Alabama has executed convicted murderer Kenneth Eugene Smith with nitrogen gas, the first time the method of capital punishment has been used globally. Christian campaigner Shane Claiborne says the death penalty wouldn’t stand a chance in his nation, were it not for Christians.
Billy Neal Moore returned from the Vietnam War like many veterans, with all sorts of struggles, not the least of which was financial. He and an army buddy came up with a plan: easy access to a large amount of money, with very little risk. Or so they thought.
Billy had no criminal record. This was new terrain for him, but his friend assured him that nothing could go wrong. As they went to rob a house, it turned out the 72 year-old homeowner was in. As things unfolded, Fred Stapleton was killed.
Moore was haunted by what they had done. He confessed to the crime, knowing he would face the death penalty in Georgia. And he did. But as far as Moore was concerned, that was fine. If he could have pushed the button on his own execution, he would have. He was convinced he deserved death. In fact, while in prison, he tried to end his own life.
But in the midst of the long loneliness, there was an interruption.
This interruption of grace came from the place we might least expect it – the family of the murder victim. Behind bars Billy had already had a powerful conversion experience. He even got baptised. But it was his relationship with the family of the victim that showed him what grace really is. In his words: “It was the family of the person I killed that helped me get to the point that I could forgive myself.”
WE CAN’T FORGET JESUS’ OWN ENCOUNTER WITH THE DEATH PENALTY AS HE STOPS THE EXECUTION OF THE WOMAN CAUGHT IN ADULTERY.
The family were deeply committed Christians, with a passion for life and a profound understanding of redemption. While not ignoring the evil that was done, they insisted that grace got the last word. They told Billy that because they were Christians, they believed in second chances. They told him they believed God wasn’t done with him yet, and that he had a plan for Billy’s life. They became his surrogate family, the biggest advocates for his life, and the biggest obstacles to his execution. Over two decades (and 13 different execution dates) they were relentless. Through their prayers and persistence, they even got Mother Teresa involved. Not only was his execution stopped, but in an unprecedented move, the Georgia parole board allowed him to be released from prison.
Today, Billy Neal Moore is a pastor.
Every time he preaches, he talks about grace. With a fire in his bones, he proclaims: “No one is beyond redemption.” Grace drips from his lips. Not surprisingly, Billy is also committed to ending the death penalty, which he says: “is the state carrying out revenge—nothing more, nothing less.”
I aspire to be a champion for life on every issue. I believe every person is a child of God, made in the image of God and any time a life is cut short, we lose a part of God’s image in the world.
But here’s what I’ve found with the death penalty: it has succeeded not in spite of Christians, but because of us. Literally, on this issue, we have not been the champions of life. We have been the obstacles. It’s counter-intuitive, and tragic.
When you begin to question how the death penalty has survived, you realise the disturbing answer to that question is: Christians. The death penalty would not stand a chance in America if it weren’t for Christians. 86 per cent of executions have happened in the ’Bible belt’ – the southern states where Christians are most concentrated. The Bible belt is the death belt of America.
RACE AND RESOURCES
I’ve also found that talking about the death penalty it is a gateway to all sorts of other important topics – race, economic inequity, theology, justice, mass incarceration. It’s like peeling away the layers of an onion. We can’t divorce the death penalty from our history of race, white supremacy and the residue that slavery and colonialism has left us. The states that held on to slavery the longest are the same states that hold on to the death penalty.
Executions today are happening exactly where lynchings were happening in the United States 100 years ago. In 1950, African Americans were 10 per cent of our population, but they constituted 75 per cent of executions. 70 years later, African Americans account for 13 per cent of our population but make up almost half of death row (43 per cent) and over a third of our executions (34 per cent).
IF WE BELIEVE MURDERERS ARE BEYOND REDEMPTION, WE SHOULD RIP OUT HALF THE BIBLE, BECAUSE IT WAS WRITTEN BY THEM
When we think of the death penalty, we like to think that we are executing the worst of the worst, but the truth is, too often we are executing the poorest of the poor and people of colour. Jeffrey Dahmer didn’t get the death penalty. Charles Manson died of natural causes in prison. Harvard-educated Ted Kaczynski is still alive. More than the atrocity of the crime, what often determines who gets executed are arbitrary things like the resources, race and where the crime was committed.
And of course, the death penalty raises the massively important question of how much we trust the State with the irreversible power of life and death. There are over 196 people who were wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death, who have now been exonerated after proving their innocence. These are just the people we know about. How many others might there be?
If you wrongfully sentence someone to life in prison, you can free them. But you can’t bring someone back from the dead. As Sister Helen Prejean often say: sometimes the question isn’t whether someone deserves to die, but whether we deserve to kill. Especially when we have a track record of getting it wrong.
I was one of those pro-death-penalty Christians for much of my life. I had all the Bible verses to support my case, and I wielded them well. I’ve always been passionate, even when I’m wrong! But when I started to look at those Bible verses again, I changed my mind.
Now I want to poke a few holes in the theology of death.
In ancient Old Testament law, the death penalty was permitted. But capital murder wasn’t the only death-worthy crime. There were more than 30 others, including disrespecting your parents, various forms of sexual conduct, witchcraft and even working on the Sabbath. When it comes to disciplining our youth today, not many parents are ready to kill their kids for playing with a Ouija board or talking back. No one actually wants to bring the full death penalty back as recorded in the Old Testament.
There were over 40 strict requirements for an execution, which ensured they almost never happened. The rabbis used to say that if there was more than one execution in 70 years, something was wrong. A rabbinical friend pointed out the irony that Jews did away with the death penalty a long time ago, but Christians still misuse Hebrew scriptures to justify it. He laughed as he pointed out the obvious: “And you all have Jesus to reconcile this with. That makes it even more baffling.”
Some say God is for the death penalty. But think of the story of Cain and Abel, the inaugural murder in the Bible. God doesn’t kill Cain, his life is spared. Moses killed a man in the book of Exodus but God didn’t put him to death. David killed Uriah, yet his own life was spared. Saul of Tarsus was a murderer, but Saul became Paul, and the gospel of grace went forward. If we believe murderers are beyond redemption, we should rip out half the Bible, because it was written by them.
THE EXAMPLE OF JESUS
A recent poll in the United States showed that 95 per cent of Americans think Jesus would stand against the death penalty. The problem is we have to convince the Christians to take Jesus more seriously.
Jesus is the ultimate interrupter of violence. On the cross, he took on the powers of death, absorbing all the evil, sin and violence in the world. He put death on display, not in order to glorify it but to subvert it. As Colossians says: “Having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.” (2:15) Jesus is like water poured on the electric chair, short circuiting the whole system of retribution, sacrifice and death. Love wins. Mercy triumphs over judgement.
And we can’t forget Jesus’ own encounter the death penalty as he stops the execution of the woman caught in adultery (John 7-8). At the end of that story, Jesus says to her, “Where’d they all go?” The message is clear. The only one who has any right to throw a stone had absolutely no desire to do so. The closer we get to God, the less we want to throw stones at other people.
THE POWER OF FORGIVENESS
Mary Johnson is a hero of mine. On February 12, 1993, Johnson’s only son was murdered. He was only 20 years old. Devastated and filled with rage, she was paralysed with the anguish of it all. The perpetrator was 16-year-old Oshea Israel, who eventually received a 25-year sentence for murder.
But something spectacular, one might even venture to call miraculous, happened. Mary was reading a poem entitled Two Mothers, about two angelic figures meeting in heaven. As they meet, they can tell by the stars in each other’s crowns that they were both mothers on earth. And they can also tell by their blue-tinted halos that they have both known the deep sorrow and despair of losing their sons.
As they describe their boys to each other, the one mother realises that she is talking with Mary, the blessed mother of Jesus. Mary describes the cruel death of her son and how she would have gladly died in his place. The other falls to her knees, but Mary raises her back up, kisses her cheek, wipes away her tears, and says: “Tell me the name of the son you love so”.
The other mother says: “He was Judas Iscariot. I am his mother.”
When Mary read that poem she was moved, compelled, to meet with Oshea, the man who killed her son, and eventually his mother…and the healing began. As she first met Oshea, she laid it all out there. “You don’t know me, and I don’t know you. You didn’t know my son and he didn’t know you…so we need to lay down a foundation to get to know one another.” They talked for hours.
Oshea couldn’t believe Mary could forgive him. He asked for a hug. And they did. Mary knows the power of her story, and she knows how scandalous it seems to our unforgiving world. When he left the room, she says she cried in disbelief: “I’ve just hugged the man who killed my son.” But as she got up, she felt her soul begin to heal.
Years later, in March of 2010, Oshea was released after 17 years in prison. And Mary helped throw a welcome home party. In fact, they ended up living next door to each other in Minneapolis.
I’VE JUST HUGGED THE MAN WHO KILLED MY SON
As he returned home, Oshea said he was blessed to have “two moms” who now claim each other as sisters.. Mary went on to start an organisation called From Death to Life.
When I visited Minneapolis I stayed in the house where they all met, a holy place called the St Jane House, with photos of reconciliation and healing plastered all over the walls. Mary came over for dinner and explained that they have two support groups – the mums whose kids were killed, and the mums whose kids have killed – and both groups meet together whenever they can. They know their healing is bound up together; they need each other.
As Mary hugged me, I thought to myself with profound awe: “These same courageous arms embraced the man who killed her son.” I felt like I had been hugged by an angel, with a blue-tinted halo.
Grace gets the last word.