The death penalty is wrong

I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t post political stuff on Facebook anymore, because I just don’t think it does much good in the world. In the case of the news about the Department of Justice reinstating the death penalty for federal inmates, however, I felt this week compelled to speak out as a Christian and a theologian.

One of the most basic ethical positions of the Church has long been an opposition to capital punishment. Catholics, Protestants, Anabaptists, Orthodox: across the board, with few exceptions, all these churches take an official stance opposing the taking of life as a form of punishment. The few strands of Christianity that do express religious support for the death penalty (many of which are politically active in the United States) are well outside the mainstream of 2000 years of the Christian tradition, and are often beholden to and inseparable from the secular state.

The death penalty is wrong, it is immoral, and it flies in the face of God’s good order for the world, an order that includes God’s prerogative to give and take life, not ours. To decide that we can rightly determine when someone deserves to live or die is to usurp the authority of God. It is even worse that this is being done by an Administration that claims to be the “most Christian” administration in history. This action, combined with so many others they have taken over the last few years, make that claim laughable, and reveal them as actually one of the most anti-Christian regimes this country is seen.

I’ll give the last word here to John Howard Yoder, from his essay on the death penalty entitled “The End of Sacrifice”: “Forgiveness is the response to evil dictated by God’s own nature and by Jesus’ example and command. We should seek to save the life even of the murderer fully culpable for the act which society wants to kill him. The death penalty is wrong, not because it is not merited by some, but because merit is not the basis on which, since Jesus, we should decide who has a right to belong to the human race.”

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WaPo: There’s No Need for a Religious Left

I’m about a month late in sharing this, but I had a short opinion piece published by the Washington Post recently, on the subject of Pete Buttgieg and the Religious Left. Here’s a taste:

American progressivism, for all that is good about it, is no more Christian than political conservatism. Both are worldly ideologies, both of which may share some priorities or affinities with various aspects of Christian faith, but which are both ultimately something other than faith in the Crucified God. Tying the Christian faith to power politics is a fatal distortion. Christianity is all about the creation of an alternative polis, a colony (in the words of theologians Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon), showing the power of self-sacrificing love and the potential of communal salvation for the world. Christianity should not be baptizing passing political winds; it should always be a critical voice, whether our friends are in power. To associate the faith with a political agenda is to fall into the same old Constantinian trap the Christian Church has been liable to since the 4th century.

I’ve gotten some pretty good pushback, mostly in the form of my fellow travelers on the left pushing back on my suggestion that we pull the reins on a Christian left electoral movement. I may get around here to trying to respond to that criticism, as I think my emphasis is being missed. Meanwhile, I’d love some more, thoughtful feedback here. Do you think I’m nuts? Or right on? Leave a comment below.

From My Thesis: The Theological Task

Dr. JoAnne Marie Terrell, in a class I took with her at Chicago Theological Seminary, once remarked that “Humanity is not the object of theology; God is the object of theology.” I think this is mostly correct, and that it showcases the absurdity at the heart of the theologians task, which is to write and say words about that which we nothing can be said, that which is, in the words of St. Augustine, “other, completely other.”[1]

The task at hand for theology may be to reflect upon God, but I think theology also has the task of helping us human beings find our place in God’s story. By talking about God, we learn more about ourselves, being created in the very image of God as we are. And we do so by hearing the story of the people who have yearned after God, and finding ourselves writing the next chapter in that story. As Hauerwas and Willimon write in Resident Aliens, “Story is the fundamental means of talking about and listening to God, the only human means available to us that is complex and engaging enough to make comprehensible what it means to be with God.”[2]

In telling our story, one cannot overlook the suffering that afflicts each and every person. Few things link all of humanity together like the reality of suffering and death which each one of us must face down eventually. Suffering, and the fact that our story inevitably ends, places us within the arc of history, and gives color and meaning to a life that otherwise would be completely placid and completely experience-less. One must go through the valleys to climb the mountains.

Human suffering and God come together in the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ. The story of Christ is the inflection point of the story of God’s people, and colors all we as Christians say and know forever more. Our story becomes clearer through the lens of Christ’s story. Hauerwas writes in a more recent work, “that one of the fundamental tasks of theology is the ongoing attempt to develop the tools necessary to tell truthfully the story of Jesus Christ in such a manner that his life shapes our lives. That means, however, that there is not nor can there be an end to the telling of the story, because the story is quite literally ongoing.”[3]

This is a work, fundamentally, about the human reality of suffering, what that reality says about how we understand God, and how we can relate to God, in some small way, through our experiences of suffering and death. No word written here can capture the immutable good of God, the ultimate reality God represents. All we can hope for in this endeavor is to contribute to the story of humankind, in a way that maybe illuminates one corner of our experience, and shows how Christ walks with us in each and every moment.

[1] Augustine, Confessions, trans. R.S. Pine-Coffin (New York: Penguin Books, 1961), 147.

[2] Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1989), 54-55.

[3] Stanley Hauerwas, The Work of Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2015), 264.