Commits the church to working toward its abolition worldwide1
WN: I was invited to dialogue on the death penalty with Dr. Richard Land of (later named) “The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission” of the then 15-million-member 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 was a professionally produced video of the exchange, made available to churches throughout Alaska.
A link to the texts of my talks, with similar introduction, may be found here. 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.2 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”3, shows the continued truth of Jeremiah 17:94, and of our own desperate need for “truth-telling” challenges throughout our lives.
As John Alexander observed about his dad in Your Money or Your Life: A New Look at Jesus’ View of Wealth and Power: he is one of the rare fundamentalists who believes that the inerrancy of Scripture actually extends to the words of Jesus… So it seemed borne out once again in the life of Dr. Land: he was common garden variety fundamentalist — long on dogmatism, short on biblical interpretation.
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) [Citation from 1986 publication.]
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 — or in this case even dialogue as he once did formally. (For us all a sobering spiritual truth repeatedly on the lips of the prophets, of Jesus!)
One take-away in reflecting on Land is: one cannot plagiarize God! (See Footnote 3 re. Land’s plagiarisms and consequences.) At least, one cannot put words into God’s mouth (as the Book of Revelation warns against), nor can one take God’s name in vain and vainglory — with which throughout history America is rife. The peculiar sin of White Evangelical America, not least of white Southern Baptists, in tandem with the twin original sins of Slavery and Indigenous Holocaust, is endless presumption from — even before — America’s founding that America is “exceptional”5 — above all in its righteousness and mission. (See on the contrary for instance Captain America and the Crusade Against Evil: The Dilemma of Zealous Nationalism.)
The supreme irony of course is: nothing could be further from the truth: — fitting exactly rather Queen Gertrude’s observation in Hamlet, “The lady [think Statue of Liberty] doth protest too much, methinks.”! America’s exceptionalism is arguably in one way only: it has been the most longstanding Empire in world history, and stands out only for its unabated worldwide reach as the most marauding and brutal of all Empires in sheer numbers despoiled and harmed.
The Human Story has always been played out against the backdrop of Empire — not least the Judeo-Christian Story, out of which God’s people are ever called!
As to this incredible change in Catholic teaching, one can doubtless in part thank scholar James Megivern, who wrote the definitive history in English of capital punishment, entitled: The Death Penalty: An Historical and Theological Survey.
Megivern begins and concludes the book with compelling statements:
As is evident, the problem being addressed extends far beyond the issue of capital punishment as such, since this practice is symptomatic and only one piece of the much larger puzzle, the puzzle of accounting for the oxymoronic phenomenon of ‘Christian violence’ in its many forms (p. 4)….
In the end, as in the beginning, the case for respecting human life prevails: from a Christian perspective, the death penalty has nothing to be said for it, and everything to be said against it (p. 489).
One can wish therefore, as in the case of Dr. Land, that the Pope would not stop short of taking the next logical step: extending the same human dignity argument as seen below to all humanity at all times, including in warfare — and well, ultimately to hell. There are indeed glimmers of hope!
Vatican City — Building on the development of Catholic Church teaching against capital punishment, Pope Francis has ordered a revision of the Catechism of the Catholic Church to assert “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person” and to commit the church to working toward its abolition worldwide.
The catechism’s paragraph on capital punishment, 2267, already had been updated by St. John Paul II in 1997 to strengthen its skepticism about the need to use the death penalty in the modern world and, particularly, to affirm the importance of protecting all human life.
Announcing the change Aug. 2, Cardinal Luis Ladaria, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said, “The new text, following in the footsteps of the teaching of John Paul II in ‘Evangelium Vitae,’ affirms that ending the life of a criminal as punishment for a crime is inadmissible because it attacks the dignity of the person, a dignity that is not lost even after having committed the most serious crimes.”
The catechism now will read: “Recourse to the death penalty on the part of legitimate authority, following a fair trial, was long considered an appropriate response to the gravity of certain crimes and an acceptable, albeit extreme, means of safeguarding the common good.
“Today, however, there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes. In addition, a new understanding has emerged of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state. Lastly, more effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption,” the new section continues.
Pope Francis’ change to the text concludes: “Consequently, the church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that ‘the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person,’ and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.”
The development of church doctrine away from seeing the death penalty as a possibly legitimate punishment for the most serious crimes, the cardinal said, “centers principally on the clearer awareness of the church for the respect due to every human life. Along this line, John Paul II affirmed: ‘Not even a murderer loses his personal dignity, and God himself pledges to guarantee this.'”
The death penalty, no matter how it is carried out, he had said, “is, in itself, contrary to the Gospel, because a decision is voluntarily made to suppress a human life, which is always sacred in the eyes of the Creator and of whom, in the last analysis, only God can be the true judge and guarantor.”
Cardinal Ladaria also noted that the popes were not the only Catholics to become increasingly aware of how the modern use of the death penalty conflicted with church teaching on the dignity of human life; the same position, he said, has been “expressed ever more widely in the teaching of pastors and in the sensibility of the people of God.”
In particular, he said, Catholic opposition to the death penalty is based on an “understanding that the dignity of a person is not lost even after committing the most serious crimes,” a deeper understanding that criminal penalties should aim at the rehabilitation of the criminal and a recognition that governments have the ability to detain criminals effectively, thereby protecting their citizens.
The cardinal’s note also cited a letter Pope Francis wrote in 2015 to the International Commission Against the Death Penalty. In the letter, the pope called capital punishment “cruel, inhumane and degrading” and said it “does not bring justice to the victims, but only foments revenge.”
Furthermore, in a modern “state of law, the death penalty represents a failure” because it obliges the state to kill in the name of justice, the pope had written. On the other hand, he said, it is a method frequently used by “totalitarian regimes and fanatical groups” to do away with “political dissidents, minorities” and any other person deemed a threat to their power and to their goals.
In addition, Pope Francis noted that “human justice is imperfect” and said the death penalty loses all legitimacy in penal systems where judicial error is possible.
“The new formulation of number 2267 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church,” Cardinal Ladaria said, “desires to give energy to a movement toward a decisive commitment to favor a mentality that recognizes the dignity of every human life and, in respectful dialogue with civil authorities, to encourage the creation of conditions that allow for the elimination of the death penalty where it is still in effect.”
- There is clearly moral ambiguity on this issue. I greatly appreciate this article, “Death to the Death Penalty?” for pointing this out. The long quote near the article’s end from what is written on on the American Orthodox Church website is so compelling about this!” There is ever the dialectic…
- 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 “Rwanda Dispatches” for more.
- The first comment on the (former “Land Letter”) page is the following:
1 ON APR 9, 2007, AT 10:02PM, 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 add (WN): Not since before 4th-century Emperor Constantine has the Church been without gargantuan amounts of blood on its hands. See Alistair Kee’s Constantine versus Christ: The Triumph of Ideology.
Further to Land: in relation to the racist murder of Trayvon Martin, it is questionable that his views even on racism were deeply transformed. Thank God however, not for Dr. Land, but for Jay-Z, Executive Producer of Rest in Power: The Trayvon Martin Story , the new Paramount docuseries that tells Trayvon Martin’s story against the backdrop of massive, indeed unending and under Trump virulently increasing, racism in the United States. From the Wikipedia article about Land:
Trayvon Martin remarks and ethics investigation
On the March 31, 2012 edition of Richard Land Live!, Land accused the Obama administration and civil rights leaders of using the Trayvon Martin case to deliberately stir up racial tension and “gin up the black vote” for Obama in the 2012 presidential election. His comments were criticized by several black Southern Baptist pastors, who felt they reversed a long effort by the SBC to distance itself from a past history of racism. One of those pastors, Dwight McKissic, even announced he would introduce a resolution repudiating Land’s remarks. Land refused to back down, saying that he would not “bow to the false god of political correctness“. Soon thereafter he wrote an open letter of apology for “any hurt or misunderstanding” that his words might have caused.
On April 14, 2012, Baptist blogger Aaron Weaver discovered that Land’s commentary on the Martin case had been lifted almost verbatim and without attribution from a column by Jeffrey Kuhner of The Washington Times. According to Weaver, while Land included a link to the article in show notes that were posted online, he did not disclose that his commentary was based almost entirely on that column. Weaver also discovered that Land had also lifted material in previous broadcasts from other sources as well and passed them off as his own words.
In response, the ERLC’s executive committee removed the entire archive of past broadcasts of Richard Land Live! and launched an internal investigation. It also expressed concern that Land’s comments about the Martin shooting “opened wounds from the past”. The committee released the findings of its investigation on June 1. It reprimanded Land for using “hurtful, irresponsible, insensitive, and racially charged words” about the Martin case, and apologized to Martin’s family. It also found that Land had used “carelessness and poor judgment” in lifting material from other sources without attribution, calling it a case of clear plagiarism. It found no evidence that Land had plagiarized any of his written work. The committee also announced that Richard Land Live! would be canceled as soon as its contract with distributor Salem Radio Network allowed it to do so, saying that the show was “not congruent with the mission of the ERLC”. The next day, Land announced on the weekly edition of Richard Land Live! that the show was leaving the air, effective immediately.
Land was one of 25 nominees to an “executive advisory board” of evangelical pastors proposed by then-candidate Donald Trump in the runup to the 2016 Presidential election. — (last accessed August 2, 2018)
The above establishes Land’s lack of integrity in his numerous plagiarisms. But he is currently president of Southern Evangelical Seminary in Charlotte, North Carolina. So all must have been forgiven — if possibly unaddressed. One wonders how in that role he deals with students’ plagiarisms…
One is again made aware of the deep failure of truth-telling by many of America’s top White Evangelical leaders, “Trumped” indeed in today’s realities by a man committed to doing unrelenting evil, a profound narcissist – which by definition means one unable/unwilling to see God or neighbour — and by extension means those (over 81% of White Evangelicals and continuing in the 2016 election) in support of Trump are too much the same. One can only pray for him. One can only pray for White Evangelical America. One can only pray for the Planet…
- Jeremiah 17:9 New International Version (NIV)
The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it? [See also below.]
- American exceptionalism is an ideology holding the United States as unique among nations in positive or negative connotations, with respect to its ideas of democracy and personal freedom.
Though the concept has no formal definition, there are some themes common to various conceptions of the idea. One is the history of the United States is different from other nations. In this view, American exceptionalism stems from the American Revolution, becoming what political scientist Seymour Martin Lipset called “the first new nation” and developing the American ideology of “Americanism“, based on liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, republicanism, democracy, and laissez-faire economics. This ideology itself is often referred to as “American exceptionalism.” Another theme is the idea that the U.S. has a unique mission to transform the world. Abraham Lincoln stated in the Gettysburg address (1863), Americans have a duty to ensure “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” Another theme is the sense the United States’ history and mission give it a superiority over other nations.
The theory of the exceptionalism of the U.S. has developed over time and can be traced to many sources. French political scientist and historian Alexis de Tocqueville was the first writer to describe the country as “exceptional” in 1831 and 1840. The actual phrase “American Exceptionalism” was originally coined by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin as a critique of a revisionist faction of American Communists who argued that the American political climate was unique, making it an ‘exception’ to certain elements of Marxist theory. U.S. President Ronald Reagan is often credited with having crystallized this ideology in recent decades. Political scientist Eldon Eisenach argues in the twenty-first century American exceptionalism has come under attack from the postmodern left as a reactionary myth: “The absence of a shared purposes ratified in the larger sphere of liberal-progressive public policy….beginning with the assumption of American exceptionalism as a reactionary myth.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_exceptionalism, last accessed August 3, 2018.)
- WN: Below is a wonderful response to the Pope’s initiative! Note the vocabulary: “ugly stain in our history”, “more righteous world”, “morally indefensible”, “stain on our conscience”. Would that the rest of the world follow suit! Here is worldwide the current breakdown about use of capital punishment.
For Immediate Release: 8/2/2018
GOVERNOR ANDREW M. CUOMO
GOVERNOR CUOMO TO ADVANCE LEGISLATION TO REMOVE DEATH PENALTY FROM STATE LAW IN SOLIDARITY WITH POPE FRANCIS
Governor Cuomo: “Today, in solidarity with Pope Francis and in honor of my father, I will be advancing legislation to remove the death penalty — and its ugly stain in our history — from State law once and for all.”
“By declaring the death penalty inadmissible in all cases and working to end the practice globally, Pope Francis is ushering in a more righteous world for us all. The death penalty is morally indefensible and has no place in the 21st century.
“Pope Francis’s decision is a validation of my father’s principled stand against the death penalty in the face of overwhelming support for capital punishment. My father staked his political career on his opposition to the death penalty and never backed down, saying it ‘demeans those who strive to preserve human life and dignity.’
“As Governor, Mario Cuomo vetoed legislation reinstating the death penalty 12 times in 12 years. He did this because he believed the death penalty was wrong and he had the courage to stand firm in his beliefs — so much so that he was willing to lose his office rather than capitulate. Pop was right then, and he is right now.
“The death penalty was reinstated in New York under the Pataki administration but halted by the courts in 2004. In his final years, my father continued to advocate for eliminating the law from the books, calling it a ‘stain on our conscience.’ Today, in solidarity with Pope Francis and in honor of my father, I will be advancing legislation to remove the death penalty — and its ugly stain in our history — from State law once and for all.”