taking the words of Jesus seriously

Today we Texans will kill our 500th person who was created in the image of God. 500 families and our communities have lived in grief and fear because of the horrible violence of those who killed their daughters, sons and spouses. Taking the life of a person is perhaps the greatest of all sins. Families  whose loved ones have been killed suffer intense pain.

But will that pain be soothed best through the criminal justice system that leads to executions? Will executing our 500th person since reinstating the death penalty in 1982 help victims?

Here are some reasons why I believe killing Kimberly McCarthy won’t.


Criminal justice does not centrally ask the question “who has been hurt?” But instead focuses on establishing what laws have been broken and by who, and what do they deserve.  In doing so – in neglecting the needs of victims – we miss out on at least 5 important opportunities for Victims to find healing and restoration.

The first four on this list come from Howard Zehr’s incredibly insightful,  The Little Book of Restorative Justice,  which contrasts retributive justice to a more Biblical model of restoration.

  1. The access to genuine and honest information victims need is denied them. What they get is ”speculation or the legally constrained information that comes from a trial or plea agreement.”
  2. Opportunity to tell their story truthfully (perhaps multiple times) is often denied victims in our current system. When stories are told, it is typically told to jurors for the sake of convincing, rather than to the one who caused the harm for the purpose of them understanding the impact their violence has had on the family.
  3. Trials dis-empower victims and leave them feeling perpetually out of control, rather than empowering them to participate and feeling as if they have a role to play in the restoration of their lives.
  4. Victims need vindication and the chance for restitution from the offender in ways our current system does not allow.
  5. Executing killers quite often does not deliver closure as expected. It’s a process dragged out over years if not decades, is typically delayed multiple times, and constantly in threat of being overturned. Who wants to wait for closure under those circumstances?

These five missed opportunities are helpfully clarified by looking at them as 5 sins of omission. These are 5 things we are not doing that, if done, would better minister to victims and their communities.

But executions aren’t morally bankrupt only because they are sins of omission. Executions are also sins of commission. Here’s 5 ways.


  1. Executions are racially unjust. the Racial inequality in our prisons is notorious (thanks in part to Michelle Alexander’s work The New Jim Crow), but it’s equally present on death row and in our execution counts. Killing on racial lines is committing and perpetuating a terrible injustice.
  2. There is a high probability we have and will kill innocent people. Jesus’ execution is the quintessential historical example, and is enough to indict the entire system. But Charles Lee Baird, chair of Amnesty International Group 23 in Houston,   has reviewed executions in Texas during the past 30 years and has concluded that there is a high likelihood that at least seven (7) innocent people have been executed during this time period.  Baird states, “Our hearts go out to all victims of crime, particularly to the victims of murder and their families and friends.   However, it is very disturbing that Texas is about to carry out its 500th execution and several of those executed were likely innocent.  These executions are reason enough to abolish the death penalty in this state.
  3. The state does NOT deserve the power to kill. Why is the church so quick to give the state the blind power to kill, and yet stringently resist the state’s nonviolent public powers to feed the poor, educate our children, regulate business and labor practices, protect the environment, or offer medical attention to everyone? Limiting benevolence and encouraging the ultimate power seems as if we have gotten things completely upside down. Executions, when studied, prove ambiguous at best in deterring crime. We’ve been led to believe they keep both killers and potential killers from killing. And yet, if this is a lie, wouldn’t it be wrong to justify arming Caesar?
  4. Supporting executions in the name of God perpetuates a false gospel. God is not violent, and the violent-God myth is destructive to the good news of God’s kingdom the church is called to declare and demonstrate. Jesus own death at the hands of legal state power unmasks this heinous sin. His crime scene reveals God to be the God of peace and redemption rather than violence and vengeance. Christian support of the death penalty is built on the myth of redemptive violence. An entire system on a foundation of lies, and underwritten by theological misinterpretation. (Read more about how religion is a root of violence.)
  5. Our sense of identity and self-love should not be built at someone else’s expense. Groups have a vested interest in identifying problems in order to build ourselves up. We get our sense of goodness and personal worth in connection to the inverse value and evil of others. Scapegoating some in society allows us to think that the remaining people in that society are pure, good, safe. Amy Yoder-McGloughlin writes about our need to have scapegoats,  ”Since the dawn of time, we have needed scapegoats to empower us to be the good people we want to be. We need the bullied to justify who we are… In our society, in order for us to feel safe, we need to imprison the people that have taken things from us, or hurt the people we love, and their chains are supposed to make us feel stronger and safer and superior.”

5 sins of Omission and 5 sins of Commission lead me to answer the headline question with a robust and unashamed, “No.” We will not help anyone or any cause (the least of which is not God) tomorrow in killing our 500th person.

The Following list of Houston clergy have signed a declaration denying the validity of the death penalty in Texas and of its capacity to bring good into the lives of victims and into our communities:

Most Reverend Joseph A. Fiorenza,   Archbishop Emeritus of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston

Reverend Bill Lawson,   Pastor Emeritus of the Wheeler Ave. Baptist Church

Frances “Sissy” Farenthold,   attorney and international human rights activist

Anthony Graves,   exonerated Texas death row prisoner

Sr. Ceil Roeger,   Promoter of Justice, Peace and Care of Creation, Dominican Sisters of Houston

Bill Pelke,   President of the Journey of Hope…From Violence to Healing

David Atwood, Founder of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty

Jesus is both friend of sinners and healer of all wounds. To him alone I pledge my allegiance.

Marty Troyer is the pastor of Houston Mennonite Church: The Church of the Sermon on the Mount, a church seeking the peace of Houston. Marty tweets @thepeacepastor and is on Facebook as ThePeacePastor.

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