Monday, June 10, 2013

If You Live By The Sword


The country is in deep trouble. We've forgotten that a rich life consists fundamentally of serving others, trying to leave the world a little better than you found it. We need the courage to question the powers that be, the courage to be impatient with evil and patient with people, the courage to fight for social justice.
Cornel West

Just to be clear, I am not an advocate of death penalty under any circumstances. As a follower of Jesus I consistently and creatively respond to a call from a God who is the Master of nonviolence and is rich in mercy and loving kindness. As the 20th century Swiss theologian Karl Barth once wrote:

This much is certain, that we have no theological right to set any sort of limits to the loving-kindness of God which has appeared in Jesus Christ. Our theological duty is to see and understand it as being still greater than we had seen before.

God spared the lives of Cain and David after their bouts of 1st degree murder and the overall tragectory of Scripture tilts towards a God who is far less militantly vengeful than what folks seem to think. And when our souls gaze upon the cross of Jesus we are confronted with a man who is the victim of injustice and violent power-mongering. When we gaze long enough we recognize it in ourselves and in society at large, including our government's penchant for taking an eye-for-an-eye judicial mentality despite the clear admonition of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount to do the exact opposite.

As a person of faith and conscience, I believe that everyone is made in the image of God and that we are called to never give up in our quest to rehabilitate and reconcile every soul back to that image. This kind of restorative justice is happening. People are committing themselves to audacious experiments in victim-offender reconciliation and to restoring the dignity of murderers and rapists, many of whom are ill-equipped to stop recycling the violence and impoverishment that they grew up in.

On top of all "this Christian stuff," the death penalty, as practiced within the American Empire is racist and it is highly doubtful that it ever serves as a deterent to future crime. It is viciously costly and subject to government corruption and mistakes. It is certainly an issue that we should put time, resources and energy into stopping for good. Forever.

With all that said, I was frankly appalled this week by the hypocrisy of the US military court which has definitively determined to not hand down a death penalty sentence on Robert Bales, the soldier who admitted to murdering 16 Afghans on March 11, 2012. This was cold blooded, execution style killing. Women. Children. Pulled out of their beds in the middle of the night. Why did this happen?

When asked by a military judge why he had carried out the March 2012 rampage, the 39-year-old Bales was matter-of-fact in his response: “I’ve asked that question a million times, and there is not a good reason in the world for the horrible things I did.” (Washington Post)

There are many factors available to help Bales answer the Why Question. He joined up 2 months after 9/11 and was serving his 4th tour. He suffered a brain injury and was swimming in PTSD's. He coped by taking steroids, working out and drinking.

So while America demands that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev fry for bombing the Boston Marathon and James Holmes get his life snuffed out for dressing up like a Batman character and killing a dozen in a movie theater in Aurora, the US military refuses to use capital punishment as a sentence for a guy who walked into an Afghan village and brutally murdered 16 for admittedly "not a good reason in the world."

And this is the same US military (and its vociferous supporters in Congress) that refuses to close Gitmo or even give habeas corpus to suspected terrorists rotting away in military prisons and black sites around the world. IF the death penalty is going to be used in both our civilian and military court sentences it absolutely HAS to be used in this case. Doesn't it? This seems clear to the rest of the world, but for the vast majority of Americans, the irony will be lost in nationalism, apathy or overall indifference.

In my opinion, this situation should lead us all to say, "If Bales doesn't get the death penalty then no one tried in the U.S. should. Ever." Justice demands it. And so does national security. It is hard to imagine a better recruiting tool for al Qaeda and her affiliates. If a foreign military invaded your country and set up barracks outside your town and then one of those foreign soldiers walked into one of your towns and executed more than a dozen innocent civilians, including children and women, and then set some of them on fire and then that same foreign government known for using the death penalty quite freely refused to use it in this case...wouldn't you give up everything to fight?

On the night before Jesus' unjust death penalty, Jesus proclaimed to his disciples that "those who live by the sword die by the sword." This was absolutely not a justification for the use of the death penalty, but instead a clear-cut warning for all those who continue to embrace what the late theologian Walter Wink called "the myth of redemptive violence." Let's put away our swords: in the womb, in the slum, in the budget back room and in the military courtroom.

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