Saturday, April 23, 2011

Is There a Death Penalty Religious Divide? Jesus on Trial

Things are a'changing for the death penalty. After the good news from Illinois, we recently learned that Ohio is discussing an abolition bill. Thinking of the prospect of such developments in California brings on some reflection on the hearts that could be won for the cause, and how that might be achieved.

A common misperception is that, in the American context, public opinion about the death penalty tends to follow the political republican/democrat divide. With regard to politics, this is inaccurate, albeit not completely untrue, as data from a Gallup Poll show. The death penalty is supported by a majority of both Republicans and Democrats, but while it is endorsed by 80% of Republicans, support rates for Independents and Democrats are 65% and 58%, respectively. Similar patterns hold for conservatives, moderates and liberals. Moreover, the common perception that religious Americans support the death penalty - brought about by lumping the death penalty with social conservatism - is a blanket statement that requires some nuancing. People who attend religious services are slightly less likely to support the death penalty. Support for the death penalty is more pronounced among Protestants than among Catholics or those without preference. It is important not to go into generalizations: Many religious organizations oppose the death penalty, or at least offer a nuanced view of it. And several religious leaders are actively involved in anti-death-penalty activism; here's a recent example from Georgia.

These findings disprove a common assumption among progressive seculars that the "blame" for the death penalty can be squarely placed upon the shoulders of religious conservatives, and that their collaboration in abolishing it can only be bought using arguments of cost or technology. People's intellect and moral judgment should be respected and appealed to; it is a mistake to settle for technical arguments, like costs or the machinery of death, just to ensure a broader coalition. I agree with Justice Blackmun that doing so cheapens us all.

Which is why I love what the Church of the Holy Comforter in Virginia did this Easter weekend. The church held a modern-day trial for Jesus, with participation of real DAs and PDs, and included a death penalty phase.

There is much to like about the enterprise. Of course, setting what was essentially a political trial in a Roman colony in the context of the American criminal justice system does not do justice to historical context; however, the trial was used as an educational device not only with regard to the Passion story, but to modern American criminal justice. Jesus qualified for a public defender, as would many indigent clients; his role was played by a young African American man, depicting the overrepresentation of minorities in the criminal process. I find this particularly evocative because of the persistent whitewashing of Jesus' image in art and culture. It's also interesting that the jury chose to convict; I think there are good arguments of Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Amendment violations that could be made, including the use of an informant (though new archeological findings may shed new light on such arguments.)

I particularly appreciated the perspective of Mark Osler, the prosecutor who organized the trial. Osler's personal conviction against the death penalty was formed through a religious experience:

“They read John 8, about stoning the adulteress, and I’m like everyone else - when I hear a story like that, I put myself in the role of Jesus. A lot of prosecutors who are Christians who talk about that will say, ‘Jesus said go and sin no more.’ And what I came to eventually is, ‘I’m not Jesus. I’m part of the mob. I’m somebody with a stone in my hand.’

“I think that story is very direct that we don’t have the moral authority” to execute prisoners, Osler said.

These nuanced and important understandings of empathy and morality, rather than arguments of cost and chemical availability, will eventually be those that win more hearts to the abolition cause.

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