I read this recent New York Times interview with people who have witnessed an act of capital punishment in the United States. Whatever your view of the death penalty, hearing those with actual experience of the act humanizes that opinion.
Those who enter the observation room bitter don’t often forgive, even after death. Staff are traumatized by it. Many just leave numb and knowing they witnessed something terrible, although not always certain how to even explain it. If this sounds eerily similar to the scenes at the end of the Gospels, then don’t forget that the apostles, too, witnessed a capital punishment carried out by an imperial authority by way of lawful trial, and with the support of both the police and religious figures of the time.
Part of the reason why I’m staunchly opposed to capital punishment, aside from many compelling pragmatic arguments against it, such as this recent article, which recounts the tragic story of the latest person who will likely join those exonerated after death. This is the case because essentially, what is happening here is the state is attempting to provide retribution for heinous crimes through its own (sterilized) form of violence. And people don’t typically leave that room feeling like they’ve forgiven their offender, and are now free to move on. Both parties are obscured from one another, not only physically by barriers, but also by the state. People aren’t allowed to reconcile with one another even if they want to. And the same is true for our courts, often. For a radically different approach, consider the video about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa at the bottom of this post.
It is easy to just overlook all of the obvious problems within this country and impute the effects of our collective diseases to a scapegoat: criminals. And this category often falls conveniently alongside lines of profiling which benefit some more than others. But even leaving that aside, because universal statements about crime are not honest, many crimes in this country are fixed through things like better mental health resources (), a safer and fairer economic playing field, and so on.
Criminals are scapegoats. They are an easy target. They generally emerge from a life of poverty where they weren’t granted significant societal resources, nor social capital. As Elizabeth Bruenig pointed out recently on Twitter, they don’t have paid lobbyists at CNN and in the White House to explain their struggles to the powerful, and even if they did, it wouldn’t matter.
Injustice gives birth more injustice, and structural sins that “will be passed down for four generations.” Granting the state power to be Lord over our lives is a wager some have accepted, in light of the disorder we all see within our country, but it’s the most dangerous wager. Unfortunately, we’ve already allowed it.
Opinion has shifted on capital punishment a lot since the 90s, when Bill Clinton had to watch a mentally disabled African American man be put to death and praised the act, in order to prove he was “tough on crime.” If there was widespread opposition to capital punishment today, it is not idealistic to think the heinous practice could be done away with. Personally, I have encountered many individuals inside a maximum security prison who call their life sentences “death by incarceration,” and I think that also is a form of a death penalty, but we must begin somewhere. Another good starting point might be eliminating torture within US prisons.
I believe we are standing in the midst of a critical point in human history, and making the world better will be difficult, because that means we must restructure everything in a way that promotes peace, fairness, and all of those great words we have in our constitutions, or in enlightenment philosophies, and often, in our holy books. Our states have been lousy gods, and regaining control means demythologizing them; we have to learn to collectively become atheists of the lousy gods that we’ve previously given all the power to kill us, lock us up, manipulate our economies, and torture us in hopes of preserving the religious myths which legitimize them.
And we need to continue to become disenchanted with our own cultural and religious ways of thinking which have directly legitimized those lousy gods. I would argue that in the 20th century Mainline Protestants were experts at demytholigizing their own God, often too much and they were awful at demythologizing the religious myths of the United States itself.
Evangelicals and some conservative Catholics have fully embraced their cozy seat next to the emperor, but emperors are often fickle. Just because you’re not effected yet doesn’t mean you won’t be. This is the end of an epoch. I pray the God who is with us as we live in a world without Him, can give us strength.
Our God was executed, and, in a certain sense, we share in his execution, we also share his resurrection.
Executed church. Rise up!
Luke Pigott hails from the deep south, where he first began studying theology at the southern baptist college, William Carey University. He then moved to Philadelphia, where he completed an M.A. at Villanova University, worked as an adjunct professor for Villanova, Saint Joseph’s University, and most extensively, as a theology and philosophy professor for Villanova’s inner-prison B.A. program. He began a Ph.D. at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, but that school no longer exists due to neoliberal austerity. He is currently back in Mississippi, asking himself whether he should be doing something more dangerous than finishing his Ph.D. elsewhere. Luke is also a professional coffee roaster and musician.
If you feel up to the task, you should also read Squishy New Atheist Pieties Miss Gospel Love’s Ruthless Demands.
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