Religion Roundup: Questioning Capital Punshiment

Religion Roundup: Questioning Capital Punshiment September 23, 2011

This week’s Religion Roundup centers on Wednesday’s execution of Troy Davis, and the ramifications of philosophical and religious questions when their answers so greatly affect human life. For Davis’ full story, here’s a CNN blog post outlining the events in real time.

“At once too random and too institutional and systematic, this dire business [of capital punishment] has now become an offense both to law and to justice.”  — Christopher Hitchens

Hitch’s opposition to the death penalty came years ago, primarily in response to the potential (and eventual) hanging of Sadam Hussein. Earlier this week saw a plethora of thinkers and religious figures do the same, out of what seems to be a newfound perspective on the value of human life.

The once-pending, now unalterable execution of Troy Davis, a man who seemed to convince everyone except the courts of his innocence and raise blistering questions about contemporary racism and the morality of capital punishment, led to nothing less than an outpour of perspectives and endorsements from religious figures around the country, and the globe. Twitter saw the bulk of the responses, as everyone from Reverend Al Sharpton to our very own Chris Stedman made several vastly-retweeted statements on the issue.

From the diversity of the pro-Davis movement- when he was first sentenced in 2007, even the Vatican expressed discontent with the decision and the importance of preserving human life- comes what could well be a revolution in the abolition of the death penalty. Religion may not be its primary driving factor, that role seems better filled by an acknowledgement of human error and an appreciation of people’s individual capacity for rehabilitation and forgiveness, as well as by practical, economic concerns.

Yet, the notion of capital punishment as a philosophically reasonable form of justice does seem to ultimately come down to the inherently religious value one places on human life. Is this our only shot, where one mistake or evil deed can render us unworthy of continuing to experience it? Is there ultimate justice in the universe, in which our innocence will be judged without the taint of human fallibility? Are infinite punishments or rewards for the finite actions of this life really justifiable? Earlier this week, many of us sat back and felt our personal answers to those questions timidly wash over us as Troy Davis left this world. His final words themselves were imbued with his own spiritual view: to his executioners, he said “may God bless your souls.”

The potential of Troy Davis’ innocence- and the uncertainty that loomed as he faced his death- will remain a haunt on the American legal system for the foreseeable future. The merciful sentiment he expressed just before his execution illustrates a lesson often found only in religious or humanistic circles, that we are people worthy of compassion despite our wrongdoings and mistakes. Whether this was, as his lawyer described it just hours afterwards, a “legally-sanctioned lynching” that incites the fear that a portion of America may not have really matured since the Civil Rights movement, or the shipping of Davis’ soul to an infallible judge who will presumably grant him the clemency or retribution he deserves, seems now irrelevant. Today and forever onward, we must take seriously questions of such philosophical importance, as we’ve seen what practical implications they can have if we brush them to the wayside.

walker1Walker Bristol is a student at Tufts University, and the Community Organizer and Interfaith Representative for the Tufts Freethought Society. Originally from North Carolina, Walker was raised in a largely Quaker community before exploring several Christian traditions throughout high school and ultimately becoming a secular humanist at age 15. Walker serves as the chair of the Committee to Establish a Humanist Chaplaincy at Tufts, and this summer interned at the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard. In addition to being involved in secular student activism, Walker is a hobbyist musician and far-too-avid science-fiction fan.

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