BY GALEN HOLLEY
The execution of Earl Wesley Berry this week led people of faith to reflect upon the nature of capital punishment.
Several factors make the issue a complex one for Christians. Among them are the variety of biblical texts marshaled both to defend and to refute the death penalty, as well as the consideration of God's justice and mercy.
The opinions of the ministers quoted here do not necessarily reflect those of their congregations or the official positions of their respective denominations. Generally, Roman Catholic and mainline Protestant denominations officially oppose the death penalty, while evangelical churches often have a different perspective.
Emotion and reason
In 1987, the Rev. Sammy Little was leading a Baptist congregation just north of Houston, where Mary Bounds was killed. Berry later confessed and was found guilty of Bounds' murder.
Little said the fact that Bounds was coming home from church when she was murdered, coupled with the brutality of the crime, set his congregation on edge. “People were angry and frightened,” said Little.
Little, now pastor of Locust Hill Baptist Church in Pontotoc County, said that his empathy for the grieving family and the proximity of the crime is part of why he supports the death penalty.
“Christians are always saddened at the taking of a life – even a murderer's,” said Little. “But, you have to ask yourself, if it were your wife or mother bludgeoned to death, how would you feel?”
Shortly after Berry's execution Wednesday evening, the Rev. Bob Dalton, minister-in-residence at Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church in Houston, spoke of the tenor in the community.
“As recently as an hour ago I heard some very raw feelings about it,” said Dalton. He added, “People remember Mary Bounds as a lovely woman who didn't deserve such an end.”
Nevertheless, Dalton is “vehemently opposed” to the death penalty. “I believe in the sanctity of every human life, no matter what a person has done,” he said.
The Rev. Gary Long, pastor of Spring Hill Missionary Baptist Church in Tupelo, said that from a biblical perspective even harsh justice is defensible. He empathized with the Bounds family's loss.
“Accountability seems an important biblical principle, to me,” said Long.
The Rev. Brad Carman, pastor of Lee Acres Church of Christ, said the anger felt by victims' families should be tempered with prudence.
Carman said that the slow pace of the justice system can help remove emotion from the process of judgment. He pointed out that the average death row inmate spends over a decade awaiting execution, during which time he can appeal his sentence numerous times.
The Rev. Ray Morton, pastor of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Tupelo, said that emotions are often at odds with Christian principles. “Striking back just feels right to us, natural,” said Morton. “Jesus tried to show us that God's ways are not our ways.”
Morton added, “Turning the other check, though it feels unnatural, is the kind of radical love to which Christians are called.”
Practicality and ideology
Berry's execution was delayed nearly seven months, pending a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court as to whether the method used by Mississippi was inhumane. Christians are clearly concerned about cruelty and humanity, although they disagree about exactly what is and what is not humane.
Little questioned the humanity of keeping a person in jail for life. “Their quality of life is poor and there's no hope for freedom,” said Little.
Morton disagreed. “When we execute someone, we're putting them out of our misery, not theirs,” he said, adding that it demands more of society not to give up on death row inmates.
Dalton said, “Our criminal justice system does a great job of tracking down and punishing criminals.” He added, however, that true healing is a deeper, more abiding reality. Dalton alluded to new trends in criminal justice, called “restorative justice” where more focus is placed on counseling victims' families.
“We don't achieve wholeness and peace by striking back,” said Dalton. “God's healing only comes through forgiveness.”
Little said that the rarity of successful prison rehabilitation only confirms his position.
“As Christians, we sincerely hope these people will be reformed and saved,” said Little. He added, “Unfortunately, some people fundamentally reject God.”
Though Berry was deemed competent to stand trial, his family maintained that he had the mental capacity of a seven-year-old.
Carman said that Christians' belief in the real presence of evil has to be held in tension with psychology. “Sometimes people choose evil,” said Carman. “Not everyone who is evil is a victim.”
Carman argued that the debate over taking or sparing a life misses a larger issue for Christians. “The premise that physical life should always be the priority is faulty,” said Carman. “Spiritual, eternal life is the true priority.”
Render unto Caesar
Little said that Jesus deferred to the law of the land. “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's,” said Little, quoting Jesus' words in Matthew 22:21. He added that, since the death penalty is law, Christians should accept it. “Jesus didn't even resist his own execution,” said Little.
Carman said that the U.S. government, shaped by Judeo-Christian values, is “one of the most merciful countries that has ever existed.” He's convinced that “the death penalty is defensible from a biblical perspective.”
Carman drew a distinction between the authority of individuals and that of representative assemblies in dispensing justice.
“Individuals certainly don't have the right to take a life,” said Carman. “However, biblically, historically, God has delegated that power to governments.” he added.
Morton again disagreed, saying that the Christian prophetic tradition must question a government that would use its power to kill.
Morton said that there are serious flaws in the justice system, one being that a disproportionate number of the poor are put to death. The average death row inmate has a high school education or lower and comes from a household below the national poverty line.
Citing Psalm 82, Morton said, “The gospel charges us with caring for the voiceless in society. These are the people who are in our prisons.”
A racial imbalance is also apparent on death row. Since 1955, Mississippi has executed 39 men, 27 of them black.
Long of Spring Hill said that black churches are keenly aware of this.
Long supports the death penalty in “limited, well-defined circumstances,” such as extremely violent rapes and premeditated murders. However, he also questions the compassion of social structures that seem to put young blacks on a fast track to incarceration.
“So many black children are in alternative schools and living under circumstances where the odds are against them,” said Long. He added, “Christians should honor the law of land, and I think that the law is fair. It's the way in which the law is sometimes applied – singling out certain people, or groups – that I question.”
Dalton agreed. Speaking of the poor on death row, he said, “They often can't afford the best legal defense and suffer because of it.”
What would Jesus do?
Little of Locust Hill Baptist said he feels that Jesus would be in favor of the death penalty. “At least he wouldn't resist it,” said Little. He said he sees no discontinuity between Jesus' instruction to “turn the other cheek” (Matt 5:39), and Christians supporting capital punishment.
Little ascribes the widespread disagreement among Christians over justice, mercy, and law to “people no longer believing in a sovereign God; that he is who he says he is – the creator of everything.”
Morton of First Christian strongly disagreed. “I have a hard time picturing a hand, wearing a WWJD ( “What Would Jesus Do?”) bracelet, reaching up for the switch,” he said.
Dalton of Immaculate Heart said he looks to the “Sermon on the Mount” (Matt 5: 1-12) for evidence that Jesus was “ushering in a demanding new ethics.” Said Dalton: “Jesus says several times You have heard it said of old…' then changes people's thinking about what seems natural.”
Carman of Lee Acres said, however, that a close reading of Jesus' teachings concerning judgment reveals important meaning in silence.
He pointed to John 3: 8, where Jesus speaks in defense of a woman about to be stoned for adultery. “Notice that Jesus never says that she doesn't deserve death, or that the death penalty is wrong,” said Carman. “Rather, he admonishes those who would kill her.”
Carman conceded, however, “In the perfect world that Jesus calls us to be part of, I think capital punishment would be abolished. That, unfortunately, is not the world in which we live.”