It’s said that Mark Twain once said this about the Bible:[i] “I have no problem with those parts of the Bible I don’t understand. It’s those parts of the Bible I do understand that give me fits.” This passage certainly belongs to this category:
Here’s another old saying that deserves a second look: ‘Eye for eye, tooth for tooth.’ Is that going to get us anywhere?
Here’s what I propose: ‘Don’t hit back at all.’ If someone strikes you, stand there and take it. If someone drags you into court and sues for the shirt off your back, giftwrap your best coat and make a present of it.
And if someone takes unfair advantage of you, use the occasion to practice the servant life. No more tit-for-tat stuff. Live generously. Matthew 5:38-42, The Message
Do you believe in an eye for eye, tooth for tooth? Jesus said to love your enemies, turn the other cheek, to throw out retribution and punishment, and take up a servant life in everything we do. But I’m not sure if it’s doable! Jesus, are you sure you meant what you said? How can we turn our other cheek?
Sadly, even we Christians seem to mess this one up.
One day a truck driver stopped at a restaurant for dinner and ordered a steak.[iii] Before he could eat it, in walked a motorcycle gang, with dirty leather jackets and long, unkempt hair. They took the man’s steak, cut it into six pieces, and ate it. The driver said nothing. He simply paid the bill and walked out.
One of the gang members said, “That man couldn’t talk. He didn’t say a word.” Another one said, “He couldn’t fight, either; he didn’t lift a hand.” A waiter added, “I would say that he couldn’t drive either. On his way out of the parking lot, he ran over six motorcycles.”
Something in us loves that story, because we like retaliation.[iv] But that’s not the only thing. The flip side of the coin has to do with forgiveness. Can God, will God, really forgive murderers?
I’ll be honest. I don’t know a lot of folks currently in prison, or those who have been incarcerated in state or federal prison. It’s just not my usual crowd. On the other hand, I’ve known attorneys who convict people, and those that defend them. I’ve met a guard who works in Soledad prison south of Salinas who’s a parent of one of our music kids, and I’ve even met a few judges who decide what punishment the convicted will receive.
Over the years, I’ve known children who’ve lost a family member or parent to incarceration, leaving them without that person in their life. Sometimes that’s not all bad, but most of the time it’s a disaster. Having someone you love go to prison can rip a family apart, even though yes, the criminal, in most cases deserves the punishment.
I’ll confess that I can only guess how it feels to be caught up in the criminal justice system—on either the victim or the perpetrator’s side—and what it means to be sentenced to prison. Either way sounds really bad, and I know there’s a lot of pain involved.
Here at Watsonville First United Methodist Church, we try to help this process in a small way by working with the Superior Court of Santa Cruz County as part of an alternative payment system. Folks from the court who owe fines are referred to us to work off the money by volunteering at our facility, under my supervision.
However, getting a traffic ticket and having to pay a fee, is different than spending time in a state or federal penitentiary. A lot different. Sure, I’ve seen plenty of TV shows and read murder mysteries about crime, but that’s not the same thing as actually having a close relationship with someone who is currently in jail. Maybe you know more than I do.
So you may wonder, how does this pertain to us? Why should we care?
You and I know that ordinary citizens are likely to take part in the processes of government in one of two ways during our lifetimes: either as a voter or when summoned to serve as a juror in a trial court.[v]
The right to a trial by jury is an important safeguard for all Americans.[vi] It is guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which states that “the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed.” … The juror’s role is to listen to all the evidence and to impartially decide the case.
This summer, I received an official looking letter in the mail, which contained a jury summons from the Office of the Jury Commissioner to appear for jury duty in Monterey County (where our home is located.) That wasn’t so unusual. I’m usually asked every two years or so to do my civic duty and appear in court to help decide a case. It’s one of the hassles and privileges of citizenship, although in the past I’ve always been booted off the jury panel in the process. I guess no attorney wants to try to guess how a pastor/lawyer/mom like me is going to decide a case. But I’m privileged to offer to serve.
What surprised me about the summons this time was that I was in Group No. 12. Usually in my experience a typical panel of jurors is around 100 or so people. But to call twelve panels meant something big was coming up on the court trial calendar.
Then I read the paper.
Do any of you recall the tragic story of 13-year-old Christina Williams of Marina, who vanished without a trace from her family’s home back in 1998? My daughter Lydia was nine-years-old at the time, and in the third grade. That crime really upset both of us, as it did the rest of the community. I remember that she and I prayed together for Christina and her family every night before Lydia went to bed for months. Despite a massive search, nobody knew what had happened until later that year when her remains were found in nearby Fort Ord.
But the killer had vanished.
Finally in 2017, there was a breakthrough in the case. Federal DNA evidence linked the crime to a man named Charles Holifield. He’s an incarcerated, convicted kidnapper and serial rapist. Christina’s alleged killer had been found.
Fast forward to last month, and after earlier court proceedings, Holifield’s case was formally set for trial this August, the same week I was to report for jury duty.[vii] And the newspapers said that the District Attorney’s office was pursuing the death penalty, which meant that I would probably (a.) be stuck at court all day to get through that many jurors, and (b.) be called upon to decide whether or not Holifield should be put to death, if I was chosen for the jury.
And this possibility blew me away.
On one hand, if anyone deserves the death penalty, I think that if the evidence lines up, Charles Holifield sure does. The murder of little Christina was a horrible tragedy. On one occasion I saw her mother driving around in a car, crying her eyes out. Her father repeatedly pleaded on TV for the little girl’s return. And I know their family was torn apart. Many, many people, including my daughter, were terrified.
But could I support a capital conviction, even in this kind of case?
First, I knew I didn’t want to be a juror on the trial for a number of reasons, including the fact that it would take weeks if not months to present all the evidence. I’ve got too much work to do around here for that. But I discovered another reason. I realized that I just didn’t want to be on a jury to convict someone—anyone—of the death penalty.
I was ready to appear for jury duty, but it turns out that Charles Holifield’s criminal trial was postponed for a year, so I was excused. (Thank God.)
But I’m still considering what I would do and what I believe. I’m wondering if together you and I might be able to learn more about the ethical and biblical issues involved with the death penalty if we thought about it together, here at church.
And that’s how the idea for this sermon was born.
What would I say in court if forced to explain my position to a judge? I realized that I didn’t really know all that much about it, except that it grossed me out. If I was called upon as a juror, I wanted to be able to articulate what I believe before I got there. I wanted the facts, so I did some searching online: “Cut This: The Death Penalty,”
The death penalty is admittedly a very tough subject, whether you’re for it, against it, or neutral. Maybe you’re like me, and want to think about it in terms of your faith. We’re Christians. We seek to live by three simple rules. Do no harm. Do good. And stay in love with God. I wonder, what would Jesus do when it comes to the death penalty anyway? People argue about the answer.
Exodus 20 verse 13 says, “You shall not murder.” Pretty clear cut, right? But not so fast.
As one writer puts it, it’s complicated.[ix] Yes, the 10 Commandments prohibit murder, as we know. But there are plenty of other bible verses particularly in the Old Testament, which state that those who violate the law will be put to death! Yet, it’s significant that Cain, Moses and David were all capital criminals who were not executed. But many others were. I’ve seen a list of 100 Bible verses that pertain to the death penalty, one way or the other.[x] Arguments are made that Scripture both mandates and prohibits capital punishment, depending on your viewpoint.
Although on average American’s support for the death penalty in 2016 was the lowest it’s been in over four decades at 48%, there’s been an uptick to according to the Pew Research Center to 54%.[xi] This coincides with the current administration, which makes sense.
I’m guessing we’ve got views on all sides of the issue here at church. But what I want to consider are the arguments against the death penalty. Are they really convincing? Here’re the basics.
First, as we saw in our video this morning, life imprisonment costs less than death penalty cases. That’s a reality. California’s Legislative Analyst’s office estimates that California would save $150 million a year if it replaced the death penalty with a sentence of life without parole.[xii]
Here’s another one. Killing should not be punishment for killing, just as we don’t burn the house of an arsonist, or sexually assault a rapist.[xiii] At least in this country.
The countries in the world that use the death penalty the most?[xiv] China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and the United States are among the 10 countries that annually execute the most people. Contrast that with 140 countries including nearly all of Europe, Central and South America, Mexico and Canada, who have abolished the death penalty in law or practice.[xv]
Fact. Since 1973, over 150 people have been released from death row in the US with evidence of their innocence.[xvi] States with the death penalty have higher murder rates than states that do not, although some dispute these statistics.
Will released death row inmates threaten our safety? Not with life sentences, which have been used in California since the 70s.
Is the death penalty fairly applied to everyone? No way. Money and race are key factors. That’s pretty obvious.
Does the death penalty offer justice to victims’ families? Arguably no. Families of murder victims undergo severe trauma and loss which no one should minimize.[xvii] But executions do not help family members heal their wounds. The extended process prolongs the agony.
I can tell you what cinched it for me.
The United Methodist Church—like many other major religions—is clearly against the death penalty on religious grounds. Here’s what our national church says, at paragraph Sect. 164.G of the 2016 Book of Discipline, Social Principles. And the amazing thing is that Methodists have stated this belief publically since their historic 1956 General Conference.[xviii]
According to our church, and I quote:[xix] “We believe the death penalty denies the power of Christ to redeem, restore and transform all human beings. The United Methodist Church is deeply concerned about crime throughout the world and the value of any life taken by a murder or homicide.
We believe all human life is sacred and created by God and therefore, we must see all human life as significant and valuable. When governments implement the death penalty (capital punishment), then the life of the convicted person is devalued and all possibility of change in that person’s life ends.
We believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ and that the possibility of reconciliation with Christ comes through repentance. This gift of reconciliation is offered to all individuals without exception and gives all life new dignity and sacredness.
For this reason, we oppose the death penalty (capital punishment) and urge its elimination from all criminal codes.”
Wow. Even Pope Francis… has changed Catholic Church teaching on the death penalty, saying it can never be sanctioned because it “attacks” the inherent dignity of all humans.[xx]
It reminds me of the story of several convicts who were in a prison library one day, flipping through a merchandise catalog.[xxi] On one of the pages there was the picture of a lovely home. One of the prisoners said, “Man, I sure wish I could give my mother a house like that to live in.” Another prisoner pointed to the nice car that was pictured in front of the house and said, “No, I’d rather give my ma a car like that, so she could come to see me once in a while.”
Then the two men noticed their friend, Bill, just staring blankly at the magazine, so they asked him to say what he would like to give his mother. After thinking for a few minutes, he looked at them with tears in his eyes and said, in a sorrowful tone, “I wish I could give my mother a more honorable son.” That young man was grieving about the fact that his dishonorable life and actions had dishonored his mother.
No we’re not all of a like mind on the death penalty. But I can tell you what Jesus said.
“Here’s another old saying that deserves a second look: ‘Eye for eye, tooth for tooth.’ Is that going to get us anywhere? Here’s what I propose: ‘Don’t hit back at all.’ If someone strikes you, stand there and take it. If someone drags you into court and sues for the shirt off your back, giftwrap your best coat and make a present of it. And if someone takes unfair advantage of you, use the occasion to practice the servant life. No more tit-for-tat stuff. Live generously.”[xxii]
You realize of course that Jesus was the ultimate wrongfully convicted (so-called) criminal. He died on a cross to save our sins. “Christians are well aware of the atoning power of blood, believing that Christ’s blood—shed at his execution on the cross—spares us from the spiritual “death penalty” that our sins would otherwise merit.”[xxiii]
To me, it’s better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.[xxiv]
I pray we give it a try. Do justice. Have mercy. In the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.
[ii] Matthew 5:38, Eugene H. Peterson, The Message.
[iii] Based on Bill Bouknight, “No Retaliation,” page 1, online ibid.
[v] LexRoll.com, “Your Rights and Obligations As A Juror: Overview,” https://lawhelp.lexroll.com/2017/02/20/rights-obligations-juror-overview/.
[vii] For more details, see Tom Wright, “Monterey County DA’s Office pursues death penalty against Charles Holifield in 1998 murder of Christina Williams,” July 25, 2018, with updates, http://www.montereyherald.com/general-news/20180725/monterey-county-das-office-pursues-death-penalty-against-charles-holifield-in-1998-murder-of-christina-williams.
[x] See for instance, 100 Bible Verses about the Death Penalty, https://www.openbible.info/topics/the_death_penalty.
[xv] Various online sources.
[xix] There are several sources for this online: http://www.umc.org/what-we-believe/political-community, https://www.umcjustice.org/who-we-are/social-principles-and-resolutions/the-political-community-164/the-political-community-the-death-penalty-164-g,
[xx] “Pope shifts church teaching on the death penalty, says it’s never acceptable,” August 2, 2018, https://www.cnbc.com/2018/08/02/pope-shifts-church-teaching-on-death-penalty-says-its-now-inadmissi.html.
[xxii] Matthew 5:38-42, The Message, ibid.
[xxiii] Andy Rau, ibid at page 2.