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).