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Brian Williams was asking Texas Governor (and presidential candidate) Rick Perry about his 234 executions, and the audience applauded. Loudly (see it here). What kind of people do this? An execution is cause for introspection and sadness; it isn't a time for jubilation. And here is a crowd that cheers for a governor who has presided over 234 executions, including one of a man who was in all probability innocent. Rick Perry even fired members of a commission investigating the case before they could present their conclusions. What also disturbed me was a quote involving a Republican focus group: "It takes balls to execute an innocent man".
Blood lust is an ugly, ugly emotion that is all too powerful. Revenge requires an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, and human history is replete with stories of families, villages, and societies that have destroyed themselves and others over...whatever set them off in the first place. Civilization exists in large part because we have assigned the chaos of revenge to the state through various forms of a judicial system, and through the use of science in the assignment of guilt in criminal trials.
What bothers me is that most of the people who applauded the other night probably describe themselves as Christians, and given their conservative leanings, probably fundamentalist Christians. If you were in that audience, or if you agreed with their actions, you need to consider what you really believe.
I don't want to make an argument about "thou shall not kill". There have been centuries of theological justification for killing in self-defense or defense of others, whether in an individual case, or a national situation of war. But the problem is that capital punishment is not self-defense. By the time a person is strapped to the gurney, he or she is defenseless before the power of the state. If you really want to visit revenge upon someone, what could be worse than being locked up in a concrete cell for the rest of one's life, with no chance ever of release? Why isn't that enough revenge? Such people are no longer a danger to society.
A person who is guilty of murder is under condemnation, whether from God or from the state. One can fairly say that such a person deserves death. But if you know anything of New Testament theology, you know that "everyone has fallen short of the glory of God", and that all deserve death unless they seek forgiveness, and God loves everyone so much that he seeks that redemption for all people. All they have to do is ask. I don't want to sound like I'm preaching here; I am paraphrasing the arguments and entreaties I see over and over in tracts and hear from televangelists in the media. By killing those who have transgressed, the society removes the chance that such people would ever find forgiveness and redemption. And by the words of Jesus, "...they that are whole have no need of the physician, but they that are sick: I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance". And there is no one sicker than a murderer.
So what are we to make of those who call themselves religious and yet cheer for executions, and who vociferously support capital punishment? They want revenge. And revenge is antithetical to the Christian religion. Again, the words of the Jesus: "You have heard that it was said, "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth". But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also." If one claims to be Christian, these words seem as clear as can be about the attitude one should project.
Politicians continue to call for the continuation and expansion of the death penalty, and consider this some sort of principled stand. They are not principled. They are pandering to the basest of human emotions, and as such are guilty of moral cowardice.
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But we exacted our revenge. On someone...