Rev. Robert H. Tucker
Sermons on the Web

Would Jesus Pull the Switch?
A Christian Views Capital Punishment

Part of the continuing conversation on the faith journey
with the members and friends of
First Congregational Church of Houston


the Reverend Robert H. Tucker
July 13, 1997

Humans, when in communitya nation, a family, a church or even a slumber partydevelop common rules of behavior. Constitutions and laws, as well as unspoken understandings of acceptable behavior are pervasive in human communities. For example, here at First Congregational, even though we have a constitution, a nonconstitutional but overriding principle is that openness is valued and dogmatism is not.

Rules carry with them a variety of punishments, depending on the violation and the group: a verbal tonguelashing, isolation, a monetary fine, and even death.

In the community of ancient Israel, the basic laws were found in the five books of MosesGenesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Since today's sermon is about capital punishment, I will read some of the ancient offenses requiring the death penalty.

Death is the punishment for murder. But if you did not intend to kill someone, and I, the Lord, let it happen anyway, you may run for safety to a place that I have set aside. If you plan in advance to murder someone, there's no escape, not even by holding onto my altar. You will be dragged off and killed.
Death is the punishment for attacking your father or mother.
Death is the punishment for kidnapping. If you sell the person you kidnapped, or if you are caught with that person, the penalty is death.
Death is the punishment for cursing your father or mother.
Death is the punishment for beating to death any of your slaves. However, if the slave lives a few days after the beating, you are not to be punished. After all, you have already lost the services of that slave who was your servant.
Suppose a pregnant woman suffers a miscarriage as the result of an injury caused by someone who is fighting. If she isn't badly hurt, the one who injured her must pay whatever fine her husband demands and the judges approve. But if she is seriously injured, the payment will be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, cut for cut, and bruise for bruise.
Death is the punishment for witchcraft.
Death is the punishment for having sex with an animal.
Death is the punishment for offering sacrifices to any god except me.
If any of you men have sex with another man's wife, both you and the woman will be put to death, just as you deserve.
Exodus 21:1225; 22:1820; Leviticus 20:10 (CEV)

This law, making adultery a crime deserving death, is the background for this familiar story from John's Gospel.

Early the next morning Jesus went to the temple. The people came to him, and he sat down and started teaching them.
The Pharisees and the teachers of the Law of Moses brought in a woman who had been caught in bed with a man who wasn't her husband. They made her stand in the middle of the crowd. Then they said, "Teacher, this woman was caught sleeping with a man who isn't her husband. The Law of Moses teaches that a woman like this should be stoned to death! What do you say?"
They asked Jesus this question, because they wanted to test him and bring some charge against him.
2 But Jesus simply bent over and started writing on the ground with his finger.
They kept on asking Jesus about the woman. Finally, he stood up and said, "If any of you have never sinned, then go ahead and throw the first stone at her!" Once again he bent over and began writing on the ground. The people left one by one, beginning with the oldest. Finally, Jesus and the woman were there alone.
Jesus stood up and asked her, "Where is everyone? Is there no one left to accuse you?"
"No sir," the woman answered.
Then Jesus told her, "I am not going to accuse you either. You may go now, but don't sin anymore."
John 8:211 (CEV)

I titled today's sermon, "Would Jesus Pull the Switch?" One person commented that the title is a bit "crude." I admit it is. But, the title does make a point. For, when the issue of capital punishment is put that boldly, it is hard to conceive of Jesus participating in, much less approving of, capital punishment.

Twice Jesus spoke directly to the issue of capital punishment. The first is in the story I just read, when he intervened in the legitimate execution of a women for a capital crime. He didn't directly counteract the Law of Moses, but he did point to the executioners' illusion of innocence and moral purity: ""If any of you have never sinned, then go ahead and pull the switch!" And, the only one there who was innocent enough to throw the stone wanted nothing to do with killing her.

The second time Jesus addressed this issue was at his own execution. And, make no mistake about it, crucifixion was an execution. It was the way that the Romans got rid of someone who committed a serious offense, like rebellion. Letting a person slowly die over several hours was meant as a deterrent to others. But, Jesus asked forgiveness for his executioners, saying "they know not what they do." According to the record, Pilate recognized Jesus' innocence. But, he bowed to political pressure and executed a person unjustly.

That may be Jesus' view of capital punishment, but does that view extend to the Timothy McVeigh's of our world? Outwardly, McVeigh showed no feeling when looking at the pictures of the 167 children, men and women who were killed in the bombing of the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City. Individuals like McVeigh certainly make the death penalty eminently reasonable.

Along with McVeigh, there is another person who could serve as a poster child for the death penalty: Theodore Bundy. Bundy was finally killed in 1989 in Florida's electric chair. He was a mass murderer who killed innocent women, repeatedly and without inhibition, across several states. Only at the very end did he began to tantalize police with information about his many crimessome for which he wasn't even suspected. By drawing out the process, he postponed his execution.

But, if we are going to look to McVeigh and Bundy for justification of the death penalty, we also need to listen to the story of another less well known Floridian, James Richardson. Twenty years before Bundy, Richardson was tried and convicted of killing his seven children. Crucial to his conviction was the fact that the night before the murders he took out insurance policies on his children. Such coldblooded murder of one's own children for profit got Richardson what he deservedthe death penalty.

Some, though, didn't believe he was guilty. They eventually turned up the following facts:

Twentyone years in prison for a crime he did not commitfour of those years sitting on death row and once being put through a "dry run" execution which meant a shaving of the head and being buckleddown in the electric chairRichardson was released.4

The story of James Richardson is not an isolated example. Just last year we read in the newspaper the story of Rolando Cruz.
In 1985, to cite just one example, Rolando Cruz and another Chicago man were sentenced to death for the 1983 abduction, rape and murder of 10yearold Jeannie Nicarico. The prosecution based its case on a "vision statement" from Cruza dream about the murder he'd allegedly recounted to police. The convection was overturned, and Cruz was retried in 1990, but another manwho had actually confessed to the crimewas not allowed to testify, and Cruz was convicted on the same dream evidence. In 1994 the state Supreme Court overturned Cruz's second conviction, and the government began preparations for a third trial; this time the key prosecution witness recanted, and DNA evidence cleared him. Cruz was acquitted in November 1995. Three prosecutors and four cops have been indicted in the he case. After 11 years, Cruz is freebut under current federal law limiting appeals, he might not have fared so well.

It might be said that the system works since two innocent individuals were not killed. But, we only know their stories because they had individuals on the outside who would not let the matter alone.

Since it is the State that prosecutes, if Richardson and Cruz had been executed, the citizens of the States of Florida and Illinois would have participated in murder. In that case, should the citizens of those two states have been taken to court as accessories to murder?

For me, that is one of the most serious objections to capital punishment. When the State of Texas executes a person, I, as a citizen of the State, am an accessory to that murder. To me, it makes little sense to show our disapproval of killing by killing.
It is the deed that teaches, not the name we give it. Murder and capital punishment are not opposites that cancel one another, but similars that breed their kind.
George Bernard Shaw
Man and Superman, 1903

When we abolished the punishment for treason that you should be hanged, and then cut down while still alive, and then disemboweled while still alive and then quartered, we did not abolish that punishment because we sympathized with traitors, but because we took the view that it was a punishment no longer consistent with our selfrespect.
Lord Chancellor Gardiner, debating for the abolition of the death penalty,
House of Lords, 1965

In my experience, there is no grief deeper and longerlasting than the death of a child. So devastating is it that the divorce rate of parents whose child has died or been killed is 80%! Listening to the parents of those killed in Oklahoma City is especially poignant. I can well understand the desire for revenge.
the payment will be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, cut for cut, and bruise for bruise.

Sister Helen Prejean wrote in her book, Dead Man Walking:
Maybe this is my sensitivity, not Sonnier's. Maybe he doesn't care about the pain he inflicts on others. Maybe he doesn't even realize that his victims' families, cursed with memory of their slain loved ones, will forever occupy a "death row" of their own because of him.

If someone I love should be killed, I know I would feel rage, loss, grief, helplessness, perhaps for the rest of my life. It would be arrogant to think I can predict how I would respond to such a disaster. But Jesus Christ, whose way of life I try to follow, refused to meet hate with hate and violence with violence. I pray for strength to be like him. I cannot believe in a God who metes out hurt for hurt, pain for pain, torture for torture. Nor do I believe that God invests human representatives with such power to torture and kill. The paths of history are stained with the blood of those who have fallen victim to God's Avengers." Kings and Popes and military generals and heads of state have killed, claiming God's authority and God's blessing. I do not believe in such a God.

(She goes on to say, and I find myself in agreement with her)

In sorting out my feelings and beliefs, there is, however, one piece off moral ground of which I am absolutely certain: if I were to be murdered I would not want my murderer executed. I would not want my death avenged, Especially by governmentwhich can't be trusted to control its own bureaucrats or collect taxes equitably or fill a pothole, much less decide which of its citizens to kill.
Albert Camus' "Reflections on the Guillotine" is for me a moral compass on the issue of capital punishment. He wrote this essay in 1957 when the stench of Auschwitz was still in the air, and one of his cardinal points is that no government is ever innocent enough or wise enough or just enough to lay claim to so absolute a power as death.

Camus addresses the moral contradictions inherent in a policy which imitates the violence it claims to abhor, a violence, he says, made more grievous by premeditation:

So not to stack the deck with only one viewpoint, let me read to you what one philosopher, Walter Berns, wrote.
Capital punishment serves to remind us of the majesty of the moral order that is embodied in our law and of the terrible consequences of its breach The criminal law must be made awful, by which I mean aweinspiring, or commanding `profound respect or reverential fear.' It must remind us of the moral order by which alone we can live as human beings. Which is to say, some animals need killing, if only to remind the rest of us animals how to live. By this standard state executions evince more reverence for life.

Certainly, the American public is much closer to philosopher Berns than to the position I have articulated in this sermon. In fact:
Current polls show that 74% of Americans favor the death penalty for individuals convicted of serious crimes, and 16% oppose the death penalty (the rest are undecided). Those figures hold even though a majority of people do not believe the death penalty deters people from committing crimes (52% in a 1995 poll, and 67% of police chiefs said they did not think the death penalty deters homicide).

It is the poor who die. In three recent capital cases in Houston defense lawyers were observed to be sleeping during the trials. Appeal courts have not considered this a serious enough matter to retry the case! With money, a person can get: a crackerjack lawyer, top-notch investigators, a ballistics expert, and a psychologist for jury selection. Also, if a district attorney knows he is up against a top-notch lawyer, he or she will consider the fact that there is a distinct possibility of losing the case. A noncapital charge for a plea bargain might be considered. I think it is telling that in February of this year, the American Bar Association called for a moratorium on executions because "the administration of the death penalty, far from being fair and consistent, is instead a haphazard maze of unfair practices with no internal consistency."
13 (Time, 32-33)

With Jesus speaking against, and never for, the death penalty, with the arbitrariness of our system of capital punishment, with capital punishment adding to our culture of death, and with the State making me a participant in murder, the very crime for which a person is put to death, I am led to view the death penalty as something that needs to be eliminated.

Would Jesus pull the switch? To me, the answer is very clear: NO.

1 As a rule, anyone who ran to the altar was safe from the death penalty, until proven guilty. The same idea was alive in medieval Christianity. It is from this that places of worship are still called a "sanctuary."

2 That is, if Jeus didn't approve of the punishment, he could be accused of violating the Law of Moses (a very serious crime); if he said, "Go ahead," then Jesus' message of acceptance, love and forgiveness would be diluted, and the charge of hypocrisy could be leveled against him.

3 Jesus' death was a legitimate state execution and the cross has the same status as a hangman's noose, an electric chair or a syringe with needle. If any of those symbols appeared on our antependium SundayafterSunday, we would find that deeply distrubing. In a like manner, Christians in the early centuries would find the cross also deeply disturbing.

4 Lloyd Steffen. "Casting the First Stone." From Baird, Robert M. and Rosenbaum, Stuart E., eds. Punishment and the Death Penalty: The Current Debate. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 1995, pp. 137140. [Reprinted form Christianity and Crisis 50, no. 1 (February 5, 199), 11-16.]

5 Time, p. 35.

6 Ian Gray & Moria Stanley. A Punishment in Search of a Crime: Americans Speak Out Against the Death Penalty. New York, Avon, 1989, p. 5.

7 Ibid., p. 19

8 Prejean, Sister Helen. Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States. New York: Random House, 1993. p. 11.

9 "Reflections on the Guillotine" in Resistance, Rebellion, and Death, by Albert Camus, trans. Justin O'Brian. New York: Vintage Books, 1974, p. 225226. As quoted in Prejean, Sister Helen. Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States. New York: Random House, 1993. pp. 2122.

10 Prejean, pp. 21-22.

11 Time, pp. 33-34

12 Four statesLouisiana, Georgia, Texas, Floridahave 2/3 of all this country's executions.

13 Time, pp. 32-33.


Baird, Robert M. and Rosenbaum, Stuart E., eds. Punishment and the Death Penalty: The Current Debate. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 1995. [ISBN 0-87975-946-1 (pb)] [Cor 364.66 Pun]

Camus, Albert. "Reflections on the Guillotine" in Resistance, Rebellion, and Death, trans. Justin O'Brien. New York: Vintage, 1974, pp. 225226.

Clayton, Mark, "Gentle' Canada Eyes Death Penalty Again." The Christian Science Monitor, 19 July 1995, p.7

Gray, Ian and Stanley, Moira. A Punishment in Search of a Crime: Americans Speak Out Against the Death Penalty. New York, Avon, 1989 [ISBN 0-38-75923-3] [Cor 364.66 Gra]

Newsweek, 16 June 1997, pp. 20-30.

Prejean, Sister Helen. Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the united States. New York: Random House, 1993.
[[ISBN 0-679-75131-9] [Cor 364.66 Pre]

Time, 16 June 1997, pp. 26-39.

Tushnet, Mark. The Death Penalty" Constitutional Issues. New York: Fact on File, 1994. [ISBN 0-8160-252-9] [Cor 345.73 Tus]

U. S. News & World Report, 16 June 1997, pp. 24-32.

©Robert H. Tucker
13 July 1997


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