February 28, 2015 Editor

Capital Punishment

image above: izquotes.com

WN: I was invited to dialogue with Dr. Richard Land of (later) “The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission” of the Southern Baptist Convention. The dialogue was organized by the Presbyterian Church in Alaska, and took place March 22, 1997 at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. It was teleconferenced throughout Alaska including into the Juneau legislature, and also translated simultaneously for the deaf. Questions were posed from the university audience and from the teleconferencing sites. There is a professionally produced video of the exchange, available upon request to me. Part I permitted a statement of my opposition to capital punishment. Part II dealt with specific biblical texts used erroneously, I argued, in defence of capital punishment. (Dr. Land, sadly, went on to become one of the most outspoken American evangelical voices in support of the War on Terror. See: “Land Letter”.)

When I was initially invited, it was to a “debate”. I refused to attend. I said that a debate reflects a “winners” and “losers” mentality that is of little use except possibly as entertainment. But I said I would take part if it was a “dialogue”. The event eventually was called “To the Talking Place”, based on a local aboriginal tradition of the entire community coming to “the talking place” to work out differences respectfully and communally. (My wife and I discovered an identical process in Rwanda called gacaca courts, used in pre-colonial Rwanda, and revived in response to the 1994 genocide. Please see my “Rwandan Dispatches” for more.) It involved a morning pre-session by a Religious Studies professor at the University on how to read the Bible. The dialogue was moderated by a local radio host. It was highly tasteful and respectful.

Afterwards, Dr. Land shared with me that he was seventh generation Texan. That growing up white in that state meant profound “unlearning” on racial issues alone. That when his then 18-year old son, a top university American football draft pick that year as I recall, discussed the “dirty little war” in Vietnam, Dr. Land told me that, contrary to his Southern Baptist preacher-father, he informed his son that if America otherwise was caught up in another war of that sort, he was duty-bound to burn his draft card! (Dr. Land’s father had warned he would be disowned if he ever burned his draft card during the Vietnam War.) That Land in this light could ever have written such an incredibly anti-Christ missive as the “Land Letter”1, shows the continued truth of Jeremiah 17:9, and of our own desperate need for “truth-telling” challenges throughout our lives. John Alexander observed in Your Money or Your Life that it is the rarest fundamentalist who believes that the inspiration of Scripture actually extends to the words of Jesus… So it seemed borne out once again in the life of Dr. Land.

Or as Douglas Frank warned in his sweeping historical/sociological/theological study of American Evangelicalism as it merged into the 20th century, entitled Less Than Conquerors: The Evangelical Quest for Power in the Early Twentieth Century:

Whether in auspicious or declining times, as we have seen, we [Evangelicals] display a tenacious commitment to self-deceit. It is true that we are those who like to think we heed Jeremiah’s words, ‘Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord.’ Our history, however, gives evidence of Jeremiah’s wisdom in adding these words: ‘The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt; who can understand it?’ (Jer. 17:7, 9). In our very protests of trust in the Lord, we find occasion for our deepest self-deceits (p. 278).

My response to Dr. Land after hearing of his change of view in relation to Blacks, in relation to the Vietnam War, was: perhaps it was time to change “now” about the death penalty.

Sadly, Dr. Land’s “teachable moment” was seemingly entirely lost (except in his private thoughts?), and he only subsequently entrenched further in the great triple Christian West heresies of Just War, Just Deserts, and Just Hell of eternal conscious torment. A personal letter to him in response to the “Land Letter” went unacknowledged, unanswered. There is none so blind as they who will not see. (For us all a sobering spiritual truth repeatedly on the lips of the prophets, of Jesus!)

Please click here: Capital Punishment

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  1. The first comment on the (former “Land Letter”) page is the following:

    1 ON APR 9, 2007, AT 10:02 p.m., Steve Hays Wrote:

    Does Dr. Land have plans to apologize for this false and unChristlike guidance? First, it seems strange for people who claim to be Biblical to appeal to Augustine and later writers for principles of behavior—since there was apparently no New Testament basis for such an argument. Second, the most fundamental assumption of this argument—that the invasion of Iraq was necessary to defend the US—turned out to be entirely false. Consequently, even by 4th/5th century standards this argument falls apart. Dr. Land and the Ethics … Commission(!) of the Southern Baptist Convention endorsed an invasion as “just war” which was not “just war.” Dr. Land has left the church with blood on its hands. Will it take the SBC as long to repent of this stance as it took it to repent of its position on civil rights?


    I can only add: Not since before 4th-century Emperor Constantine has the Church been without gargantuan blood on its hands. See Alistair Kee’s Constantine versus Christ.[]

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Wayne Northey was Director of Man-to-Man/Woman-to-Woman – Restorative Christian Ministries (M2/W2) in British Columbia, Canada from 1998 to 2014, when he retired. He has been active in the criminal justice arena and a keen promoter of Restorative Justice since 1974. He has published widely on peacemaking and justice themes. You will find more about that on this website: a work in progress.

Always appreciate constructive feedback! Thanks.