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Racial reconciliation demands Christians reconsider the death penalty (COMMENTARY)

San Quentin death chamber

(RNS) A new report by the Equal Justice Initiative documents in horrific detail the nation’s widespread practice of lynching and points to a link between lynching and a practice that persists today: capital punishment.

In the Jim Crow South, lynching declined as officials turned to executions as an alternative method for killing blacks in disproportionate numbers.

This report challenges us to confront our nation’s legacy of racial violence. Sadly, too many Christians were complicit in this violence, which has prompted Christian denominations to apologize and emphasize racial reconciliation. Last week, the Southern Baptist Convention held a two-day race summit in which it urged pastors to do more to diversify their churches.

San Quentin death chamber. Photo courtesy California Department of Corrections

San Quentin death chamber. Photo courtesy of California Department of Corrections

These are important steps. But they only mark time if important actions don’t follow. Denominations must overcome institutional inertia that hampers efforts to tackle today’s systemic injustices. The death penalty is a case in point. At the same time that the Southern Baptist Convention apologizes for its complicity in racial oppression and urges racial reconciliation, the denomination remains a vocal proponent of capital punishment.

This position is difficult to justify on several levels. The history of the death penalty is paved with inequities along racial lines. It continues to have a negative impact upon communities of color. During Jim Crow, for certain crimes the death penalty was reserved almost entirely for blacks. The following statistic is particularly telling: From 1930 to 1967, 90 percent of those executed for rape in the U.S. were black men convicted of raping white women — whether they actually did it or not. Analyst Edwin Grimsley of the Innocence Project points out that when black defendants faced all-white juries, which were infected by prejudice, too often skin color, not evidence of guilt, condemned them to death.

Racial disparities in the death penalty’s application unfortunately did not end with Jim Crow. University of North Carolina’s Professor Frank Baumgartner did a comprehensive study of executions between 1977 and 2013. Aptly titled “#BlackLivesDon’tMatter,” the study reveals that executions are significantly more likely when murder victims are white. During the period studied, 47 percent of all murder victims in the U.S. were black. But only 17 percent of the victims were black in cases ending in execution.

These disparities, caused by a criminal justice system that imposes more severe sentences for the murder of whites, reflects a criminal justice system that emerged from a national history in which black lives don’t matter.

Christians cannot ignore this reality. The death penalty consistently puts communities of color at greater risk of wrongful execution. Of the 150 individuals in the U.S. sentenced to death and later exonerated after new evidence of innocence emerged, 60 percent are black or Latino.

Some SBC leaders recognize that racial bias mars the death penalty, but their steadfast support for the practice in the absence of clear solutions to its injustices betrays a lack of concern on an issue important to communities of color (notably, a majority of blacks and Latinos oppose capital punishment).

In a podcast defending capital punishment, Russell Moore, president of the SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, concedes that Christians might object to the death penalty in practice due to injustices in its application, such as “racial bias.” He does not pursue this point, simply noting, “Those are different conversations.”

Antipas L. Harris, Associate Professor at Regent University School of Divinity and President of GIELD. Photo courtesy of  Zachery A. Smith Sr.

Antipas L. Harris, associate professor at Regent University School of Divinity and president of GIELD. Photo courtesy of Zachery A. Smith Sr.

Moore’s bracketing the racial issue marginalizes its importance. At what point does capital punishment, which devalues black life in a systemic fashion, warrant these conversations and meaningful action to confront its injustices?

The tension between the SBC’s emphasis on racial reconciliation and support for capital punishment brings to mind Jesus’ parable of the wineskins. Denominations run into problems when they pursue racial healing without rethinking theological and ideological perspectives that have helped sustain practices plagued by racial bias. It is like trying to put new wine into old wineskins. Inevitably, as Jesus teaches us, the wineskins break.

As Christians engage in the process of racial reconciliation, we must be open to new wineskins. If we are, we will not only apologize for the injustices of the past, but will also recognize theological blind spots that stand in the way of working to end the injustices of today.

(Antipas L. Harris is associate professor at Regent University School of Divinity and president of the Global Institute for Empowerment & Leadership Development, known as GIELD.)

YS/MG END HARRIS

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Antipas L. Harris

14 Comments

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  • Any religious group advocating death penalty will be guilty of murder if an innocent person has been wrongfully sentenced to death.

    They will be violating the ten commandments and God will be their judge on the day of judgment for murdering an innocent person.

  • How can SBC be both, pro-life and pro-death at the same time? Do you suffer from split personality disorder? Are you some kind of Dr Jekyll and Mr.Hyde?

  • So, if you really want something done in our purely and historically secular society . . . you ask the Christians for the solution.

    Ah yes, the place where morality finds its validation.

    Got it.

  • So let’s unpack this gobbledygook:

    If the main reason for calling the death penalty unjust is that guilty black and Latino murderers are more likely to be executed than guilty white murderers, then how does it advance justice to call for nobody to be executed?

    Put another way, if capital punishment is inherently just but its discriminatory application unjust, the injustice in today’s system is not that black and Hispanic murderers are being executed; it’s that white murderers are less likely to be executed. If we did away with the death penalty, we would be making a bad situation worse, because then we would be meting out justice to no murderer, black, Hispanic, or white.

  • Of course, opponents of the death penalty are using the race disparity to abolish capital punishment because they oppose it for deeper reasons……The smart ones know as well as anyone that if racial disparities are the sole reason to oppose capital punishment, the way to close the disparity from a justice standpoint would be, again, to execute more white people who are guilty….not to execute no one.

    The only way to counter this is to admit that one actually opposes the death penalty based on other reasons.

  • But based on that logic, the criminal justice system shouldn’t penalize anyone for anything, since there’s always a chance the person is innocent.

    Imagine, for example, being put in prison for decades for a serious crime you didn’t commit — let’s say it’s murder.

    Is that an argument against lengthy jail sentences for murder?

  • One question is whether genocidal murderers should be put to death — a Hitler or Stalin, a Pol Pot or a Saddam Hussein….

    If the answer is yes, then why is it wrong for someone who is just as evil and sadistic, but who didn’t get the opportunity to commit genocide, not to get the death penalty?

    There is no essential difference between the worst sociopathic criminals in America and the sociopaths who get control of other countries and kill people there. The only difference is that of opportunity — one is in power and the other is not….and by being in power, got to murder more people.

    Empty our jails and put all the killers in charge of our government and you would see genocide.

  • Sorry, I’ll repost since I screwed up the wording the first time:

    Why is it wrong for someone who is just as evil and sadistic as a genocidal ruler of a country, but who didn’t get the opportunity to commit genocide, to get the death penalty?

    A sadistic, remorseless thug without a conscience tortures and kills several people despite their begging for their life…..another sadistic, remorseless thug without a conscience gets control of a country and kills thousands of times as many people.

    Besides opportunity, what is the difference between the two? The second one is simply the first one who has managed to gain real power. But they’re both despicably evil individuals.

  • IN other words, we need to see remorseless murderers as little Hitlers in order to reacquaint ourselves with the “justice” argument for the death penalty.

    And when the murderer is from a poor neighborhood, we need to remember all the other poor people in that neighborhood that he terrorized….and all the other poor people in that neighborhood who remained law-abiding and did not turn to crime like he did. When we are lenient on him because of his background, we make a mockery of the Herculean efforts of others in his community to avoid living a life like he did. We dishonor every law-abiding person in his community.

  • Racial reconciliation doesn’t demand we become softer on crime and punishment….that sounds like an inherently racist argument, even if not intended to be.

    Racial reconciliation demands that we embrace full racial equality — equal rights and equal responsibilities for all. If we hold any race to a lower standard in any way, that is not racial equality, but its betrayal.

  • Jack, I oppose the death penalty for three reasons that have nothing to do with racial disparities.

    Killing people to show people who kill people that killing people is wrong is too oxymoronic for me.

    Mistakes have been made– repeatedly.

    The death penalty has been applied to “offenses” against “Christian morality”, like being gay, being a witch, being a heretic. We’re not doing that any more, but we did for a long time.

    Now, to contradict myself. We live in a racial culture and always have. It does not surprise me in the slightest that people who are not white are executed a greater rates, however measured, than people who are. It’s just (some people’s)human nature to exercise one’s prejudices and pretend that one is just being righteous.

    so I am against it for that reason at all.

  • “Religious reconciliation demands that we embrace full religious equality — equal rights and equal responsibilities for all. If we hold any group of people to a lower standard in any way, that is not religious equality, but its betrayal.

  • Jack, there is no deterrent effect to capital punishment. It is applied too broadly to crimes where it is not appropriate (felony murder being the chief example). It is applied too broadly under prejudicial circumstances.

    Lets not fool ourselves here. It is meant for punishment. Retribution from society for acts which fall outside of anything acceptable.

    As such it is only appropriate against the worst of the worst: Serial/mass killers, professional killers, murders with extreme sadism/torture. But it is hardly so limited in application. Hence it must be revised.

    So why are you so bloodthirsty?

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