The Death Penalty: Red Herrings, White Evangelicals, Black “Felons”, and the Gray Wastes

Am I supposed to be opposed to the Death Penalty?

I keep encountering facebook posts, articles, and tweets that seems to assume that I as a Christian would be or ought to be opposed to the death penalty. Of course, as a white North American evangelical, many will not be surprised that I am not opposed to the death penalty. For many, I fit neatly into their box and do not challenge their prejudices. Everything remains neatly black and white. You’re welcome.

For that reason, I hesitate to write a blog post on the death penalty but if you are reading this post, then I have apparently only hesitated.

If you want me to remain in your box, stop reading now.

Via Twitter, an @TheAtlantic article “Why the white-evangelical shift on the death penalty matters” by Robert P. Jones caught my attention.

Evangelicals discover moral ambiguity on the death penalty. A new focus on systemic institutional problems reflects the changing demographic of the faithful.

From this article, it seems that the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) has shifted their position toward something like the one I have held for years. However, although I may be projecting a tone onto this short article that is not intended, I get the sense from the article and from other recent discussions that while this shift is lauded, it is still seen as relatively backward. That is, total rejection of the death penalty is the future but at least those backward Evangelicals are taking a step forward.

I agree that total abolition of the death penalty is ideal. If there were not serial killers and serial sex-offenders in the world, we would not need the death penalty. There are and we do.

The death penalty is not good. According to the Tanakh and the Christian Scriptures, death is an enemy. Death is where tyrants derive their power. Yet, no one should cheer that a human being has been put to death rather even the death of a Ted Bundy is a reason for grief and lamentation.

In this post, to keep it relatively short, I want to raise questions about one of the assumptions that seems to lie behind the evaluation of the evangelical (and especially, the “white-evangelical”) position on the death penalty. The assumption is that one cannot at the same time approve of the death penalty and recognize systemic institutional injustice.

First, one could hold that in some cases a quick death is more merciful, humane, and dignified than the lifelong incarceration of a human being who will either be at the mercy of his fellow inmates or whose fellow inmates will be at his mercy.

Second, and this follows from the first, many evangelicals (and white ones, at that,) have long recognized that the current prison system likely contributes to recidivism and that many prisoners are treated unjustly while incarcerated. As evidence, there are many evangelical prison ministries that seek and promote the rehabilitation of prisoners. Indeed, prior to my conversion to Christianity, I could name the Salvation Army, Chuck Colson’s Prison Fellowship, the YMCA, and another ministry called Teen Challenge that continue to make such efforts. Even Alcoholics Anonymous with its Christian origins can be seen as contributing to this effort at rehabilitation. These are the organizations that I was aware of prior to my conversion and does not include the countless individuals and the congregations that have simply made rehabilitation and re-entry of felons a part of their daily walk.

How many secular rehabilitation programs and government programs are patterned after the efforts of these Christian organizations? In my view, the more such organizations (Christian or otherwise) the better but many people don’t like narratives that suggest Christians (Protestant or Catholic) have been at the forefront of social change. It is easier to build on Christian successes and then laugh at Evangelical Christians for being backward. Evangelical Christians are often behind the changes but are presented as behind the times.

It seems to be the case that once a secular alternative to something like Prison Fellowship is established, programs like Prison Fellowship can come under attack for being Christian and committing one of the greatest offenses in North America, proselytizing. I am surprised that the Red Cross has not had to change its name. Oh wait, . . .

Wonderful, how . . . square?! What a delightfully anemic symbol! So much better than crosses and crescents which carry all that baggage we call history.

What Jones sees as an evolution in evangelical thinking may not be as much a shift in broader evangelical thinking but hopefully the waning influence of Fundamentalism on the evangelical imagination, theological and political. A richer more reflective evangelical tradition is being recovered while 20th century American fundamentalism is being left behind. A tradition that would include abolitionists, prison and asylum reformers.  A tradition that includes figures like the Beecher family in America including Harriet Beecher Stowe author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a book which, according to legend, Abraham Lincoln saw as igniting the civil war. Across the pond, one could find William Wilberforce.

Like these white evangelicals of the past, I am deeply concerned by the deep rooted injustice in the current legal system. I am especially bothered by the mass incarceration of blacks and latinos and the privitization of prisons. I have witnessed how difficult it is for a man once incarcerated to get free even when his time has been served. There are fines to pay but no one will hire you. If you can get a job, then you pay rent to the property managers who will rent to people with a criminal record which means you are surrounded by same people with the same problems. Not all of them are seeking to change and those who are are faced with nearly insurmountable difficulties challenges.

The requirement for issuing the death penalty ought to be high and reserved for specific cases where crimes are especially heinous or the person is very likely to repeat the crime i.e. serial murderers, and serial rapists. I think there are those who might be treated more humanely and with more dignity by being “given death” than by being incarcerated for life. In the current climate, with the culture’s increasing acceptance of euthanasia, could we place the choice in the hands of the offender “life in prison” or “death”? (Yet, these men and women are on “death watch” before their execution.)

Still, the most pressing problem in the United States’s justice system is not the Death Penalty. Less than 1500 executions have taken place in the United States since 1976. The majority of the executed were white. In my view, the disparity lies in the fact that black victims do not get the same justice as white victims. In the same time period, the incarceration rate has dramatically increased in the United States from 350,000 to 2,000,000. According to Ta-Nehisi Coates, while the U.S.A. makes up only 5% of the world’s population, 25% of the world’s incarcerated people are incarcerated in the United States. (“The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration” in The Atlantic October 2015, 64)

Canada abolished the Death Penalty in 1976. So, while I am not opposed to the Death Penalty, I am not going to advocate that my country bring it back. In the U.S., this issue is being debated but I hope it is not distracting Americans from a more pervasive injustice of which death row is only the tip of the iceberg.

Is the death penalty a red herring? Does focussing on the death penalty distract us from a much larger problem? Michelle Alexander has boldly called the mass incarceration of black Americans The New Jim Crow. I am inclined to accept her historical and sociological narrative. I am beginning to see resonances between what Coates calls the Gray Wastes and what Alexander Solzhenitsyn called the Gulag Archipelago and described as the Soviet “sewage disposal system.”

While the lives of the thousands of violent criminals currently on death row are worthy of our attention, it should not be at the expense of the hundreds of thousands of incarcerated men and women who as Michelle Alexander argues may be incarcerated for all the wrong reasons and who after release remain permanently locked out of “the mainstream society and economy.” (Alexander, 13)

What’s in your box?


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