The STORY OF LIFE: A Narrative Approach Against the Death Penalty
By Marty Troyer
I confess I’m completely enamored with the Bible. Dozens of books written by scores of people over centuries, complete with multiple genres and competing streams of thought; yet treated as both human and divine at the same time. There are laws, songs, poetry, political cartoons, novellas, propaganda, and commentary. But more than anything, the Bible is “relentlessly narratival (Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament, pg. 206).” It is both a collection of stories (plural) and a story (singular). When Biblical authors wanted to communicate meaning and lifestyle, they invited you into a story.
As Alan and Eleanor Kreider have said, “Stories have the power to shape identity… our community stories shape our reflexive responses; they determine our behavior far more than the principles which we hold… This is true of the stories which shape our national identities and get citizens to behave in certain ways (Worship and Mission, pg 41).”
That stories shape behavior is certainly true about the death penalty. Did you know that every Western democracy but the U.S. has abolished the death penalty? Did you know Texas is responsible for one-third of all US executions, with Governor Rick Perry putting over 200 men and women to death during his time in office? The dominant story told in regards to the death penalty involves catch phrases like “justice,” “God commanded it,” “deterrent to crime,” and “it’s the law.”
As followers of Jesus Christ (himself a victim of the death penalty), I believe that all forms of capital punishment are evil and against the will of God. It is time for this outrageous policy to come to an end! In order to do so, we’ll have to look beneath the laws and through the dominant story to God’s story, which forms us to be completely pro-life. “God calls people to be socialized into a society shaped by the Bible’s story in which the odd story lives as good news (Kreider, pg 49).” I invite you into a deeper look at the story of life, a narrative approach against the death penalty.
Streams in the Hebrew Scriptures
At first glance Scripture seems conflicted on this issue. The core law code of the Hebrew Scriptures (The 10 Commandments) says, “Thou shall not kill.” And yet the death penalty (Leviticus 24:17-21), genocide and war seem to not just be tolerated but commanded at certain points by God. Before we declare an impasse, let’s look beyond the law codes to the actual stories involving murder, forgiveness, and the death penalty.
Noteworthy by their absence are any stories of the death penalty being carried out by command of God or God’s people. Murder, adultery, Sabbath-breaking, & being a false prophet all are grounds for the death penalty according to the law codes, but you never see it enacted in story form. This argument from silence is incomplete without looking at stories that do exist on this issue. When first we encounter a crime punishable by death in the Bible, we see a verdict not of execution but grace. First, chronologically and in importance is the graceful story of Cain’s protection by God (Genesis 4:15). It is only after this act of grace that we read in Genesis 9:6 “whoever sheds the blood of a human, by a human shall that person’s blood be shed.” This verse doesn’t appear to be prescriptive of future action, but rather descriptive of present reality. God, apparently, doesn’t live up to the very commands the text attributes to the divine. We again see grace in the story of Moses, whom God not only forgives but calls to be primary savior-figure of the pre-Christian era. Abraham, David, Esther, Daniel, Tamar, Hosea’s wife Gomer and others all stand justly condemned and guilty by the laws of their day, and walk away both free and heroic. Elijah, Isaiah, and Jeremiah are unjustly accused and are spared for lives of faithfulness to God and community. Whether guilty or not, Hebrew stories override the laws every time. And nothing in key chunks of scripture (from the prophets, Job, the Psalms or Proverbs) affirms the death penalty in any way shape or form. As Stassen and Gushie say, “The direction of the Old Testament moves from the ancient practice of the death penalty toward its abolition (Kingdom Ethics, pg 205).”
Indeed, while there are conflicting streams of law, the key Hebrew stories play themselves out as a kind of commentary on this issue, clarifying in overwhelming fashion what once appeared an ambiguous question.
The strengthening current of early Christianity
It is with this Hebrew narrative that Jesus clearly aligns himself. When in the temple (John 8:1-7) Jesus comes to the defense of a justly accused and condemned to death woman caught in adultery. Jesus, who came “not to abolish the law but to fulfill it” undoubtedly knows Leviticus 20:10 says adulterous woman must die. And yet to fulfill the true law he clogs the victimization machinery saying “he who is without sin be the first to throw a stone.” By drawing attention to the sins of the accused he draws attention to the grace of God. Jesus backs up his actions with teaching so radical Christian’s have for 2000 years done mental gymnastics to dismiss it: “love your enemies, do good to those who do you evil.” Unfortunately, many Christians are quick to dismiss these teachings as not applicable to national enemies and international war on grounds Jesus meant this on the interpersonal level. But when pressed to apply it on this personal level they are equally as quick to trade Jesus commands for a few ambiguous verses in Romans 13 interpreted to give carte blanch power over to the government. Aligning the church with the death machine paints God as vindictive judge and not the one who loves the world so much he gave his only Son.
Jesus detractors are right in one key way: this is a deeply personal issue. Nothing is more personal than love, and no one more justly defined as “enemy” than the murderer of a loved one. And yet, in his most challenging teaching Jesus calls us to love them, pray for them, and return good for evil. If not here at its most difficult, than where is Jesus crowned Lord of life?
But there is yet more to learn from Jesus, indeed, the core lesson of all: the singular irony that Jesus himself was executed! That Christians worship an executed criminal who promised paradise to a fellow victim must never be left out of this discussion, as it typically is. More than any other law code or story in the history of our faith, the Roman cross upon which Jesus was executed unmasks state sponsored killing to be morally bankrupt and an abomination in the eyes of God. According to J. Nelson Kraybill, the cross was “a form of execution reserved for people foolish enough to threaten or disobey the empire (Apocalypse and Allegiance, pg 20).” As the sign above Jesus at his death (“King of the Jews”) demonstrates, “both Jewish and Roman authorities were defending themselves against a real threat (Yoder, Politics of Jesus, pg 49).” In the eyes of religion and empire, the political Jesus was guilty and justly executed. This stands in stark contrast to God’s view of Jesus. In the eyes of God, he was perfect in faithfulness to God for inaugurating the kingdom through his suffering and death. This both/and answer to the question of Jesus guilt is precisely what undermines the very law code upon which any particular nation depends for judgments of death. The guilt, innocence, or conversion of the accused does not matter in the least. As one of our members has stated, “We don’t advocate for their lives because they are or are not Christians. We advocate for their lives because we are Christians.”
Like we found in the narrative stream of Hebrew scripture, the teachings and stories of Jesus lend strength to a pro-life stance concerning the death penalty.
The witness of the church
Though it may climax with Jesus, our pro-life story doesn’t end there. The New Testament mentions execution or its threat ten times, always as an evil “beastly” (see Revelation) act against God’s people. The early church was unanimously against the death penalty until they began to taste power. The Anabaptist tradition we are rooted in claims as its core narrative the execution of our ancestors. Victims of death penalty, thousands of early Anabaptists died at the hands of the state (usually state-sponsored churches) for their faith in Jesus. Mennonites stand in crowded company of entire communities executed by church and state for arbitrary and unjust (yet completely legal) reasons! Persecution of the early church, the Spanish Inquisition, witch trials, the “final solution,” were all attempts of the dominant culture to support both God and their law codes, but which fell devastatingly short of faithfulness. Looking at the whole of Judeo-Christian history one searches in vain for a community in power who utilized the death penalty without taint of total corruption. How can we assume to be different today?
And yet, still with all this, the American church gives our government a free pass to execute its citizens. Even worse, the church is often seen on the front lines of supporting this practice. A quick google search for “Christian support of capital punishment” comes up with hundreds of detailed sites. How can this be? When will our memory of God direct our actions? When will God’s narrative become our own? When will our silent thinking turn into faithful action?
For some, it already has.
Brad Myers has worked for years to abolish the death penalty. Through Amnesty International in Michigan, New Mexico and now Texas, Brad can be found not just thinking against the death penalty, but acting against it. Writing letters to those in power, praying for men and women on death row and inviting others to join him are just some of ways he has entered God’s story. Today, Brad acts informally as our congregational advocate against the death penalty, and is opening our eyes to partnerships with groups such as the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (http://tcadp.org/).
Bess Landis-Klassen has also been swept up by the grace filled memory of God. Since her mother’s murder in 1969 she has worked tirelessly to forgive her mother’s killer and to abolish the death penalty worldwide. Bess’ powerful story travels the country as part of Journey of Hope ~ From Violence to Healing campaign. You can read her family’s story at: http://www.mennoweekly.org/2009/3/23/after-murders-families-find-healing-path/
Brad and Bess are two examples today of folks standing in the powerful stream of God’s forgiving, nonviolent love. Perhaps still a minority in the court of public opinion, they have found their home in the story of God.
GOD’S STORY is our story
But what about you? Perhaps our executed Lord and ancestors leave you wanting to be quiet rather than seen for your faith. Perhaps you’re glad someone is doing something but equally glad it’s not you. Perhaps you’re content giving more ethical weight to several verses in Romans 13 than the very life of Jesus Christ. Or, perhaps like Cain, Abraham or Esther you’ve experienced grace and are now ready to pass it on by being more active. Perhaps the resurrection of Jesus vindicates the kingdom he lived to establish, and is now calling you to join God in establishing a brand new nonviolent world. Perhaps the innocent blood of our crucified Lord is calling you at home, work, at play and in the world more deeply into the story of life. “We know that as we enter into this dramatic story with freedom and allow it to shape our lives it endangers our conformity to conventional values and transforms our lives and our communities. It also enlists us in God’s mission (Kreider, pg 51).”
If this is so, you are not alone! Connect with God’s story of life in ways appropriate to your context. Perhaps consider one of the following:
• Appoint or be your congregations “Abolition Advocate.” Start by simply praying for people scheduled to be executed.
• Visit someone on Death Row.
• Sign advocacy letters to support the abolition of the death penalty in your state.
• Pray for grace, peace, nonviolence and a completely pro-life culture in the United States.
• Learn more by reading the Mennonite mandates to act against the death penalty at: http://houstonpeaceandjustice.wordpress.com/death-penalty/
• Join a local abolition organization and add the much needed Christian voice.
Remember, “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8)!” May you experience the love and forgiveness of Jesus for you, for all, for everyone as you enter more deeply into God’s story of life!