The Troy Davis Dilemma

The Troy Davis Dilemma

REASONABLE DOUBT: Protesters chanted and prayed near the Jackson, Georgia, prison where death row inmate Troy Davis was put to death on September 21. (David Tulis/Newscom Photo)

The State of Georgia executed Troy Davis yesterday evening at 11:08pm. Twitter activity subsequently mushroomed, yielding three Davis related trends — #RIPTROYDAVIS, #DearGeorgia, and #JusticeSystem. This post from Nightline anchor Terry Moran was frequently re-tweeted:

Questions abound. If we begin with a common political science definition of government as the monopoly of legitimate coercion — and our general acceptance of police, taxes, and the like suggest that we do — we might further ask: Under what circumstances can coercion be legitimately exercised? Is capital punishment a legitimate exercise of force?

If so, did it make sense to apply it in the case of Mr. Davis? The question remains relevant, for as Rashad Robinson of the Color of Changes notes, the movement against a broken criminal justice system continues even after Mr. Davis’ death.

Many of the people who lamented the execution of Mr. Davis had virtually nothing to say regarding the plight of convicted white supremacist Lawrence Brewer, who was also executed last night in Texas for the racially motivated 1998 dragging death of James Byrd. Many no doubt felt the death penalty was appropriate in that clear-cut case. But some wonder whether a truly comprehensive pro-life ethic can sustain such a morally selective approach to justice.

To dig deeper on the political and policy front, I commend two writings to you: one by former FBI director William Sessions; the other by Andrew Cohen, legal analyst for CBS News. But our task here is to take up theological considerations. The parting words of Mr. Davis himself occasion such reflection. Prior to his death, Mr. Davis said the following to prison officials: “For those about to take my life, may God have mercy on your souls. May God bless your souls.” Mr. Davis’ invocation of mercy and blessing raises a deeper question: Does God’s blessing — or more fundamentally, can God’s blessing — reside over the death penalty at all?

One can imagine canonical arguments being made for the death penalty, particularly from Old Testament texts in Deuteronomy. Romans 13, moreover, is frequently cited by Christians who support the death penalty to buttress their view that the State does not bear the sword — or in this case, the tools of lethal injection — in vain. They might further add that the death penalty, rightly administered, contains deterrent value and restrains sin in a fallen world. Finally, the claim could be made — although I have not recently seen anyone explicitly for it — that a rule-of-law society demands that we enforce whatever is in the books, regardless of any private dissent such enforcement might entail. To do otherwise, according to some streams of conservative jurisprudence, would be tantamount to legislating from the bench.

While I don’t find the foregoing points to be persuasive, they are nevertheless a plausible way to construe Scripture given certain conservative commitments about law, punishment, and order. Such arguments, while canonical, are not Christological reasons. Speaking plainly, I cannot envision a Christ-centered argument for the death penalty. Allow me to briefly state my reasons.

At the most basic — and yet subversive level of memory — we recall that Christ himself was unjustly executed on a Roman cross. Neither the glory of the resurrection nor the doctrine of atonement should cause us to airbrush over the atrocity of the crucifixion. To Christians who support the death penalty, I ask: By what exegetical assumptions and theological reasoning does one distinguish the divine injunction against killing — i.e., “thou shalt not kill” — from the public administration of capital punishment, particularly in states like Texas and Georgia?

Secondly, there is the question of moral authority to administer capital punishment. With Rev. William Sloane Coffin, the ever-pithy preacher of Riverside Church, I aver: “Humanity does not possess the moral authority to kill; we only have the means.”

Thirdly, I think Walter Wink rightly argues that Christ’s atoning death on the cross signals the end of the myth of redemptive violence. Wink, in substance, eulogizes the narrative that barbaric means bring about the praiseworthy end of retributive justice.

Ultimately, in every age, Christians proclaim the death of Jesus Christ until he comes. Penultimately, in the age of Obama, we would do well to invoke the unjust death by execution of Troy Davis until democracy comes and our criminal justice system is reformed.

Note: For follow-up on criminal justice reform, visit and The Innocence Project.

A Post-Hurricane Prayer

A Post-Hurricane Prayer

WIND AND WAVE: A view from the Jersey Shore in the midst of Irene. Photo by Christine A. Scheller.

What does one pray after a hurricane? After calamity, perhaps especially after calamity, we can pray as Jesus taught us. The Lord’s Prayer, which Jesus handed down to the disciples, is traditionally divided into seven petitions. We’ll take our cue from the church mothers and fathers, musing upon each petition in relation to Hurricane Irene.

 Hallowed be thy name

One wonders, agonizingly, where was God when Irene struck? Was God sleeping like a tired air traffic controller? Who, precisely, do we take God to be in such pervasive tragedy? As the questions fester, let us recall Psalm 88 — that roughhewn intonation of faith — begins by invoking God’s name, but concludes where many are now: “Trouble surrounds me and darkness is my only companion.”

Thy kingdom come

Irene strikes. Anxiety ensues. We await the arrival of the Red Cross. City agencies and civil sector groups provide support services with incomparable scale. We rightly await their coming. In another sense, however, we long for more. The brute fact of natural disasters compels us to moan — to groan with all of creation — sorrowfully anticipating God’s return, the parousia of Jesus our Christ.

Thy will be done

Most theologians draw some sort of distinction between God’s inviolable will and a more contingent plan. We ask — we plead even — that God’s perfect will be done. With the indignant spirit of Abraham we ask: will not the Judge of All Heaven and Earth do what is right? And with the simple profundity of a country Baptist preacher, we pray the Master’s “Peace be still” in the midst of the storm.

Give us this day our daily bread

We beseech God for daily bread, understanding that God beseeches us — summons us –to provide daily bread for our neighbors in need. Whether the medium is individual charity, congregational and institutional giving, or the public disbursement of disaster assistance, our prayer is same: may the post-Irene provision of bread be proportionate to the need.

Forgive us our sins, as we forgive

One temptation in every storm is to condemn those who stay behind. In our rush to impose conceptual order, we often obscure social disparities—forgetting that some citizens depend on public transportation, that the elderly need assistance, and that inmates, too, need an evacuation plan. Far be it from us to shrug our moral shoulders at those who either cannot or will not adhere to what they hear. If the moral life partly concerns the formation of good habits, and if we, in moments of lesser consequence, have failed to heed a clear summons or two, then we do well to extend the same grace to others. But for the grace of God, there go I.

Lead Us Not into Temptation

Temptation, in part, is the struggle to remember. In lack, to recall God’s provision. In Canaan, to remember Egypt. As the waters of Irene slowly recede, the cares of life set in, and, gradually, what was urgent becomes less important. May we remember the togetherness of strangers serving one another, and hold fast to images of first responders’ sacrificial service. May our memories, upon fingering the jagged edge of Irene, lead us to serve in times of natural disaster.

Deliver Us from Evil

Rev. William Sloane Coffin once remarked, “It is common to say that religion is a crutch. I always respond, ‘What makes you think you don’t have a limp?’ ” With his characteristic wit, Coffin suggests that our human condition is characterized by fragility. When we seek divine deliverance, we shatter the illusion that we are deliverers, that we can extricate ourselves from suffering altogether. Only the man of sorrows, who was tested at every point as we are, yet without sin, can do that. Once the mist of arrogance is removed from our eyes, a newfound freedom emerges to redeem the pain of misfortune and disaster.

Yes We Cain

THE HERMINATOR: Herman Cain takes the stage to address the Conservative Political Action conference (CPAC) in Washington last February. (Photo: Jonathan Ernst/Newscom)

Herman Cain, an aspiring GOP presidential candidate, appeared out of nowhere. Or did he? Cain, an African-American Atlanta native, rose to prominence in the business world as an executive at the Pillsbury Company and then as CEO of the Godfather’s Pizza chain. He gained notoriety in the political arena by critiquing President Clinton’s healthcare plan in the mid ’90’s and pursuing the U.S. Senate in 2004. He went on to distinguish himself as a motivational speaker and conservative talk-radio host who sometimes calls himself “the Herminator.” But in terms of national name recognition—a critical commodity in politics—Cain essentially appeared out of nowhere.

Dr. Melissa Harris Perry, a noted commentator and professor of political science at Tulane University, approaches Cain’s candidacy as an opportunity to reflect on African-American political conservatism. I intend to do something similar, but I’d also like to highlight the religious inflections of the tradition and suggest one area where conservatives and liberals can collaborate.

Standard storylines of black religion and politics lean leftward, connoting images of the Reverends King, Sharpton, and Jackson. This impression is both false and misleading: false because it obscures the work of other faith-filled public servants like Leah Daughtry, Marian Wright Edelman, and Kay Coles James; misleading because it suggests that black politics and faith are inherently liberal—complete with an interventionist view of the State on economic policy.

Cain’s campaign, by contrast, can be seen as a reminder that black faith and politics often reach rightward. In a recent political speech he listed “Almighty God,” his grandchildren, and a love of country as the motivating factors for his race to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The God, grandchildren, and country motif, of course, is not inherently conservative, but is nonetheless a vision of America that black conservatives invoke more frequently than black liberals. From an academic perspective, Barbara Diane Savage reminds us in Their Spirits Walk Beside Us—and Eddie Glaude more popularly in his “Black Church is Dead” piece—the intersections of black faith and politics are varied. From Jupiter Hammon to the burgeoning black participation in right-to-life movements, any honest read of Christians within African-American religious studies reveals that the “God, grandchildren, and country” motif—or some variation thereof—has always been a part of the diverse tapestry of black faith in public life. For every Rev. Jesse Jackson, there is a Bishop Harry Jackson; for every Suzan Johnson Cook, there is an Alveda C. King.

Many bemoan the manifold manifestations of black faith and politics. We can, however, perceive the brute fact of this diversity as an opportunity for collaboration. For example, conservative pastors and politicians organize to help small businesses flourish, a critical concern that black liberals often overlook. The omission is significant: small businesses employ the majority of Americans, comprise a small but expanding percentage of industry in our urban areas, and thus are a pillar of any viable economic development strategy within America’s regions. Contrastively, liberal black pastors and politicians emphasize our system of social insurance (Medicare, Social Security, Unemployment Insurance, and Workers Compensation) as a promise that the government makes to American families, and—this is the point conservatives often overlook—the precondition for economic mobility in an exceedingly tight labor market.

Rarely, however, do we hear either liberals or conservatives argue explicitly about the importance of the civil sector. And yet, the civil sector, which harbors everything from universities and foundations to civil rights organizations and churches, is uniquely poised to advance an agenda of economic development and mobility.

I’ll conclude with a practical suggestion: Given the shared political emphasis on creating a vibrant and equitable economy, let’s seize the candidacy of Herman Cain as a moment to re-imagine how people of faith, across the political spectrum, might reinvigorate the performance and political presence of the civil sector.