Faith groups are celebrating Virginia’s decision to ban the death penalty, a move considered to be a victory for religious opposition to capital punishment.
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam signed the ban — the first of any Southern state and the 23rd overall — into law on Wednesday (March 24), declaring it “the moral thing to do.”
“Over our 400-year history, Virginia has executed more people than any other state,” Northam said. “The death penalty system is fundamentally flawed — it is inequitable, ineffective, and it has no place in this Commonwealth or this country. Virginia has come within days of executing innocent people, and Black defendants have been disproportionately sentenced to death.”
The Rev. LaKeisha Cook, a lead organizer at the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, also spoke at the signing ceremony.
“Today I stand here representing many people of faith all throughout the commonwealth of Virginia,” Cook said. “Virginia Interfaith was very, very happy to join officially in this fight for abolition. Today we turn the page in the history books of this great commonwealth as we celebrate the end of the death penalty.”
Cook pointed to the activism of the state’s “amazing faith community,” such as those who held prayer vigils at sites of lynchings in January to highlight the historical link between early racist killings and the modern death penalty, or the nearly 430 faith leaders who signed on to a letter opposing the death penalty in February.
Cook noted the advocacy of the Virginia Catholic Conference, which also voiced support for the ban on Wednesday. Bishop Michael F. Burbidge of the Diocese of Arlington and Bishop Barry C. Knestout of Richmond released a statement citing Pope Francis, whose 2020 encyclical “Fratelli Tutti” included the line: “The firm rejection of the death penalty shows to what extent it is possible to recognize the inalienable dignity of every human being and to accept that he or she has a place in this universe.”
“Through our Virginia Catholic Conference, we supported this historic legislation as it progressed through the General Assembly because all human life is sacred,” read the statement from Burbidge and Knestout. “We are grateful to those who worked to make this a reality.”
Catholics in the U.S. have long opposed capital punishment, and Francis voiced support for abolishing the practice during his 2015 address to Congress.
But the pontiff made things even more explicit in 2018 when he changed the church’s catechism to declare the death penalty “inadmissible” and insist that the church will work “with determination for its abolition worldwide.”
The Virginia bishops were joined in their celebration by Archbishop Paul S. Coakley of Oklahoma City, who chairs the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development.
“Virginia will become the twenty-third state to abolish the death penalty, and I urge all other states and the federal government to do the same,” Coakley said in a statement.
He praised the work of advocates such as the Catholic Mobilizing Network before adding: “We are reminded that God created and loves every person, and we can respond to this love with reverence for the dignity of every human life, no matter how broken, unformed, disabled, or desperate that life may seem.”
Opposition to the death penalty has grown over the past few decades and is common in several faith communities. A 2018 Public Religion Research Institute survey found that 55% of Americans preferred life in prison without parole instead of capital punishment for people convicted of murder, compared with 44% who preferred the death penalty. Majorities of Black Protestants (80%), non-Christian religious groups (57%) and white Catholics (54%) also favored life in prison.
Of those polled, only two groups expressed majority preference for the death penalty: white evangelicals (62%) and white mainline Protestants (54%).
Virginia Catholics were echoed by other stalwart faith-rooted opponents of the death penalty this week, such as Christian activist and author Shane Claiborne. He championed the ban when versions of it first passed both chambers of the state legislature in February, and he called on the federal government to do the same.
“President (Joe) Biden is poised to do the same thing Virginia just did: reckon with the mistakes of our past and use that past to help us envision a better future — one without the death penalty,” Claiborne wrote.
Biden, a Catholic, proposed eliminating the federal death penalty in 2019 during his campaign for president, but he has yet to take sweeping action regarding the promise — which would require support from the Supreme Court or Congress — since beginning his term.
Former President Donald Trump was widely criticized by faith leaders for his administration’s 2020 decision to renew the use of the death penalty in federal cases for the first time since 2003. Among various protests, more than 1,000 faith leaders signed a letter that summer demanding Trump and then-Attorney General William Barr end the practice.
Biden has already heard from fellow Catholics on the issue: During the first Mass he attended as president, the priest delivered a homily blasting the Trump administration’s renewed use of the death penalty and referring to the former commander in chief as an “execution president.”
When White House press secretary Jen Psaki was asked during a press briefing on Monday whether Biden would support the Supreme Court if it reinstated the death penalty for Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, she noted that Biden has “grave concerns about whether capital punishment … is consistent with the values that are fundamental to our sense of justice and fairness,” but referred specific questions about the case to the Department of Justice.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration that took place at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark Thursday night was not only a celebration of the civil rights leader, but a worship service led by two dynamic gospel music stars and a highly accomplished pastor. Three extraordinary women were also honored for following in King’s footsteps and changing their communities for the better.
Richard Smallwood: ‘Anybody Can Serve’
Gospel Music Hall of Fame artist Richard Smallwood told UrbanFaith that Dr. King was “a prime example” of someone who devoted his life to the service and blessing of others.
Noting King’s statement that “everybody can be great… because anybody can serve,” Smallwood said, “It’s not about your name in lights …or how many houses you have, how many cars you have, but who are you helping, where you are making a difference? That part of him always gets my heart.”
Smallwood grew up with at least one intimate model of selflessness, in the person of his mother. She died in 2005, but encouraged her only child to study classical music and worked overtime so he could attend Howard University.
“She really was my biggest cheerleader. So it was very difficult when she transitioned,” said Smallwood, who didn’t write music for four years after she died.
In 2004, Smallwood completed a Master of Divinity degree at Howard out of a sense of calling from God.
“People said, ‘We know you’re going to preach.’ And I’m like, ‘No, no, no, no, no, no! I don’t want to do that.’ It finally got to the point where I knew that that was a part of my calling. It was something I was going to have to do, because it was what I was born to do,” said Smallwood.
“I was nervous because I was like, ‘Okay, I’ve been in music all my life. I’m going to have to do papers, and a lot of reading, and stuff like that. It wasn’t easy, but it was a joy, because I had to do a lot of stuff in hotel rooms when I was traveling, in airports, writing papers and sending them back home to my professors. But it was a great experience,” the ordained Baptist minister explained.
Like King, who said he didn’t want to be remembered for his awards, but for his life of service, Smallwood wants to be remembered for the gifts he has bestowed on others.
“My prayer has always been that my music is what people will remember a long, long, long time after I’m gone … because I’ve seen how God can use gifts and really make a difference in people’s lives.”
Tye Tribbett: ‘Stand Up and Make a Change’
Gospel artist Tye Tribbett grew up in Camden, New Jersey, where he said he led a “very sheltered” life as the son of strict Apostolic Pentecostal pastors. Even so, he couldn’t help but see the rougher side of life in his city.
“Some of the stereotypes that are on Camden, we have to take the blame. We caused a lot of [people] to have that perspective on us. But a lot of us now are also taking the initiative to turn that whole thing around,” said Tribbett.
“I think that’s what Martin Luther King’s birthday is all about: somebody being frustrated enough to stand up and make a change, and voice that we don’t have to stay this way. We don’t have to. I think that’s what Martin Luther King did against all odds. He stood up, not only felt it, not only thought it, but spoke it,” he added.
Six months ago, Tribbett and his wife Shante′ started The Word on the Street, a Bible study that meets at a public school in Camden. Three hundred people gather, Tribbett said, with a vision for turning the city around.
“We’re right in line with the dream that [King] had years ago,” said Tribbett.
“It’s not the normal Bible study,” he explained. “We’re taking a different approach, a fresh approach, because I believe right information creates right believing, and right believing creates right living. Or better, better information, better believing, better living.”
Tribbett knows something about the power of belief. After a particularly challenging time in his marriage that was brought on by his infidelity, he battled suicidal thoughts.
“I felt very guilty and ashamed, so when I started feeling and sensing voices, quote unquote, of suicide, it actually scared me. So I ran to the shelter of mentors,” said Tribbett.
He confessed his suicidal thoughts to them and said there were times when they didn’t leave him alone.
“A lot of young people today who are committing suicide because of bullying and all that kind of crazy stuff, I don’t think they have mentors,” said Tribbett. “I don’t think we have leadership. I don’t think we’re accountable to anybody, so we’re left to our own thoughts, and we’re left to whatever we feel. So I think it’s wise for young people, and older people, just to find somebody to be accountable to, to submit under somebody so they can bring you in when you’re way out there.”
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?
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.”
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.
Efforts to stay the execution of death row inmate Troy Anthony Davis continue today, including a last-minute offer by Davis to take a polygraph test to prove that he is innocent of the 1989 murder of off-duty Savannah, Georgia, police officer Mark MacPhail. MacPhail was killed while attempting to aide a homeless man who was under assault.
Seven of the nine witnesses against Davis have recanted or changed their testimony, but the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles denied Davis clemency Tuesday. The polygraph request was also denied, according to MSNBC. Davis is set to die by lethal injection tonight at 7 p.m. EST.
Christian Coalition Supports It
Jerry Luquire, President of The Georgia Christian Coalition, affirmed Davis’ scheduled execution in a statement to CBS affiliate WRBL3. Luqire said the parole board made “the only decision it could render if we are going to be governed by the rule of law” and “refused to substitute the emotions of those who disagree with the verdict with more than 20 years of legal decisions” upholding Davis’ guilt.
The Party of Death?
Perhaps it’s no surprise then that a headline at Addiction Info read: “The ‘Christian’ Republican Party of Death Kills Another.”
There the self-identified non-Christian, non-Republican Wendy Gittleson wrote, “More than 2/3 of Republicans identify as Protestant. Nearly a quarter identify Catholic, which means that less than 10% of Republicans don’t identify as Christian. You would think that people who call Jesus their savior would live up to the pro-life name they have given themselves.”
Pontius Pilot Redux
In a Jack & Jill Politics post that opened with the full text of John 8:1-7, Deborah Small said that although neither she nor any other member of the public knows the identities of the members of the parole board that refused Davis clemency, she assumes they consider themselves “good, upright Christians doing the Lord’s work.”
“I wonder if they ever consider what Jesus would think and do in their position? More importantly, what if they were making the same mistake Pontius Pilate made when he sentenced Jesus to death? History has not looked kindly on Pilate’s willingness to accept the unsupported claims of Jesus’ detractors that he committed capital crimes against Rome. History will not look kindly on the decision of this Board to execute a man who may in fact be innocent. He is certainly not guilty beyond a reasonable doubt,” Small wrote.
Barbarism on Display
In a letter to the editor of Cascade Patch, Rev. Robert Wright, rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Atlanta, wrote: “Capital Punishment is state sanctioned lynching. Capital punishment is the exact opposite of civilization. Capital Punishment is the admission of our immature and barbarous tendencies as a society. While Capital Punishment may be the law in Georgia, it is not justice in Jesus’ eyes. … With the murder of Troy Davis, Georgia has admitted that Jesus’ will and ways are of secondary concern. Shame on Georgia.”
Should death row inmates have access to one-on-one pastoral visits? This the question a Kentucky judge is being asked to decide in a class action suit filed by death row inmates against the state prison system. The prisoners claim that pastors have been “illegally and arbitrarily restricted from visiting them” since early summer 2010, the Associated Press reported yesterday.
In his decision, Judge Jacob Walker wrote that Lockhart deserved death based on evidence of other crimes not presented by prosecutors during his trial, the article said, noting a troubling trend in the state.
Since 1976, when the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty after a four-year ban, Alabama judges have held the power to overturn the sentencing recommendations of juries in capital cases. Since then, state judges have overturned 107 jury decisions in capital cases, and in 92 percent of those cases, jury recommendations of life imprisonment were rejected in favor of death sentences, according to a new report by the Equal Justice Initiative, a non-profit law firm based in Montgomery.
Meanwhile, Rais Bhuiyan, a victim of post 9/11 racism, is arguing for the life of his would-be killer. While working at a Dallas, Texas, gas station in 2001, Bhuiyan was shot in the face at close range by Mark Ströman. The assault left Bhuiyan blind in one eye and in need of extensive plastic surgery. Ströman had murdered a Pakistani immigrant five days earlier and would go on to kill an Indian immigrant a few weeks later. Each of Ströman’s victims worked at Dallas-area convenience stores. Ströman, who claims he was avenging the 9/11 terrorist attacks, is scheduled to be executed July 20.
According to the Death Penalty News website, Bhuiyan found peace during his long and painful recovery by relying on his Muslim faith, which also led him to forgive Ströman. “I decided that his is a human life, like anyone else’s,” Bhuiyan said. “I decided I wanted to do something about this.”
Zechariah 7:9 instructs us to “administer true justice” and “show mercy and compassion to one another.”
What do you think?
• Should death row inmates have access to one-on-one pastoral care?
• Should they have the right to sue for it?
• Is it just for a judge to overturn a jury verdict in favor of death, especially in light of evidence that the murderer was mentally damaged in service to his country?
• Does a murderer’s humanity require that society show him the mercy he failed to show his victims?
• Where do justice and mercy meet when it comes to the death penalty? What do you think?
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