Why I Oppose the Death Penalty: “The Talking Place: Discussing the Death Penalty” Forum on the Death Penalty, Fairbanks Alaska, March 22, 1997
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 because debate was heating up in a state with no death penalty on the books.
The dialogue 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 in Alaska. Parts I and II permitted a statement of my opposition to capital punishment. Part III 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 his tragic “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.1
” 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 Letter2, 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.3.
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 on: Why I Oppose The Death PenaltyFootnotes
- 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” (also in Volume Three of my Justice That Transforms series).
- See footnote 1 here.
- Incidentally, my two teen-aged boys at the time, upon viewing the video of the dialogue, said I won the “(non)debate” at the point Land informed me that no self-respecting Reformed scholar would ever argue as I do in Part III below. Upon that claim, I walked to my backpack in front of me, pulled out a copy of the Reformed Church of America Acts of Synod 1981, “Report 31: CAPITAL PUNISHMENT STUDY COMMITTEE”, Grand Rapids: Christian Reformed Church in North America, pp. 72-73, 448-91, ), and told him that six Reformed theologians had been commissioned to present their findings published in that book, and that most of my exegetical points of Part III were taken from that publication. Dr. Land fell silent then.