The Death Penalty and Gospel in the Form of Food

Recently, Georgia and Texas put to death prisoners Troy Davis and Lawrence Russell Brewer, respectively. The Davis execution made far more headlines due to the protests questioning his murder conviction following witnesses recanting their statements and requests for clemency from high-profile leaders. In the wake of these executions, the internet has been full of opinions concerning the death penalty and the criminal court system. Acts of capital punishment often create opportunities for public ethical reflection. Tobias Winwright calls for the end to capital punishment, rooting his strong argument in Roman Catholic theology. He writes:

Our theological tradition recalls that our Lord Jesus Christ was unjustly and brutally nailed to a cross to die. The great 20th century theologian Karl Barth put the matter this way: “Now that Jesus Christ has been nailed to the cross for the sins of the world, how can we still use the thought of expiation to establish the death penalty?” The Eucharistic celebration calls Catholics to remember all crucified people, including the legacy of lynching, in light of the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. His Gospel message of forgiveness and love of enemies presents a difficult challenge, especially to those who have lost loved ones at the hands of a murderer. Yet, the Gospel teaches us how to become fully human: love, not hatred and revenge, liberates us. We need to forgive and love both in fidelity to the Gospel and for our own well-being.

In his post, “The State Killed Two Men Last Night (But We Only Cared for Troy Davis),” David R. Henson challenges the inconsistency of being against the death penalty, but crying out only for those whom we believe are innocent. Brewer, whose guilt was never much in question and whose crime born out of white supremacy makes it somehow more unpalatable, received little of the concern that Davis did. For those like myself, who want the abolition of capital punishment altogether, it was hypocritical to spend so much energy on behalf of Davis and not raise our voices on behalf of Brewer.

In considering the disparity of attention between the Davis and Brewer executions, we must wrestle with this truth: that even for those of us who believe all capital punishment is wrong, it is a lot easier to get behind the cause of someone whom we believe is innocent — or whose case we believe contains reasonable doubt — than it is to defend the life of someone whom we believe is guilty. (Granted, there were those who opposed Davis’ conviction, but who maintained the necessity of capital punishment and they would not be expected to protest the execution of someone like Brewer.) To be against the death penalty is to defend the lives of people who have committed some of the most heinous acts imaginable. When I read the account of Brewer’s murder of James Byrd, Jr., my immediate reaction demanded blood. What Brewer did was evil and it demands to be named so. It also takes discipline to say that despite the evil he committed, Brewer was still a human being, still created in God’s image, still an object of God’s affection, still someone for whom Christ died to redeem, and thus still someone whose life had value. It takes grace to see people who commit evil crimes such as these as lovable — grace that I cannot muster on my own.

Yesterday, All Things Considered aired an interview with Brian Price, who has volunteered to pay for, cook, and deliver last meals to Texas inmates before their executions. In response to Brewer’s outrageous last meal request, which he never ate — the request included, “two chicken-fried steaks with gravy and sliced onions, a triple patty bacon cheeseburger, a cheese, beef and veggie omelet, a bowl of fried okra, one pound of barbecued meat with a half loaf of white bread, three fajitas, a Meat Lover’s pizza, one pint of Bluebell Ice Cream, a slab of peanut butter fudge, and three root beers” — Texas state senator John Whitmire led an effort to eliminate the tradition of granting last meal requests on the grounds that the inmates being executed did not give their victims the consideration of a last meal. Price, who was a prisoner and worked as a prison cook responds with a story of his friend who cleaned up in the death chamber after the executions.

[H]e said, Brian…it doesn’t bother me to go in there and wipe the bloody gurney off. And he said none of that bothers me.

He said, well, when I go in that witness chamber and I have to wipe off the handprints, the smeared lipstick and makeup, the tears mixed with all that on that glass where that man’s family watched him being executed, he said, that’s what bothers me. What if that was your son on that gurney and you’re on the other side of the glass watching him be put to death like an animal, how would you feel then?

Would you have gone out and got him a Meat Lover’s pizza if you could? Of course, you would’ve. So as a civilized society and a Christian nation, which I still claim – and a Christian state as the state of Texas – why not, let’s show that softer, more compassionate side?

Texas has so far declined Price’s offer.

The juxtaposition between Whitmire’s and Price’s reactions is fascinating. I can empathize with Whitmire’s position. When someone has done something as evil and inhumane as Brewer did, when he refused to show any ounce of human kindness to Byrd, it is very tempting to say that Brewer has relinquished any claims to humane treatment. Granting him a lavish last meal — though Price doubts that Brewer received all that food — does feel like further injustice when we consider how he treated Byrd in the last few hours of Byrd’s life.

But it is Price’s reaction that rings of the good news of Jesus Christ. In the interview, Price makes no claim as to whether he believes Brewer was guilty or innocent. He merely claims that as someone’s son, as a human being, Brewer is still a valid object of compassion. Perhaps even more importantly, Brewer appeals to the civilized nature of society and Christian values as reasons to offer compassion. It is not that Brewer’s murder of Byrd warranted compassion — quite the contrary — but that as civilized people, and especially as Christians, we have the agency and responsibility to offer compassion regardless of the situation.

Whitmire’s position to deny last meals gives us the sense that we are in control because we believe we can dole out punishment and withhold compassion as we want. It is a position that likes to say actions have consequences. That is a false sense of agency, however, because ultimately we are allowing Brewer’s actions to determine our reactions. Just because Brewer committed an unspeakable, uncivilized, and ungracious act does not mean that we have to treat him without grace. In fact, I would argue that our agency and civilized nature are best displayed by responding in a gracious manner to evil events. True agency is shown when we treat those who hurt us or who commit evil with dignity and grace. Price’s position, as difficult as it may be to hold, sounds much more like the gospel for it is precisely when we were at our most unlovable that Jesus searched us out to reconcile us to God (see: Romans 5.6-10).

My (Cursory) Views on Women in Church Leadership

Back in July I linked to this New York Times story about a movement within the Roman Catholic Church seeking to expand candidates for the priesthood to women and married individuals. A college friend asked me to write something on my views of women in church leadership. Before I begin, let me offer some disclaimers. With a topic as complex and controversial as this one, a single blog post is not going to cover all the angles and I’m not going to even try. A series of posts would be better, but even a series would barely scratch the surface. Whole books have been written and organizations have formed that explore the role of sex and gender in Christian theology. Those works go far deeper than I intend to go in this post. If my argument feels cursory, know that it is so by design. Also, I hold my convictions on this topic so strongly that I can be a bit of a jerk to brothers and sisters who disagree with me. To that end, this post might be a good exercise for me to grow in charity and civility. So, here we go.

Allow me to state my conclusions first. I believe that church leadership should be based exclusively on the gifts and calling of God as confirmed by the community. In my study of the Bible, theology, and Church history, and in my experience of being in communities of faith my entire life, I believe that God does not call people into ministry nor bestow gifts for service based on their sex and/or gender. This is all to say that I am convinced God calls women into church ministry and those who are so called and gifted should be able to serve in any church office. There should be no limit on ordination or types of ordination placed on them because they are women. There should be no limits placed on them regarding to whom they can preach and teach or what they can proclaim. I believe with respect to leadership roles in churches, be it lay or ordained, men and women are entirely equal.

Now I will briefly — and trust me, this is brief — detail what I have learned from studying the Bible, Christian theology, and Church history, as well as from my own experience.
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Volf and Scripture Making Claims on Our Lives

It has been a while since I last read a book by Miroslav Volf and his work Captive to the Word of God: Engaging the Scriptures for Contemporary Theological Reflection reminds me why he is one of my favorite theologians. His reflections are rich and rooted in the deep questions that arise from everyday living. Here is a wonderful quotation from the book that shows well the confrontation we people shaped by modernity have with the Bible, or any sacred text:

Many people today, especially scholars, approach the Bible with suspicion. This is not surprising. For one thing, we are modern men and women, individuals standing on our own two feet, masters and mistresses of our own choices and destinies — or so we like to think. For others to insert us into their story and envision the proper end of our lives, define for us the source and substance of human flourishing, and tell us what we should or should not desire, is for them to violate us as self-standing individuals. The Bible as a sacred text, however, does just that. (32-33)

In Captive to the Word of God, Volf praises academic Christian theology’s return to biblical reflection after decades of essentially ignoring Scripture. He also offers his arguments for how theologians can use the Bible to help shape their reflections. For Christians and others who have not studied academic theology, it may come as a surprise to hear that academic Christian theology did not focus on the Bible, but let me assure you, it is true. Volf is right when he argues that academic theology began to look more like the discipline of philosophy while biblical studies departments looked more like history departments. I remember reading systematic theology books in school and thinking, “Interesting, but where is that in the Bible?” Similarly, I recall reading biblical studies books and thinking, “I’m glad to know the historical issues in that time and place, but can we please deal with what this text says about God?” Recently, thankfully, there has been a change in which theologians are once again reflecting on the Bible and biblical scholars are once again interested in the theology of the texts they read. (For most Christians, separating theology from the Bible would seem strange, because, frankly, it is.) In this way, Volf’s book is a bit of an intramural discussion among theologians working in the academy or those who continue to watch what happens in seminaries and divinity schools. I have found, however, wonderful insights that are helpful to any Christian, or anyone interested in how Christianity thinks about things.