Jesus once told a cabal of religious leaders anxious to stone a woman caught in adultery: “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to cast a stone at her” (John 8:7, NIV). In his bestseller, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (Spiegel and Grau, 2014; Amazon Kindle edition), New York University School of Law Professor Bryan Stevenson calls us to a different task, that of catching the stones cast by others.
Just Mercy recounts Professor Stevenson’s founding of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), a legal aid organization based in Montgomery, Alabama that advocates for those who are victims of shortcomings in the U.S. criminal justice system – the wrongfully convicted, prisoners on death row, and juveniles tossed into the chaos of the adult prison population.
Caring about prisoners is a biblical mandate – “Remember those who are in prison as though in prison with them…” (Hebrews 13:3a, ESV) – so books like Mr Stevenson’s invite the Church to engage an issue too often shunted aside. Well-told stories seize the reader’s heart and won’t let go, stories like Walter McMillan, exonerated after having spent 6 years on death row for a murder he couldn’t have committed. Then there’s Joe Sullivan, convicted with dubious evidence and testimony at 13 years old of rape and sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole, what Stevenson calls “death in prison.” These and a dozen other vignettes – bolstered by troubling statistics of the sheer number of incarcerated Americans, disproportionately African-American – tell the story of sectors of a criminal justice and prison system tainted by racism and sexual abuse, desperately needing reform.
Any argument against the death penalty sooner of later must stare-down the “tough cases.” None is tougher than Timothy McVeigh. On April 19, 1995, at 9:02 a.m., he detonated a truck bomb outside the Alfred P. Murrah Federal building in downtown Oklahoma City. The explosion killed 168, including 19 children in an on-site daycare center. When all was said and done, more than 680 were injured. Damage to buildings, vehicles and other property was estimated at $ 652 million dollars. McVeigh was executed by lethal injection on June 11, 2001, never having shown any remorse for his heinous act.
The purpose of this essay is not to cause grief or pain to the many who lost loved ones on that tragic day. Rather, it is to question whether any punishment meted out by authorities could ever be sufficient in such cases. Can the execution of one man ever balance out the scales of justice in the face of such suffering? Surely it cannot. If this be true, then the door is open to asking a Christian question: What other form of response can speak a word of Gospel without at the same time condoning sin of the highest order, or taking the grief of the grieving lightly?
Extremism is loose in the land. On May 15, 2010, a Christian punk rock group from Minnesota, You Can Run But You Cannot Hide, caused a stir when their front man, Bradlee Dean, opined that Muslims who execute homosexuals “…seem to be more moral than even the American Christians…” The full context of his on-air radio comments – via audio clip – is available here.
Bradlee Dean’s remarks have been roundly condemned, and none too soon. Exodus International, a Christian ministry to gay individuals seeking another path, characterized his comments as “powerfully irresponsible” and “incomplete theology.” While most Christians – including my own denomination, the Church of the Nazarene – interpret the Bible as prohibiting sexual acts between those of the same gender (Romans 1:26-32), the apostle Paul also holds out the possibility of a God-given new start for those wanting one, including the gay individual (1 Cor. 6:9-11). On the other hand, Dean’s rant knows nothing of gospel, of good news. Instead, his version of Christianity is bad news, singling out one class of persons for special judgment, misusing Leviticus 20:13 as a none-too-subtle call to target gays.