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 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.