death penalty

This tag is associated with 4 posts

“Just Mercy” – A Christian look at the movie

“Just Mercy” is a film based upon a true story that is shocking and utterly challenging to viewers. I’d like to look at the film from a worldview perspective. I’ve already written about the book, as well. There will be SPOILERS in our discussion here. I’m not going to summarize the plot, but a summary may be found here.

Cliched Reality

I was struck by a couple reviews I saw talked about how the plot was cliched. There’s the trope of the corrupt, racist sheriff. There’s the unapologetic DA. The judge who participates in defending the system. But what such complaints ignore is this is a true story. The tropes become more than the alleged cardboard cutouts here–the racist sheriff was re-elected six times after Johnny D. is exonerated. The narrative of racism is supported by the fact that Johnny D. was hated by the white community for sleeping with a white woman. It was an unforgivable sin, and they decided he needed to pay with his life, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Sometimes, cliches are real.

Systemic Racism is A Thing

There are some who argue there’s no such thing as systemic racism. The naivete of that sentiment would be quaint if it were not so damaging. Some seem to think that after the Civil Rights era, racism magically was drained of all power. But here we have a powerful portrayal of injustice based upon race with dates that are well within the memory of most adults.

I was especially struck by the comparison of the death penalty to lynching. There’s something to be said for the comparison, too. Laws that appear to be color-blind can be absolutely racist when they are applied in ways that are not color-blind in any way. Black men are much more likely to be sentenced to death. What’s even more alarming is seeing cases like those in this movie. One of them had a jury recommend life in prison, but the judge overrode it and sentenced the man to death. How much power is that to give to one person? To allow the feelings and biases of one person to condemn another to death, even against the recommendation of a jury!

Going along with this, there is the question of who is chosen for the death penalty. When black men are the ones sentenced to death, questions of perceptions (why are black men seen as particularly deserving of capital punishment?), bias (why are black men seen as especially dangerous?), and more must be raised. This is a clear example of systemic injustice. What people often don’t realize is that saying something is systemic racism does not mean that it must be outrightly, knowingly racist. It simply may have racially biased outcomes. See, for example, Kendi’s discussion in How to Be an Antiracist (my review here).

The Old Rugged Cross and Spirituality

There’s no question faith runs throughout this movie. Whether it’s Bryan Stevenson talking at his first meeting with a man on death row about being in the church choir or the call Stevenson makes at the end for a mercy tempered by justice and even a little unmerited grace, faith is a powerful, resonating theme.

One of the most poignant moments in the movie is when Herbert Richardson is led to his execution. Richardson was a Vietnam veteran with clear signs of PTSD. Yes, he killed a little girl, but the very nation state for which he fought and descended into hell abandoned him and left him on his own. Richardson’s stay of execution is denied, and he is led to the electric chair as the haunting melody of “The Old Rugged Cross” plays in the background. He sits in the chair. He is electrocuted by the state that he laid his life on the line for every day. It’s awful. The Old Rugged cross.

Conclusion

“Just Mercy” is a powerful, challenging movie. It challenges assumptions. It challenges bias. It challenges your soul. I don’t think it would be possible to watch this film and be completely unmoved. Please, watch it.

Links

The Death Penalty and Just Mercy– Bryan Stephenson’s personal look at capital punishment– Stevenson’s book is just as powerful as the movie and deserves your attention.

Be sure to check out the page for this site on Facebook and Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies and more.

Engaging Culture: A brief guide for movies– I outline my approach to evaluating movies from a worldview perspective.

I have a number of ways in which I have critically engaged with culture in movies, books, and other arts in my posts on current events (scroll down for more posts).

SDG.

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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

The Death Penalty and “Just Mercy” – Bryan Stevenson’s personal look at capital punishment

Bryan Stevenson is a lawyer who has dedicated his life’s work to challenging bias against people of color and poor people in the criminal justice system. His book, Just Mercy, is a deeply personal look at the death penalty, and one that I think many readers would at least be challenged by. I came to the book as part of a book group in which we choose one book pro- and one book con- a position and then discuss it. I used to be for the death penalty, but a deeper look at the statistics about how the death penalty is more likely to be used and carried out against people of color, the possibility of using it against innocent people, the extreme cost of the system, and the failure to make it meet standards of avoiding cruel and unusual punishment moved me against it just a few years ago. Like many topics, it is one where I felt a deeper study of the complexity of the issue led me to a different position than I once held. The book has some graphic depictions of violence in it, and I will try to avoid those in this post, but the topic itself can be emotionally jarring.

Stevenson’s book is stunning. Yes, it is emotionally jarring, but filling in the cracks between the emotional arguments are a number of real stories that have to be accepted by those who favor the death penalty as consequences of the system. For example, there are stories included in the book of the unjust way people were sentenced to death, including children. One of these stories talks about a black 14 year old accused of murder who was then put in a courtroom that was segregated (by keeping all African Americans who were not on trial or witnesses) to face trial, defended by a lawyer with political aspirations who called no witnesses for the defense. The prosecutions “only evidence was the sheriff’s testimony…” that the child had confessed. He was convicted by an all white jury and sentenced to death in the electric chair (158-159). Yes, this is an emotional story, but it begs several questions about how the criminal justice system is set up in such a way that each of these steps could have been allowed to happen. How can we accept the death penalty as a viable punishment when people are sentenced to death on such flimsy evidence and such a clearly uninterested defense? What of the racial tensions in stories like these? Do these matter when people’s lives are at stake?

Of course, executing children seems counter-intuitive in the extreme, even if the child in question commited a heinous crime. As Stevenson points out, there is an “incongruity of not allowing children to smoke, drink, vote… and a range of other behaviors because of their well-recognized lack of maturity and judgment while simultaneously treating some of the most at-risk, neglected, and impaired children exactly the same as full-grown adults in the criminal justice system” (270). Restrictions on the death penalty for children seem to be one of those areas that perhaps even those on both sides of the issue could come to agreement on.

The primary story throughout the book, though, is that of Walter McMillian, who was convicted of murder despite having dozens of witnesses who could place him at his own home at the time of the murder. The case was another in which an all-white jury was selected. He was sentenced to death based on the testimony of people who said he committed the murder, despite conflicting accounts and, again, many witnesses who saw him elsewhere. Actually, he was sentenced to life in prison, but the judge, Robert E. Lee Key, overruled the sentence and gave him capital punishment. He spent 6 years on death row before being released on lack of a case. Following this case throughout the course of the book, one is exposed to the many difficulties facing poor people of color when it comes to defending their cases. People who can afford top-tier lawyers are less likely to receive the harshest penalties. People who are white are also less likely to face capital punishment. These statistics suggest trends that need to be corrected for true justice to be accomplished.

Central to Stevenson’s book is the concept of just mercy, as the title implies. How can we have justice that also includes mercy? He hints at it when he discusses human brokenness, a passage that can serve as a way to close this look at his work: “simply punishing the broken–walking away from them or hiding them from sight–only ensures that they remain broken and we do, too. There is no wholeness outside of our reciprocal humanity” (290).

Links

Be sure to check out the page for this site on Facebook and Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies and more!

Book Reviews– There are plenty more book reviews to read! Read like crazy! (Scroll down for more, and click at bottom for even more!)

SDG.

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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

Pro-Life, Pro-War, Pro-Death Penalty? Hypocrite! -Consistently valuing human life

The image to the right has been making its rounds on the internet, and it reflects an argument with which many who are pro-life and pro-death penalty will have to contend. The picture sums the argument up pretty well, but I will draw it out:

1) You are pro-life

2) You are pro-war [it is not stated what is meant by pro-war, exactly]

3) You are pro-death penalty

4) 1-3 conjoined are inconsistent

The simplest way to show this argument fails is to show that 1-3 are not inconsistent, which I shall now endeavor to do. What I mean to sketch here is a consistent ethic for valuing human life.

Pro-Life

Clearly, this piece of the argument is meant to be the one that is inconsistent. The proponent of the argument could say, “If you are really pro-life, then you should value life in every other sphere.” I agree, but the person who argues in this way is often pro-choice, and so it is relevant to at least link to my other arguments for the pro-life position. Interested readers should view my pro-life page for a number of my articles on the topic.

Pro-War

This is perhaps the most confusing of the labels. I think very few people are pro-war in an undefined sense. I think that perhaps those spreading this image mean the Iraq war, but that is a political issue rather than an issue about the value of life. Why is it a political issue? Because almost everyone (except staunch pacifists) would agree with the notion of a Just War. What is meant by that term is that there are some sets of circumstances which justify using military force in order to prevent their continuance.

For example, what I consider one of the most infamous cases is the Rwandan Genocide in 1994. During that genocide, an estimated 800,000 people were slaughtered, yet the UN pulled out their presence. The U.S. did not intervene, and Europe did very little. In my opinion, this was a truly deplorable example of international complacency, which allowed hundreds of thousands of people to be murdered wholesale. Should we have intervened with military force in that genocide? I say absolutely. When there are circumstances wherein human beings are being systematically destroyed by a national power, it seems like Just War against that national power is justified.

If someone wants to disagree with me on that, that is fine, but I don’t see how this notion that we should intervene to prevent genocide and other atrocities somehow means that I am not valuing human life. I would challenge someone to show how this is inconsistent with the pro-life stance.

Of course, the point that some have made is that the image is somehow linked to the Iraq War. But then the issue is whether the Iraq war is a Just War or not. I’m not  going to start that debate, so I’ll just point out what I said above: if one is pro-life and for waging war in a just fashion, there is no inconsistency.

Pro-Death Penalty

In my opinion, this is actually more difficult to defend from a pro-life position than ‘pro-[Just]-war.’ Why? Well, we’ll get to that. First, let me make the positive case for the death penalty. As a Christian, I could just reference the Bible and point out that the government doesn’t carry the sword for nothing and that the notion of the death penalty for murder is pretty consistent throughout. But! I think it is important to show a more integral part of the case: being for the death penalty is part of valuing human persons.

How is that possible? Well, consider this: one reason the death penalty seems to me to be justified is that what is being said by it is that the human life is so valuable that if you willingly destroy someone else’s life, then your own life is forfeit.

I find this reasoning to be fairly solid and certainly consistent with a pro-life stance. On this view, life is so extremely valuable that the murder of a fellow human being means your own life must be forfeit.

Several objections could be lodged here.

1) One could object that this seems like a wholly retributive system. In response, I would say that may indeed be the case, but the current debate is not over what kind of penal system should be in place but rather on the consistency of a pro-life stance with other positions.

2) One could argue that the justice system is imperfect and therefore someone who is innocent may be executed. This is a much more powerful argument, in my opinion, and must be taken into consideration. Of course, any system of justice is going to be imperfect, and that imperfection alone does not justify jettisoning everything. Furthermore, one could argue that the extreme burden of proof in order to convict someone of murder when the penalty is death almost ensures that the innocent will not be proven guilty. More on (2) later.

3) One could argue that the death penalty does nothing to decrease violent crime. Again, this is a side issue and actually isn’t the justification for the death penalty I offered above.

It therefore seems to me that (2) is a powerful response to the death penalty argument from a pro-life perspective. If we should err on the side of caution whenever it comes to human life, then perhaps it is more consistent to be against the death penalty. However, it seems that the argument to justify the death penalty above does give a powerful reason to maintain the death penalty in light of the vanishingly improbable likelihood of someone innocent being killed. I rate this as about a 50/50, and think that one can be consistently pro-death penalty and pro-life. I leave it to the opposition to show me otherwise.

Conclusion

I have shown that one can be pro-life and pro-[just]-war. I have furthermore shown that one can be pro-life and pro-death penalty, with one minor caveat. Regardless of where one stands on the second argument against the death penalty offered above, it seems that one can remain consistent as pro-life and pro-death penalty if they hold that the value of human life trumps the argument.

I have therefore shown that 1-3 are indeed consistent and therefore 4 is false.

I think the biggest problem I have is that images like this do not do anything to contribute to the conversation. They are merely jabs at the other side. I think that the only way to have serious discussion is to avoid these types of “meme” images altogether. If your goal is to convince the other side, then engage in honest dialog. Do not post pictures to mock them. I say this to everyone.

SDG.

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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

Why are Christians politically atheistic?

Of note: Atheist Austin Cline has recently linked to my post with his own. He caricatures my argument as saying “Christians should reject secular government.” In fact, I explicitly deny this in my post, as anyone who reads it could see.

I take issue with 3 parts of Cline’s critique. First, he attacks my view that the government can have authority to restrict unrepentant sin. Yet the authority for that restriction is based upon  my assumption granted for the sake of this post; that the government gets its authority from God (Romans 13:1). Cline, being an atheist, obviously will reject that basis for authority. He did not outline his own position on the authority of government, so I cannot comment upon it, but it begs the question to assume that government should be secular, and then use that to critique a theo-centric government I explicate below. Second, he caricatures my argument as being a theocracy, which I deny explicitly, see below. Finally, he frames his post in a way that is clearly meant to induce panic, by calling it “J.W. Wartick: Christians should reject secular government.” There is nowhere that I have advocated that extreme position. In fact, that is also something I deny explicitly, agreeing with the apostle Paul in Romans, who said “Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience. This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor” (Romans 13:5-7).

Recently, I was discussing the death of Osama bin Laden and the topic came up about whether he deserved to die, what role it played, and the like. Interestingly, the conversation opened up a discussion I’ve been contemplating. Namely, Why are so many Christians politically atheists?

Consider the death penalty. It was agreed upon that people can deserve the death penalty. Bin Laden, for example, was said to deserve such a penalty, along with serial killers and many murderers. But then the discussion turned to whether the government should deal out such punishment.

The friend offered following principle as normative for Christians:

1) If (some position such as the death penalty) cannot be justified by purely secular means, then it should not be forced onto others.

My immediate and somewhat snarky rejoinder to this argument was/is “Why?”

Why should I be a Christian in every aspect of my life, but when it comes to politics, be secular? Several answers are possible. For example, it could be asserted that “We (Christians) should not force our views onto others.” I think this is a fairly good response. But whence the principle?  Perhaps it comes from the idea of living a Christlike life. But I don’t see anything in the example of Christ which said we had to conform to secularism or take religion out of politics. It would take an interesting argument to say that Christ advocated secularism in the realm of politics.

Or take Paul, for example, who states clearly that the government is God’s servant and doesn’t carry the sword “for nothing” (Romans 13:4). Not only that, but the reason the government carries the sword is in case “you do wrong.”

And what, exactly, is wrong? I think it would have to be obvious that, for a Christian, that which is wrong is defined by that which goes against God’s nature and/or commands. But then it seems as though Paul is charging the government to follow that same standard, not some supposedly neutral standard. I’ve argued elsewhere against the plausibility of atheism as a neutral ground. I think it should be clear that atheism is not neutral in regards to religion; rather, it is against religion.

Therefore, it seems strange to me that secularism is chosen as the grounds for determining politics. Why should I, a theist, choose to be atheistic in my politics? I suppose the accusation could then fly that I advocate a theocracy. But what exactly is a theocracy? It’s a political system in which God rules and the laws are divine commands. I never argued that’s what I would like the United States to turn into. My view is simply that Christians should cast their votes for those positions which are favored by Biblical teaching and against those which are condemned. I don’t see any reason to divorce that which I hold most dear (Christian theism) as something from which I must be divorced when it comes to the ballot box.

Consider the following argument, which is admittedly somewhat consequentialist:

A) A life of unrepentant sin often leads to unbelief. (w=>y)

B) Unbelief is the only sin which condemns people to hell. (If y, then z)

C) Advocating some policy, x, permits or encourages lives of unrepentant sin. (x=>w)

D) Therefore, advocating x by extension opens the way for more unbelief and condemnation to hell. (1-3)

E) Therefore, Christians should not advocate x.

So I’m advocating a theo-centric view of politics, not a theocracy. On this view, one’s theism takes center stage. Sincere belief in everlasting life and death leads Christians to take steps within the law to prohibit behaviors which would lead to lives of unrepentant sin.

How would this cash out? Would we have to be prohibitionists or go around making lying illegal? I think that the answer to this second question is pretty clear. Within Scripture there is no prohibition of drinking alcohol (quite the opposite, in some cases). Rather, drunkenness is prohibited and/or discouraged. With the damage alcoholism has done to our society, I doubt that laws which took measures to prevent drunkenness would be a bad thing. I think the laws which would go into effect based upon the argument above would look mostly like what we have now. Now take the case of lying. While lying is clearly discouraged in the Bible, I don’t see any precedent therein for making it illegal in a broad sense. To be perfectly clear, lying already is illegal in some senses: take perjury, for example, or slander. I think these are derivative of a Christian worldview anyway, and laws against libel, slander, and perjury seem to fulfill the requirements of the above argument.

Reflecting on the ideas about bin Laden, above, it would appear there is another principle as well: that of honoring the image of God in man. Osama bin Laden did not honor that image, and for the blood he spilled, his blood was forfeit. Therefore, in addition to E), I would suggest:

2) The intrinsic value of humans (which only makes sense on theism anyway) is such that we should vote for issues which place honor of this value first.

To nuance it for Christians,

2′) The image of God in humans should be respected, and Christians should vote for issues which respect this image.

Finally, a note on Biblical ethics. It is extremely important for Christians to realize the distinctions between Law and Gospel and practice correct exegesis when it comes to these issues. I favor a Lutheran view with some theonomic tilt, but it is important to note that almost no Biblical scholars believe the Levitical and most of the other laws within the Old Testament are applicable today in any literal sense. But the question for this post is not which laws apply and which do not; rather it is a challenge to my fellow Christians.

So my question remains: Christians, why are you politically atheists?

SDG.

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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

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