the death penalty as the State of Arkansas attempts to conduct eight executions in a matter of days.  Beyond the theological questions, substantial ethical questions have emerged about how the State of Arkansas obtained the lethal injection drugs and the assembly line nature of the state sanctioned killing.  

Cases like that of Ledell Lee highlight how the death penalty disproportionately targets minorities and the poor.   Sister Helen Prejean, of Dead Man Walking fame, detailed details about the representation Lee received:

  • Ledell’s first appellate lawyer showed up to court drunk, slurred his speech, and ended sentences with “and blah, blah, blah…”
  • Ledell’s second set of appellate lawyers missed appeal filing deadlines and ignored Ledell’s phone calls and letters.
  • Ledell’s federal lawyer represented him for 10 years but had no files. By the time she left the case, she hadn’t talked to Ledell for years.
  • Ledell’s next federal lawyer had his law license suspended “to prevent possible harm to clients” due to a diagnosis of bipolar disorder.
  • In addition to these issue of representation, requests for DNA testing.

We must also consider the risk of executing the innocent.  Groups like the Innocence Project have successfully exonerated numerous individuals slated for execution.  We should all lose sleep knowing that, as long as the death penalty exists,  innocent people have and will be wrongly executed.

We cannot eradicate murder with murder.  We cannot bring about peace through violence.  We cannot walk the path of Christ and the path that leads to the execution chamber.

Let us pray for the victims of violence.  Let us pray for the perpetrators of violence.  Let us pray.

Kyrie eleison.  

 

Post Script: As I wrote this post the Supreme Court lifted the stay of execution for Ledell Lee.  The State of Arkansas proceeded with its first execution in over a decade.  With the denial of DNA testing, there remains the possibility that the state executed an innocent man.

The Way of the Crucified: Following Jesus on Holy Week

Today marks the first day of Holy Week, the most significant week in the Christian calendar.  On this Sabbath, Christians across the world celebrate Palm Sunday in memory of Jesus’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem.

At our church, children carry palm branches and wave them during the processional. The congregation sings the hymn “Hosanna, Loud Hosanna” and the children’s choirs sing songs like “He Comes” and “Sing Hosanna!”  In this way, we re-enact the the Holy Scripture.

12 On the next day the large crowd who had come to the feast, when they heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem, 13 took the branches of the palm trees and went out to meet Him, and began to shout, “Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel.” – John 12:12-13

Interestingly, other processions were taking place that same Sunday some 2000 years ago.  The Romans led a major military procession into Jerusalem, an enormous display of force meant to instill awe and respect in the occupied citizens of the city.

These two visions of Kingdom stand in stark contrast to each other.  In one, Jesus humbly enters the city astride a donkey, cheered by the poor and marginalized, followed by those longing for salvation.  In the other we see the theology of empire, the notion that salvation comes from power and might.

This message seems particularly potent this year, when we see rumblings of war in the Korean Peninsula, chemical attacks and airstrikes in Syria, bombings in Egypt’s Coptic Churches, the continued massacre of the Rohingya people in Myanmar, and more.

We are being given a choice, a choice that Moses presented to the Children of Israel before his death:

15 See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction.” Deuteronomy 30:15

Both suicide bombings and tomahawk missiles represent the way of Caesar.  Christians are called to the Way of the Cross.  As the soldier Martin of Tours said after converting to Christianity, “I have served you as a soldier; now let me serve Christ. Give the bounty to those who are going to fight. But I am a soldier of Christ and it is not lawful for me to fight.”

The concept of “me first”, and “my country first” represents the way of Caesar.  The way of Christ calls us to look to God first and then to the interest of our neighbor.

“37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ -Matthew 22:37-39  

The state of Arkansas is currently planning on carrying out seven executions in a single week.  This is the way of Caesar.  The way of the crucified savior calls us to forgiveness and mercy.  We are called to remember Jesus’s words when facing his own death:

“”Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.” – Matthew 26:52

And later:

“”Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” Luke 23:34

The Way of the Cross does not resemble conventional wisdom.  In fact, to most it will resemble the height of folly.  It reeks of naivety and idealism.   After all, the way of Jesus leads us to the Via Dolorosa, the Way of Tears.  It leads us to death on the Cross, the ultimate sign of Caesar’s power.

However, the way of Caesar ends in the tomb, in death and darkness.  The Way of Christ eventually leads us to Easter, to resurrection, to rebirth.

This Holy Week we have set before us life and death.  What will we choose?