The Death Penalty panel with Houston religious leaders took place with a full house at the Hobby Center. Houston Pastors Jeff Zetto and Art Preisinger were among the many present. Here’s the Chronicle’s coverage:

I met quite a few people who had lost loved ones to violent crime. Spent time with a woman whose nine-year-old daughter was murdered. Touching when these folks oppose the death penalty. I’m pleased that our social statement opposes the desth penalty. I’m also grateful for the Catholic Church’s consistent and unwavering stance on this issue. The Houston Chronicle is calling for the end of the Death Penalty in Texas. Also Austin American Statesman. Dallas Morning News. Illinois just abolished it.

I found out and applaud that Texas DP sentences are down 70% since 2003. In ’03 there were 48. Last year 8. Globally, there were 714 executions in 2009, in 18 countries. The U.S. is in the top five along with 1. The People’s Republic of China
2. Iran
3. Iraq
4. Saudi Arabia
These are strange bedfellows for us IMHO.

Here are the notes from my comments.

Capital Punishment

“An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.”

Theologically speaking:

Violent crime is as ancient as the human family. In Genesis 4 Cain kills Abel. All of us as religious leaders have been touched by violence in some way. We’ve all had parishioners who have been raped or abused. Most of us have had parishioners who lost a loved one to violence. The desire for revenge and retaliation can be extremely strong. Like the blood of Abel, our hearts cry out too for those who grieve.

Violence has a powerful and corrosive effect on society. Do we, by authorizing state violence through execution, lower violence or could we actually be perpetuating it?

The two questions I get asked the most by DP proponents:

1. Doesn’t the Bible sanction the DP?

In places.

The Hebrew Bible permits capital punishment, for many things: disobeying your parents, homosexual acts, being caught in adultery, worshipping idols. Rabbi Lyons shared that according to the Talmud this was permitted in a society with inadequate prisons to sequester violent people, but rarely enacted.

But Jesus reinterpreted this law in the Sermon on the Mount. You have heard it said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” but I say to you… Turn the other cheek… Love your enemies… Pray for those who persecute you.

His approach in John 8 with the woman caught in adultery tells us his position on the death penalty. If they were caught in the act, where’s the guy? The whole system is unfair, stacked against the powerless. Let whoever is without son cast the first stone.

Jesus knew that we actually promote violence when we retaliate. “He who lives by the sword will also die by the sword.” We perpetuate the cycle of violence when the state sponsors violent acts against the violent. Jesus promoted restorative justice.

Cain killed Abel. What was his sentence? God did not call for his execution, but evicted and marked him.

2. “If your son was killed, wouldn’t you want justice?” Of course. I would probably want to torture and punish the murderer myself. But would committing my act of horrific violence ruin my soul, leaving me with even worse memories? Would I want those memories? Could I even do it? And if I couldn’t do it with my own hands, is it fair for me to ask someone else to do it for me? Should I ask someone else to dirty their hands and soul?

And there are other problems:

1. State execution is now painless. I’ve often wondered if life in prison is actually a worse punishment.

2. It’s not an effective deterrant. Violent crime is actually higher in states that practice capital punishment.

3. Capital punishment has never been fair. The race of the victim plays a significant role in who gets executed. The race of the accused plays a role. Blacks are executed at a much higher rate than whites and that ought give us considerable concern.

4. All to often, the state gets it wrong. The release of Anthony Graves from death row three months ago, after 18 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, should offend as much as the offense itself. He is the 138th innocent person released from death row since 1973. Jesus was executed wrongly by the state. Over-zealous in its hunger to punish, the state takes life from those who did no wrong.

5. Because it cannot be carried out fairly, most civilized countries consider Cap Pun to be human rights abuse. In 2009, there were 714 executions in 18 countries. We are in the top five with 1. The People’s Republic of China
2. Iran
3. Iraq
4. Saudi Arabia
These are strange bedfellows for Americans IMHO – not countries I seek to emulate in terms of human rights.

I believe we can do better than this. It’s time.

“An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.”