With some 150,000 lives lost, it’s entirely appropriate that the pandemic takes up most of our attention. In the frenzy of courageous nurses, doctors and scientists to save lives, not many of us have room for another catastrophe. For that reason you might have missed, or even ignored, the catastrophe that is taking place in every American’s name.
The federal government started executing people this month, after going 17 years without a single federal execution. In fact, the three people executed over the course of four days in July is more than the United States has put to death in half a century. No president, Republican or Democrat, has executed as many people since 1948, when Harry Truman was in the White House.
It’s alarming, but it may only be the beginning. The next federal execution is scheduled for Aug. 28, and there are 59 more federal inmates facing the death penalty.
The resumption of executions is not an isolated effort, but the latest overreach by an administration that has deployed its troops in cities that have passionately objected to their presence and has tried to force schools to reopen. (This intrusion by the federal government into matters the states and cities normally handle is why conservatives who dislike big government are leading the opposition to the death penalty in many places.) It’s hardly the only controversial move this White House has made during the pandemic, while most of us are preoccupied.
The administration has done so despite the opposition of family members of the executed prisoners’ victims. In the case of Daniel Lee, who was executed July 14, Earlene Branch Peterson, whose daughter and granddaughter were killed in the crime for which Lewis died, took the Justice Department to court. (Lee maintained his innocence. His co-defendant received a life sentence.) Perhaps because of this protest, U.S. Attorney General William Barr declared that family members have no right to be present for the executions of their loved ones.
These are the same family of murder victims who are used to justify executions. One more reminder that though the narrative of the government is always that it conducts executions “for the victims,” those closest to the murder victims often recognize that the death penalty does more harm than good. It extends trauma, creates new victims and exacerbates the wounds of violence. Violence is the disease, not the cure.
It is the latest reminder of how President Donald Trump regularly flouts the loyal support of televangelists and religious pundits who have called him “the most pro-life president in history.” This president and this attorney general are anything but pro-life.
On the other hand, there are now over 1,000 bishops, pastors and faith leaders calling for a halt to federal executions. I was moved to see a petition denouncing federal executions circulate nationally after this recent surge of executions (and honored to sign it).
Since he called for the execution of the Central Park Five — the teens later exonerated in a 1980s attack in Manhattan — Trump has supported retributive justice. When asked his favorite Bible verse during his 2016 presidential campaign, he cited “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” — the verse Jesus challenged, saying, “You’ve heard it said ‘an eye for an eye… but I tell you …’”
Jesus goes on to challenge the ancient law known as “lex talionis,” from which we derive the modern word “retaliation.” This ancient form of justice allowed for reciprocal harm — inasmuch as you were harmed, you could return the harm. Jesus pushes back, commanding his listeners and wannabe disciples not to mirror evil and not to return the harm done to them — but to love their enemies.
Even now, we know we can do better than gouging out the eye of someone who blinded another person. We don’t rape people who rape to show that rape is wrong. But somehow in the most extreme case of murder we hold out this un-Christ-like, barbaric notion that we can kill to show that killing is wrong.
The logic is so flawed that one of the great thinkers of the early church, Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, put his finger on the strange notion: When an individual kills another person we call it evil, but when the state does it, we sanctify it and call it good. What a distorted version of justice, mused the third-century bishop. It is wrong to kill, whether it is done by a criminal or by a king … or by a president or governor.
This recent surge of executions not only contradicts hundreds of years of ethics in the church; it also goes against the national trends of the American people.
The United States has been steadily moving away from the death penalty. State by state, executions drop nearly every year to historic lows. Almost every year, another state abolishes the death penalty. With Colorado becoming the seventh state to legislatively abolish capital punishment last year, 22 states have no capital punishment provision on the books at all. Several more don’t use the death penalty. As a result, significantly more states have stopped actively executing prisoners than states that still do.
This year executions could be the lowest they have been since the Supreme Court upheld current death penalty laws in 1976. New death penalty sentences, too, are the lowest they have been in more than 20 years, even in Texas (where nearly half of the executions occur each year). We’ve hit a tipping point, as the majority of Americans now want to see an end to the death penalty, and that number rises considerably among young adults (one poll shows 80% of millennial Christians are against the death penalty).
The death penalty, in short, is on its way out, here and abroad. Globally, executions fell to the lowest level in a decade. When it comes to executing human beings, this is the company we find ourselves in: China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam and Iraq. Those are the five deadliest countries in the world when it comes to executions. The U.S. is No. 7.
Trump publicly rebuked Iran for executing three people … the same week he himself executed three people. It doesn’t have to be this way. Let us rededicate ourselves to getting on the right side of history — and abolishing the death penalty, once and for all.