The (Christian) Problem with The Death Penalty or: Why “An Eye For An Eye” Leaves Everyone Blind

For the first time in nearly two decades, the federal government will resume executions and, effectively, reinstate the federal death penalty. The announcement was made by Attorney General William Barr last week while indicating that five men convicted of murdering children will, themselves, be put to death in December of this year. Additional executions will be scheduled at a later time.

While public support for capital punishment has decreased, it is still advocated for in the Christian church and this is a problem.

Though denominations like the United Methodist Church have opinions against the death penalty clearly spelled out in governing documents like the Social Principles (“We believe the death penalty denies the power of Christ to redeem, restore and transform all human beings.”) the day to day experience and support for the death penalty is felt and experienced differently throughout the American church.

Capital punishment, killing someone in response to a crime, is as old as civilization itself. Some of the earliest archaeological discoveries of law codes contain the ramifications for shedding blood or taking someone’s life and, more often than not, it comes down to “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a limb for a limb, a life for a life.” It’s there in Hammurabi’s code from ancient Babylon, and it is present in the Christian Bible.

The Death Penalty has been around for a very long time, and it is still employed for a lot of reasons, though not recently for Federal crimes. Some advocate for the death penalty because it is the only way to guarantee that someone will never recommit a violent crime, others claim that it helps as a deterrent to influence other away from committing similar crimes, and still yet others say it brings closure to families who grieve the loss of someone murdered. 

There are roughly 2,600 people on death row right now in the United States. And the state of Virginia, where I live, has executed more prisoners than almost any other state.

And again, for Christians, this is a problem because Jesus was killed by the Death Penalty.

The main reasons that people use to justify the death penalty can just as easily be used from a different perspective. Deterrence? In the south, where 80% of all death penalty convictions occur is the only part of the country where crime rates continue to increase. Closure? Statistics has shown that there is benefit for the families in the short term, but in the loan term they tend to experience bouts of depression and grief from another person’s death. 

And, since 1976, about 1 in every 9 death row inmates have been exonerated, usually after decades of living in a prison cell. 

And even among these statistic and facts, for Christians it is inconceivable to support the death penalty when the Lord we worship was killed by the same means.

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Christians love crosses. We put them up in our sanctuaries and in our living rooms, we tattoo them on our skins and wear them around our necks. But many of us have become desensitized to what the cross means: death.

Let me put it this way: If Jesus died 100 years ago, Christians would be wearing nooses around our necks. If Jesus died 50 years ago, Christians would bow before electric chairs in our sanctuaries on Sunday mornings. If Jesus died today, Christians would hang hypodermic needles in our living rooms.

The cross was the electric chair for the Romans. The cross is like the hangman’s nooses of lynching mobs. The cross is like the lethal injections in modern prisons. It is the way people were killed by the state as a punishment for their crimes.

And, I’ll admit it, there are scriptures in the Bible that justify the practice of capital punishment. But there are also people in the Bible who committed capital crimes and God still used them for the kingdom.

We like the think about Moses talking to the burning bush, and leading God’s people to the Promised Land, but we don’t like to think about the fact that Moses murdered an Egyptian in cold blood before he met God in the wilderness.

We like to think about David defeating Goliath, and dancing in front of the Ark of the Covenant, but we don’t like thinking about the fact that David ordered one of his soldiers to die so that he could sleep rape his wife.

We like to think about Paul being knocked to the ground on the road to Damascus, and writing his letters to the churches by candlelight, but we don’t like thinking about the fact that Paul murdered Christians before his conversion.

One of the tenants of Christian theology is that nothing is impossible for God. But when we kill people for killing people, then we effectively remove all possibility of change in that person’s life. If we Christians really believe in the resurrection of Christ and the possibility of reconciliation coming through repentance, then the death penalty is a denial of that belief.

The beginning and the end of theology is that with God’s help and grace all things are possible. An alcoholic can kick the bottle, an atheist can discover faith, and a sinner can receive forgiveness. Why then do we keep slinging our nooses? Who do we keep sending people to the electric chair? Why do we strap people down for lethal injections? Why do we keep nailing people to crosses?

The message of Jesus’ ministry, of the cross, is mercy. And mercy triumphs over judgment.

That doesn’t mean that people who commit horrendous crimes get to walk away scot-free, nor does it mean that we should break down the walls of our prisons and let everyone run wild, but it does require us to fundamentally reshape our imagination regarding the so-called justice system. 

For centuries the death penalty was something that took place in public – crosses on a hill, nooses in a tree. The state used the death penalty to publicly frighten potential criminals from committing crimes. But now capital punishment takes place in hidden rooms with minimal witnesses. It has retreated from the public arena and can happen without disrupting our daily lives such that when the recent announcement was made by the Attorney General it was merely a blip on the radar in terms of our collective response.

But we are murdering people for murder.

Jesus once said, “You have heard that it was said an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” Interestingly, President Trumps has made it known on more than one occasion that this is his favorite verse from the Bible. But Jesus doesn’t stop there: “But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone trikes you on the right cheek turn the other also.”

Violence only begets violence.

An eye for an eye leaves everyone blind. 

God sent God’s son into the world to transform the world. Not with the ways of the world, not with power and prestige, nor with armies and aggression, but with mercy and sacrifice.

God in Christ ministered to the last, least, lost, little – people like those who are waiting for the end of their days on death row.

And Jesus carried death on his back to the top of a hill to die so that we might live.

So long as we employ the death penalty, we will deny the power of God to redeem, restore, and transform all of us. As long as we sling our nooses, and prepare our needles, we will prevent grace from making new life in those who have sinned. As long as we murder murderers, we will never give God the chance to make the impossible possible. 

On War

Matthew 5.43-48

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

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Preachers can fall into the rut of preaching on whatever keeps the congregation pleased; keep them happy and they’ll keep coming back, or something like that. This sermon series is different. Instead of falling back to the familiar narratives that keep us smiling on our way out of the sanctuary, we are confronting some of the greatest controversies facing the church. There is a better than good chance that I will say something from this pulpit during the series that you won’t agree with, and if (and when) that happens I encourage you to stay after worship, join us for lunch, and continue the conversation. We can only grow as Christians in community, and that requires some honesty and humility and dialogue. Today we continue with the topic of War.

 

The airfield was remarkably dark in the middle of the night so the commanding officer turned on floodlights for posterity. There were so many people wandering around on the field that the captain had to lean out the window of the aircraft to direct the bystanders out of the way of the propellers before take off. Though he did have time to offer a friendly wave to photographers before departing.

The flight lasted six hours and they flew through nearly perfect conditions. At 8:15 in the morning they finally arrived directly above their target of Hiroshima and the bomb was released. It fell for 43 seconds before it reached the perfect height for maximum destruction and was detonated. 70,000 people were killed and another 70,000 were injured.

At about the same time the bomb was detonated, President Truman was on the battle cruiser Augusta. When the first report came in about the success of the mission, Truman turned to a group of sailors and said, “This is the greatest thing in history.”

We, as American Christians, have a problem with War. Historically, the early church and Christians did not engage in war – they believed their convictions in following Christ’s commands prevented them from waging violence against others. And, frankly, they were being persecuted and killed at such a rate that they didn’t have time to think about fighting in wars, nor were militaries interested in having Christians fight for them. You know, because of the whole “praying for their enemies” thing,

But then Constantine came onto the scene, following Jesus Christ turned into Christendom, and everything changed. With Christianity as the state sanctioned religion, Rome could tell its citizens to fight, and they did.

But still, there have always been those who respond to War throughout the church differently. There are Pacifists who believe conflict is unwarranted and therefore should be avoided. There are those who believe in the Just War Theory and that there can be a moral response to war with justifiable force. And still yet there are others who believe in the “Blank Check” model where they are happy to support those in charge of the military without really questioning who they are killing and why.

We might not realize it, but most Americans believe in the “blank check” model, in that our government regularly deploys troops and drones to attack and kill people all over the world (in war zones and other places) and we rarely bat an eye. So long as we feel safe, we are happy to support those leading without question.

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But as Christians, Jesus commands us to love our enemies and pray for the people who persecute us. Now, to be clear, this is not a nice invitation or even a call to a particular type of ministry. We like imagining the “white, blonde hair, blue eyed” Jesus with open arms who loves us and expects the minimum in return. But more often than not, Jesus commands his disciples to a radical life at odds with the status quo.

“I say to you, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’ Anybody can respond to love with love, but what good does it do to only love the people who love you. Instead, be perfect as your heavenly Father in perfect.”

            This is our command.

            And it is also our dilemma.

Jesus commands us to love our enemies and love our neighbors. But what are we to do when our enemies are killing our neighbors, or vice versa? Is there really such a thing as a just war? Are we called to remain pacifists even when innocent lives are being taken? Was it okay for us to take boys from Virginia and send them to Vietnam to kill and be killed? Should we send our military to Syria to kill and be killed?

This is the controversy of War.

War, a state of armed conflict between two groups, is like an addictive drug. It gives people something worth dying and killing for. It often increases the economic wealth and prosperity in our country. It achieves for our nation all that a political ideal could ever hope for: Citizens no longer remain indifferent to their national identity, but every part of the land brims with unified life and activity. There is nothing wrong with America that a war cannot cure.

When the North and South were still economically and relationally divided after the Civil War, it was World War I that brought us back together as one country. When we were deep in the ravages of the Great Depression, it was Word War II that delivered us into the greatest economic prosperity we’ve ever experienced. When we were despondent after our failure in Vietnam (and subsequent shameful treatment of Veterans), the supposed weapons of mass destruction in Iraq gave us every reason to rally behind our country.

But we don’t like talking about death and war – that’s why the least attended worship services during the year are Ash Wednesday and Good Friday when we can do nothing but confront our finitude. But War commands and demands our allegiance, it is the fuel that turns the world, it has been with humanity since the very beginning.

And Jesus has the gall to tell us to love and pray for our enemies.

To follow Jesus, to be disciples of the living God, requires a life of pacifism. It is not just one of the ways to respond to War, it is the way. And yet, pacifism is a privilege of the powerful. It is very easy for me to stand up in this pulpit, in the beauty of the Shenandoah Valley, and preach about the virtues of pacifism. No one is dropping bombs on our picturesque community. We are not at risk for an invasion from a foreign oppressor.

It is easy to be a pacifist in America.

And we will never get anywhere near a kingdom of peace if pacifists keep perceiving themselves as superior or entitled, otherwise people in the military who return from conflict will return as those from Vietnam – to a country that did not understand.

War is complicated and ugly and addictive. It reveals our sinfulness in a way that few controversies can. War illuminates our lust for bloodshed and retribution. War offers a view into our unadulterated obsession with the hoarding of natural resources. War conveys our frightening disregard for the sanctity of human life. War is our sinfulness manifest in machine guns and atomic weapons. War is the depth of our depravity.

Even the word “War” fails to express the sinfulness of the act. We so quickly connect the word “War” with the righteous outcomes of our wars. We believe we fought the Civil War to free the slaves, when in fact it had far more to do with economic disparity. We believe we fought Word War II to save the Jews, when in fact it had more to do with seeking vengeance against the Germans and the Japanese. We believe we went to War in the Middle East with terrorism because of September 11th, but it had a lot to do with long-standing problems and an unrelenting desire for oil.

Can you imagine how differently we would remember the wars of the past if we stopped calling them wars and called them something else? Like World Massacre II, or the Vietnam Annihilation, or Operation Desert Carnage?

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On August 6th, 1945, we dropped the first atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima in order to end the bloodiest war the world had ever seen. With the push of a button we exterminated 70,000 people in an instant, and our president called it the greatest thing in history. Truman was a lifelong Baptist and was supported by the overwhelming majority of American Christians, most of whom expressed little misgiving about the use of the atomic bomb. But that very bomb is the sign of our moral incapacitation and the destruction of our faithful imagination.

For we Christians know, deep in the marrow of our souls, that the “greatest thing in the history of the world” is not the bomb that indiscriminately murdered 70,000 people, but the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Jesus Christ is, and forever will be, the greatest thing in the history of the world because Jesus broke the chains of death and sin and commands us to follow him. Jesus Christ, Son of Man and Son of God, embodied a life of non-violent pacifism that shakes us to the core of our being and convicts our sensibilities.

There is, of course, the privilege of pacifism and its ineffectiveness when combatted by the evil in the world. Pacifism pales in comparison to the immediacy of armed military conflict, but it is the closest example we have to what it means to live like Jesus. And Jesus wasn’t particularly interested in offering us the path of least resistance toward salvation. Instead, he demanded our allegiance.

So where does that leave us? What are we to do about the controversy of War?

Right now, countless innocent lives are being killed in Syria as a result and consequence of War. For years, Syrians have struggled to escape their war-torn homes and find a new beginning somewhere else, but many of them are still there. The United States has largely remained uninvolved in the conflict due to diplomatic and militaristic complications. So I thought it would be the perfect example to bring up this week in one of our bible studies regarding the moral responsibility of our country. Should we send troops into Syria in order to prevent the loss of innocent lives? Should we remain isolated from the conflict?

I turned the question on the group and asked, “What are we to do as Christians?”

“We could take in more refugees.”

“We can advocate for better responses out of our politicians.”

“We can pray about it.”

Then I said, “Well, what if the United Methodist Church announced that it was sending 5,000 missionaries to Syria? We know how to send missionaries, we do it all the time.”

And someone responded by saying, “We can’t do that; they’d be easy targets.”

I’ll admit that we can’t do that, but not because they would be easy targets. We can’t go there and do that because we no longer have a church that produces people who can do something that bold. But we once did.

God in Christ came in order to reconcile the world through the cross. The living God through the Messiah spoke difficult commands and orders to the disciples, things we still struggle with today. But God was bold enough to send his son to die in order to save us, not by storming the Temple with swords and shields, not by overthrowing the Roman Empire and instituting democracy, but with a slow and non-violent march to the top of a hill with a cross on his back. Amen.

Controversy Original

The Problem With Kids Today – Sermon on John 10.11-18

John 10.11-18

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away – and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”

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Happy Preschool Sunday! This morning we conclude our sermon series on our stained glass. These sermons were born out of a desire to recapture the importance of our windows and how the continue to speak into our lives. We began with The Methodists to my right: Susanna Wesley, John Wesley, and Francis Asbury. Last week we looked at The Johns: John the Evangelist, John the Presbyter, and John on Patmos. We now finish with the window behind me above the altar: Jesus as the Good Shepherd.

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Why St. John’s?” I asked. We were sitting in the living room and going over our respective histories when I finally turned to one of my favorite questions: “Why St. John’s?” With the overwhelming abundance of churches in our community what made you choose this one?

Her answer was familiar and sounded similar to the other responses I had heard: It was where all our friends were going; it was the closest church to our neighborhood; it just made sense; it was a place our kids felt welcome. But then her answer took on a life of it’s own in a way I didn’t expect.

“But we haven’t always been here,” she said. “There was a time that we no longer wanted to come to St. John’s.” Of course my curiosity was caught and I wanted to know all the details behind their departure, but as if she was reading my mind she continued, “The ‘why’ is not important. What is important is how we came back.

“We were invited back for a particular Sunday, and though it hurt me to enter the doors of the sanctuary, I reluctantly sat down in one of the back pews. Before I knew it my mind was  flooded with all of the friendships that we cultivated in the sanctuary, all the children I had vowed to raise in the faith during their baptisms, all of the good sermons and all of the bad. But at the same time my mind was flooded with all the old arguments, the disagreements, and the frustrations.”

“But then something happened. I looked up and I saw the Good Shepherd window and everything felt right. It was like all of my worry started to slowly dissipate, and I knew that I had to come back. This was my home, because this is where I discover how the Good Shepherd watches over me.”

People and situations had driven her away. The old arguments were enough for her to leave the church behind. But miraculously enough it wasn’t people that brought her back, there were no justifications or rationalizations that would have changed her opinion. It was this window. It was Jesus as the Good Shepherd that brought her back, and it is the Good Shepherd who watches over all of us.

More often than not, the Good Shepherd stained glass window is the first thing that people notice when they enter our sanctuary. Its colors and vibrancy draw our attention and captivate us even when the sermons make us want to sleep.

It shows Jesus at his finest: leading, nurturing, and loving. The sheep are at peace knowing their shepherd is there to guide them through life. Even the abundance of blue helps to convey the deep sense of calm that comes with Jesus’s presence.

Whenever our eyes fall upon this window we are called to remember how much the Good Shepherd loves us. It shows how comforting it is to know that the Lord will hold us, and protect us, when necessary. The window exemplifies the power of the one who gave all that he had for his friends and for strangers.

Yet, even for as much as this window conveys the faith, it also muddies the waters. During the time of Jesus’ life the role of a shepherd was anything but picturesque. Shepherds were often the outcasts of society and were ignored by the masses. Jesus saying, “I am the good shepherd” would have bewildered the religious elite and the powerful. It had a certain edge to it.

This week I gathered all of our preschoolers into the choir loft to teach them about Jesus as the Good Shepherd. Like we all do, they noticed how beautiful Jesus looks in the image and how he cares for the sheep. “The sheep is like a baby” one of the kids yelled out. I remember thinking: “Yes yes, thats all good and true, but there is so much more to what it means to shepherd.”

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When describing himself as the good shepherd Jesus uses the hired hand as a comparison. The hired hand is someone who is only concerned with monetary gains, expends the minimum amount of work necessary, and will not risk life or limb for the sake of others. The hired hand is like the person who is so selfish that they ignore the needs of others.

Jesus, however, lays down his life for the sheep and promises to never let them, us, go. His voice will always draw us back because we belong to him. 

I love our preschoolers and this time of the year is always bittersweet for me. We are preparing for the end of year program, and our eldest class will be heading off to kindergarten in the fall. I spend enough time with them in the basement that I know the ins and outs of their little personalities, I know who to separate during chapel time for optimal focus, I know what jokes they will laugh at, and I know what to do and what to say to stop them from crying. I love them and I believe that I would be willing to lay my life down for them. I would do whatever it takes to protect them because each of them is a child of God.

But then I wonder if I would do the same thing for the adults in my life… I mean I love all of you too, but there’s just something about the desire to protect children that makes us stronger and braver than we normally are. For some reasons we value them as being more important than those who are older, and we prioritize their needs over others. We would do things for children that we would never do for others.

The problem with kids today, is that they are better than us.

After we looked at the window this week, I brought the preschoolers outside to demonstrate what it means to be a shepherd. I gathered a group in the middle of the yard, and I pulled four kids out to be the shepherds. I explained that I would be a wolf trying to get at the sheep in the middle, and the shepherds had to do whatever they could to protect the sheep.

It worked brilliantly. Every time I rushed forward the shepherds converged on me and pushed me back, and when I tried to run around and juke them they rearranged and protected their friends; no matter what I did, the little shepherds were going to do whatever they could to protect the sheep.

But that’s when I noticed something remarkable: The group of sheep in the middle had been holding hands the entire time. Now let me be clear, I did not instruct them to hold hands or to watch out for each other, but they did it on their own. Even more remarkable is the fact that the older kids placed the younger ones in the middle to protect them even more while they held hands. It was easily one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen.

The problem with kids today, is that they are better than us.

In our little preschool rooms, and in our community, kids are the ones who are acting more like Jesus than the adults. While we complain and groan about those who are different than us, people who do not look, think, and talk like us, kids are going out to meet them where they are. Jesus sought out the lost, the ones who needed to be rescued, the ones who are forgotten in our society. In our preschool rooms the children do whatever they can to involve everyone and show them they are loved.

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If you want to know what Jesus was really like, spend just 5 minutes with one of our preschoolers. During snack time they are willing to give up their food for the person who mentions they are still hungry. When they are playing with different objects in different stations they will include everyone in the activity no matter what. When they work on art projects they pay one another the nicest compliments regardless of how well the finger painting actually turns out. And when we were outside this week, the shepherds took care of the sheep while the sheep took care of one another.

The problem with kids today, is that they are better than us. 

We should start looking to them more often about what it means to be faithful, than expecting them to learn everything from us.

We all hunger to know and be known. Many of us (adults) create virtual communities on the internet because forming real and authentic connections is hard work. It requires face to face intimacy, a willingness to listen, and vulnerability all at the same time in a way that a phone and computer screen can never allow. Kids don’t have the benefit of social networking to create friendships, they have to do it the old fashioned way, and they’re better at it than we are.

God’s community is open and inclusive. Jesus not only cares for the sheep but gathers them into the flock. Those who are curious about what it means to be a disciple are invited into Jesus’ community no matter what: the door is always wide open to the outcasts: You know, the people whose lives are messy, whose families are not the perfect “husband-wife-2.5-children” scenario, who live in fear between paychecks, and who wonder if anyone knows how they really feel.

Today Jesus is still welcoming and inviting people who are often excluded based on the standards of our time. Kids don’t have the benefit of immediately recognizing someone’s socio-economic status, they aren’t concerned with where their parents went to college or even if they didn’t, they aren’t worried about the color of their skin or the shape of their bodies: they just want to love and be loved. 

So how can we create an authentic and life-giving community? We begin by following the example of our kids…

Imagine, if you can, what it would look like if we stopped excluding people based on our warped standards: wealth, status, race, sexual orientation, and physical condition. What if we started treating people with respects regardless of who they were and what they had done? What do you think would happen if we really started to take care of one another without judgment or expectation of reciprocation?

It wouldn’t be easy, but it would be more like the kingdom than the way we are living right now. Amen.