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Sermon: To Extinguish Evil: Reflections on the Death Penalty and Proposition 34

Sunday, September 2, 2012                                                               UU Society of Sacramento, California

Hymns:    #298, Wake Now, My Senses; #201, Glory, Glory, Hallelujah; #108, My Life Flows on in Endless Song.

Shared Offering to Support Mustard Seed School

A Pastoral Prayer for Labor Day Sunday

Sermon:  To Extinguish Evil

Today I want to ask you to consider capital punishment from a theological perspective.  Theology deals with our relationship to God, or that which is ultimate or transcendent, with our relationship to life itself and with our relationship to one another as human beings.  Some religions oppose capital punishment unconditionally and universally.  The most persistent opponents are the Quakers, the Church of the Brethren, and the Mennonites—all referred to as the “peace churches.”  Some other opponents include Buddhists, Humanists, Reform Judaism, and the Roman Catholic Church.[i]

Unitarian Universalism does not have a doctrinal opposition to capital punishment.  Among us we have a diversity of opinions.  (Indeed, after the early service today, a member explained to me where in my sermon he disagreed with me.)  But in General Assemblies over the years, delegates from UU congregations have voted to stand against capital punishment.[ii]  Some of our forebears in this liberal religious tradition led the fight against it—with their Unitarian faith in the dignity of every human life and the Universalist belief in a divine love that will not let anyone go.

Dr.  Benjamin Rush was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, the father of modern psychiatry, and an early Universalist leader.  He argued that capital punishment was state-sponsored murder.  It degraded respect for life and it was an obstacle to social peace.

Benjamin Rush said:  “To inspire a veneration for human life, and [a] horror at the shedding of human blood, let all those laws be repealed which authorize juries, judges, sheriffs, or hangmen to assume the resentments of individuals and to commit murder in cold blood in any case whatever.  Until this reformation … takes place, it will be in vain to attempt to introduce … perpetual peace in our country.”

In 1844, the Universalist minister Charles Spear founded the Society for the Abolition of Capital Punishment.  He published a prison reform journal called The Hangman.  He and his brother edited a book of prisoners’ poetry in 1847.

You could call our Universalist ancestors radical Christians.  By radical, I mean they took to heart the verse in the Gospel of Matthew when Jesus says:  “But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matt. 5:39).

Over two centuries after Benjamin Rush made his passionate arguments, a UU church member was discussing capital punishment with a conservative Christian friend of his and with me.  He said:  “It seems to me that 2,000 years ago a man named Jesus preached that we should stop going around killing one another.  How can we stop killing one another if we keep killing one another?”

I believe we should abolish the death penalty for a number of reasons.  First:  A costly part of our criminal justice system, it does not reduce crime, is not an effective deterrent for murder.[iii]  Also, it makes all citizens of the State responsible for a killing.  Nearly every other Western democracy has abolished the death penalty. So have Brazil, Israel, Mexico and the Philippines.  The United States belongs to a shrinking club of death-penalty countries, including Iran, Iraq, China, Cuba, Saudi Arabia, North Korea, Yemen and Afghanistan.

In the United States, capital punishment falls disproportionately on ethnic minorities.  It falls even more heavily on the poor, the uneducated or the illiterate.  Those who are rich or well connected usually avoid it.

Finally, it is statistically not possible to avoid executing some innocent people.  If, on the other hand, we sentence a person to life in prison, we leave open the door to catch mistakes that could not be reversed if we kill someone.

For me to be ethically honest, if I claim to value reason and fairness, I cannot support capital punishment.  Yet part of me finds it appealing!  Most of the prisoners on death row have carried out disgusting and heartless crimes.  If anybody deserves execution, most of them do.  I won’t mourn them.

Moreover, if I had to prepare a list of people deserving execution, I would want to include even more names on it.   To the ranks of the cruel and stupid I would add the names of many people who never even got charged with a crime.  I would add human traffickers and drug lords, tyrannical heads of state and those treasonous officials whose lies have caused the devastation of people and communities here and in other lands.  In the most angry and vindictive parts of my brain I fantasize about helping them feel the consequences of their actions with my own hands.

My fantasies are not rational, of course, and I don’t think I would act on them.  But it seems to me that capital punishment appeals to a much deeper part of us than our reasoning capacity.  Think about executions from the perspective of an anthropologist or a sociologist of religions.  Even in societies with non-religious governments, like ours, public rituals have religious dimensions.  Public rituals of all kinds help us to organize our impulses and channel our energies.  And execution is a ritualized process, starting with trials, sentencing, and the appeals process.  As an execution draws near, we hear of dramatic courthouse appeals and the jailhouse ceremonies, like the last meal. Tension rises and can be released only by a definitive result.

In the sentence of death and the eventual killing, we may achieve communal catharsis.  We try to purge an evil one from our midst, and extinguish evil from our world.  We strive also to purge our emotions of disgust and rage.  I think this is why the death penalty appeals to so many of us.  Yet I think this drama is a distraction.  It distracts us from the many ways that we can protect one another, ways that are much less visible or dramatic than executions.

What we need is more attention on the investigation and prosecution of crimes.  We need to devote more resources to catching criminals in the first place and caring for victims.  We need to devote more attention to crime prevention.  Crime prevention is painstaking work, and largely invisible.  The work of building safe and healthy communities is quiet.  We don’t notice when it’s working, because it’s not dramatic to be safe.  Murders are dramatic; so are executions.  An execution can make us feel that we are doing something.  We may feel exhilarated after an execution, or relieved, or sad, or outraged, but we feel something.  Crime reduction is, at its heart, ordinary work, with few eye-catching moments.

As a young minister years ago, I was having dinner with a parishioner and a business acquaintance of his.  Somehow I found myself in a conversation with this stranger about capital punishment.   His opinion was that that we are “too easy on criminals.”  When someone commits a violent crime, we shouldn’t have a trial, we should just take him out and shoot him.  I said that this would lead to the execution of many innocent people.

He said, “No, I mean when we know they did it, when someone saw them do it, we should kill them right away.”

I responded, “This is what we did through most of our history.  It’s called lynching.  Groups of people would be certain that someone was guilty of a crime, even without evidence.  Sometimes they would be sure they saw the crime, sometimes they would lie.  Or they would believe what others told them, or what ever they wanted to believe.  Then they would gang up on someone.”

In the early years of the Protestant Reformation, a Spanish physician named Michael Servetus was killed by a government in front of a mob of pious people.  A genius of many talents, he discovered the pulmonary circulation of the blood.  Loving religious argument, he opposed baptism of infants and the doctrine of Original Sin.  Among his controversial books was one entitled On the Errors of the Trinity.  This title might not make a big splash these days, but in 1531 it was scandalous and subversive.  Protestant reformer John Calvin went after Servetus for his dangerous heresies.  Servetus would not give up his arguments, so Calvin convinced the civil authorities of Geneva, Switzerland, to convict him.  They sentenced him to death—burning at the stake, with his books bound to his waist. At the time, the good leaders of Geneva thought they were doing the right thing to kill an evil heretic.  Now, of course, a memorial to Servetus the martyr stands in Geneva.

I believe the temptation to kill others for moral purposes comes from a desire to extinguish evil from the human community.  Evil actions are undeniably real—from cruelty to animals, to atrocities against enemies, to sadistic violence against random victims or familiar ones.  It’s tempting to think we can separate out the bad guys and extinguish evil.  But we need not look far to find examples of good folks doing evil acts against others.

I am human.  Therefore, nothing that any human being has done is beyond possibility for me.  Half a century ago, Russian dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote:

If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart? [iv]

Proponents of execution say it gives emotional closure to the loved ones of the murder victims.   This may be true in some cases.  However, as I understand grieving, it is not something with a door you can open or shut.  Grieving and healing is a process that takes a long time.  I have not lost a loved one to murder, fortunately, so I can’t say for sure.  But this is how it seems to me:  An execution might give us a sense of release or of safety, but it cannot end the grief or stem the anger.[v]  Moreover, in those cases where the killer is a relative, the family’s agony at the murder is compounded by the killing of another family member.  And this agony is drawn out by the Constitutionally-guaranteed legal steps that must precede all executions.[vi][vii]

Now back to theology.  An important theological dimension is the question of repentance.  Repentance involves accepting responsibility for a wrong and turning away from evil.  Repentance involves a genuine request for forgiveness.  So long as a criminal is alive there is the chance that he will repent.  But if the State takes that person’s life, it cuts off his chance to repent.  By executing someone the State is assuming to know more than God does about that person’s potential for repentance.

The view of religious humanism is equivalent to this, even though it does not base this on a reference to belief in God.  In the terms of religious humanism, an execution says that a convict’s life no longer has any worth, no potential for any improvement, no chance for doing any good.  But there are stories about such changes.  Some violent criminals use their life in prison to become educated and make a difference in society, even though they are behind bars. Some write or speak to young people to scare them off the path of criminal behavior.   Some convince fellow inmates not to return to the dangerous spiral of crime when they are released.  Such stories are signs of hope for the potential in any human being.  An execution is a surrender of hope in that potential.

You may argue that a murderer has already surrendered that hope.  He has forfeited the right to repent and the right to turn his life around.  After all, a murderer has stolen from his victims the freedom to live and grow and give to the world.  Why should we preserve his right to life, if he has valued life so little?

This point of view is understandable.  But there is a very important exception to it.

That exception is this:  not all of the people whom the State would execute are guilty for the murders for which they were convicted.  It’s nearly impossible to avoid convicting some people who are innocent.

Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, a Reagan appointee, said this in 2001:  “If statistics are any indication, the system may well be allowing some innocent defendants to be executed.”  She also noted that many of the lawyers appointed in death cases are inadequate.  She said we should consider setting minimum standards for such lawyers to meet, and better pay to make it a more competitive job.[viii]

Inadequate legal representation and unjust executions no doubt hit the poor and the uneducated more than the rich, clever or privileged among us.

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a Clinton appointee, said:  “I have yet to see a death case among the dozens coming to the Supreme Court on [the] eve-of-execution . . . in which the defendant was well represented at trial.  People who are well-represented at trial do not get the death penalty.”

For the past few decades, governors and legislators in most of our states have not had the will to change a system that is arguably cruel, clearly unfair, and probably racist.  Many politicians have not summoned the compassion to spare the mentally retarded, the mentally ill, or even adolescents from execution.  Most elected public prosecutors could not get re-elected if they admitted the flaws of the death penalty process.  For example, since December, the California Supreme Court has reversed six death sentences.[ix]  Last Monday the court found prosecutorial misbehavior in the case of a murder in San Jose.

Only recently has it become possible to evaluate the human DNA taken from crime scene evidence.  By comparing this DNA to that of a convicted inmate, scientists and lawyers have freed numerous innocent people.  Without the DNA evidence and the hard work of some lawyers, some innocent people would have died.  Because this technology is so new, it is certain that many innocent people have been put to death in the past.

In the late 1990s, George Ryan, the Governor of Illinois (my former home state), responded to the findings of a state commission on the death penalty.  Since 1977, the State of Illinois had executed 12 people.  However, in that same period, 13 death-row inmates had been exonerated and set free.  The Governor said:  “We freed 13 innocent men who were nearly strapped to a gurney in the state’s death chamber so that fatal doses of poison could be injected into their blood streams.  That is the ultimate nightmare.”

Ryan issued a moratorium on executions in Illinois.  Later he commuted sentences of death to life in prison for all prisoners on the State’s death row–159 men and four women.  Ryan said:  “If government can’t get this right, it ought not to be in the business of passing such final, irreversible judgment.”[x]

Governor Ryan was no softie and no saint—a conservative Republican, he was later convicted of corruption and put in prison.  Yet even with his ethical blind spots, he could not turn his eyes away from an unjust system.   A few years later, their Democratic governor was convicted of corruption and put in prison—Illinois is bi-partisan that way.  His replacement, the current governor, signed legislation outlawing execution.

Without the death penalty, the highest punishment possible is a life sentence without the possibility of parole.  This means that if convicted and sentenced, you will die in prison, but the people of the state will not execute you there.  Seventeen of our states do not have capital punishment, and California voters have a chance to end it here on November 6, when we vote on Proposition 34.

Many (but not all) crime victims’ families have come out against the death penalty, saying that killing the killer of their loved one won’t change anything, saying they don’t want more violence to follow the violence they’ve already had to face.

This is a tender topic.  Thinking about it calls for listening and compassion.  First, compassion for people who are bereft because killers have taken their friend or loved one.  Compassion for those with grief and rage who feel that nothing less than execution will suffice.  Compassion for those who are able to begin taking steps toward mercy and forgiveness.   I heard the story of a woman who began to made a prison visit to see the young man incarcerated for his role in the death of her own son.  She wanted to understand how it happened, and see who he was, this child who took her child.  She met him, and then visited again.  She began making regular visits.  Eventually she told him that she did forgive him.  Because his conviction was for less than first-degree murder, due to the circumstances of his involvement in it, this young man’s sentence was completed, and he was released.  He had no family support, no where to go.  She invited him to stay with her.  He moved in.   She let him sleep in the bedroom of the son that he and his friends had taken from her.

Our idealistic Universalist ancestors would be heartened by this account, but not shocked.  I am not sure I can live up to such an example of courage, but I am humbled by it.  Thinking about this topic calls for humility.

We have so many choices in life.  People of conscience and faith wrestle with so many decisions, wrestle with doing the right thing.  When we vote, when we make choices on a paper ballot, we again wrestle with decisions of high significance.

I close with these words from former United Nations Secretary General, Kofi Annan, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2001.  He said this:  “Let the states that still use the death penalty stay their hand, lest in time to come they look back with remorse knowing it is too late to redeem their grievous mistake.”

This is my prayer:  Let us stay our hand.

So may it be.


[v] In the Judeo-Christian tradition, murder is a harm against people and a sin against God.  “Thou shall not kill” is a commandment of God, not of human beings.  The purpose of Judeo-Christian laws regarding punishment was to eliminate blood feuds, to stop the cycle of revenge killings.  Biblical punishments now seem grim, but they were invented to restrain our lust for revenge.  What this means in a secular democracy is this:  a crime may be a harm against a person, but it is a crime against society, a crime against the common good.  Legal punishment is society’s way of gaining justice for a violation of society’s standards.  Punishment is about justice, not revenge.

[vi] From the ACLU to the NRA to Tea Party Patriots, we hear of the sacred importance of our U. S. Constitution.   This is the document that says we do not do not hold people in jail without charges, do not convict the accused without a fair trial, do not condemn criminals without due process.  This is why a death-penalty convict has appeal rights.

[viii] “Across the Nation & Around the World.”

[x] “Illinois may spare 163 on death row,” by Ralph Frammolino, San Francisco Chronicle, March 5, 2002, p. A#.

For More Information:  See “Facts about the Death Penalty,” from the Death Penalty Information Center.  http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/documents/FactSheet.pdf

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