ednesday, September 21 the US Supreme Court chose to deny Troy Davis’ final appeal for a stay of execution. In spite of his claim of innocence, no physical evidence of guilt, and the recantation of the majority of witnesses against him, Mr. Davis is now a murder victim. It is ironic and illogical that he was murdered by people who claim to support justice for the victim of murder. It is beyond infuriating to know that statics show that if Mr. Davis were white, the chances of a death sentence would have been significantly lower in the first place.
The controversy that rightly surrounds this issue will lead to many questions being asked of religious leaders in the coming weeks, and each tradition will add its own voice to the conversation in unique and hopefully helpful ways. As it happens, I’m part of a faith tradition that worships a man who suffered an unjust trial and was executed in an affront to justice, not unlike Mr. Davis. If anyone has something to say about execution, it’s Jesus.
When considering the ethical response to capital punishment Communion is probably the last thing that comes to mind. However the meal Jesus gave us right before his execution is more relevant than one might think to the topic at hand.
One of the tasks of communion is to reconcile Christians. Paul warned the Church at Corinth not to take communion in an unworthy manner because doing so is to eat and drink judgment on oneself. Obviously no one is worthy to partake in the blood and body of our Lord, so to take communion is to admit one’s unworthiness, as well as the unworthiness of everyone else assembled, but not to hold it against them. A vital part of the worship that takes place when we take communion is healing broken human relationships. To take a human life, even “justly”, is to prevent any future reconciliation.
Capital punishment leaves no room for loving others, or for forgiving them. It advocates judgment triumphing over mercy and reeks of the wicked servant who demanded his peer repay a relatively small loan, after he had been forgiven billions. It insults the only one who has the right to cast the first stone, and yet chooses not to.
Taking Communion is a proclamation to each other and the world that Christ has defeated the world and redeemed humanity. It is a testimony of the vindication of the redeemed and the final judgment of the powers of the world (including the State of Georgia). This is the reason Paul said taking Communion in an unworthy manner is proclaiming judgment on oneself; the act itself testifies to the taker’s future judgment. The true significance of communion relative to ethics is the nature of what we are doing when we partake. Christ said the wine is his blood and the bread is his body. The church itself is the body of Christ, so when we take communion, we are symbolically taking part in what our ideal is. Christ himself is our ethical standard. We are reminded each time we take communion of the way we are supposed to live, and we should live our lives ethically, so that we are worthy to take it.
The church, as the body of Christ, is a kind of communion to the world. We are the visible sign of the invisible grace God has offered anyone who will repent. We embody the blood and body of Christ to those around us, and offer reconciliation to those who are hurting and lonely. In light of this, it is clear that Christians cannot support or tolerate killing. To do so is to serve as an anti-sacrament, a means by which no grace is given. It is to deny the power of the very blood and body that we are called to be.
There are times when living out our faith is hard, and when forgiving someone is a daily cross to bear. There are times when the cost of choosing life can be the dark night of the soul, and in such times God will reveal his incomprehensible grace for the hurting. This however, is not such a time. There is no justice in this case. God will judge.