Vote for Life

Vote for Life November 7, 2016

no death penaltyAll over the nation, stress levels are in the stratosphere as the election season comes to its frantic conclusion. The choice for president feels like life and death to many of us, and may indeed affect our lives in profound ways. But certain votes will have a direct impact on whether others live or die. If you live in California, Nebraska, or Oklahoma, you have a chance to vote for life, human dignity, and redemption by rejecting the death penalty.

California actually has 2 competing ballot initiatives. Whereas proposition 62 would abolish the death penalty, proposition 66 would expedite it. Proposition 66 could be seen, in part, as an example of an argument against the death penalty backfiring, as many people cite cost, time, and a heart-wrenching appeals process that re-opens the wound for the victim’s family members as pragmatic arguments for life in prison. Theoretically, both initiatives could pass, in which case the initiative with the higher total of votes will win out.

Nebraska’s governor, Pete Ricketts, would like to reinstate the death penalty after a bipartisan legislature repealed it over his veto. He has invested time and money to lobby for Referendum 426. The language of the referendum may be confusing. A “repeal” vote repeals Legislative Bill (LB) 268 which bans the death penalty, rather than the death penalty itself. A vote to “retain” retains not the death penalty but LB 268 which repeals the death penalty. Nebraska voters, please read your ballots carefully!

Oklahoma voters will not have an opportunity to repeal the death penalty yet. But they may ensure that the power to execute is not enshrined in their constitution. In Oklahoma, after multiple botched executions, the attorney general agreed to halt executions temporarily while their means, not their morality, was investigated.  Should State Question 776 be approved by voters, the death penalty will resume and be enshrined in the Oklahoma constitution, exponentially frustrating efforts to stay individual executions or repeal the death penalty altogether.

If you have an opportunity to vote to repeal the death penalty, maintain its ban, or keep it from being enshrined in your state’s constitution, please do so. The Raven Foundation has previously called for the abolition of the death penalty. I have called it the “contagion of vengeance enshrined in law.” Ultimately, it is rooted in a pessimistic view of humanity that denies the eternal and unconditional dignity of every person.

The horrific crimes that lead to the death penalty never occur in a vacuum. We live in a violent nation within a violent world, and are rarely aware of our participation in systemic violence. And when we are caught up in cycles of vengeance, we excuse our own violence while condemning the violence of others.

We are all guilty of hurting others, inadvertently and deliberately. We are all prone to self-justification which perpetuates injury until we humbly acknowledge that our judgment is flawed and prone to error, confess our faults, and seek to make amends. The state, as well, is prone to error, and as an entity of power and control over others, tendencies toward unfair imposition of power must be restricted by policies that cultivate humility and self-reflection. The death penalty, once carried out, is final, permanent, and irreversible. A state with the power to execute human beings is one that is unlikely to give a fair, much less compassionate, hearing to people who question its judgment, not only on the death penalty but on all matters. When the power to condemn a human being to death is enshrined in law, all other laws created to serve and value life are undermined. The state sends a message that human dignity is conditional and revocable. This message can manifest itself in innumerable dangerous and demeaning ways.

Those who favor the death penalty will argue that it stops the violence of criminals, deters further violence, and honors the life of the victim by exacting justice. No penalty can relieve the pain and void filled by the violent murder of a loved one, but the death penalty at least ensures that a similar fate is suffered by the perpetrator of a crime. This logic of retribution is hard to argue, especially to one who is suffering. But ultimately, the death penalty further perpetuates suffering and adds to the morass of cruelty by taking another loved one away from another family, and bringing back no one. This eye-for-an-eye justice leaves our nation blind to the healing power of mercy and redemption. Crime is not deterred by its perpetuation by the state. Victims are not honored by the reinforcement of the notion that life can be taken by those who deem it unworthy. But when evil is answered with mercy, life triumphs over death.

Finally, for Christians, the death penalty has been put on trial and condemned by the One who was executed as a criminal and vindicated by the judgment of Love. Jesus, Christians believe, exposed our  violence by standing in the place of our victims. By exposing us to our victims, Jesus turned our perspective of justice upside-down, and answered our blood-thirstiness with forgiveness. One need not hold a spiritual or theological belief in Jesus’s divinity to see that the gospel is the exposure of human violence – individual and state violence — from the vantage of the victim. Learning to see through the eyes of the victim of state violence helps us to see how wrong our nation has been time after time, from the genocide of Native Americans and theft of their land to slavery to our continual wars. The state is guilty of violence and in need of forgiveness, as are we all. Because none of our hands are clean, none of us has the moral authority to assign death. And we were born to build up life, not take it away.

Whatever your faith, whatever your politics, a fundamental truth is that life is unconditionally sacred. The death penalty denies that truth, whereas answering deadly crime with life affirms that people can learn, grow, and be redeemed. Without this hope, we doom ourselves to our own destruction. Residents of California, Nebraska and Oklahoma, please vote for life.

Image: Stock photo from 123rf.com by france68. Some changes made.

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