Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Evangelizing to Hard Hearts About the Death Penalty

An old friend of mine is a strong death penalty supporter. He is my "poor man's" focus group on many things, the death penalty among them. Conservative, hard working, married for 25 years, he also hunts with frequency. A plentiful demographic in my corner of the world. As much as my brethren opposed to the death penalty wish it were no so, his view on the death penalty is not isolated to Texas or the South. Two years ago California defeated a initiative that would have abolished the death penalty. Support for the death penalty is also nationwide and stable. This is one reason I thought the information below interesting.

The Death Penalty Information Center recently published data supporting the conclusion a huge gulf has emerged between the states in using the death penalty. Texas, Florida, Oklahoma and Missouri accounted for almost 90% of the executions carried out in 2014. Fewer states may be executing their own, but the states, like my own, that are executing their citizenry are entrenched in its use.

Most states in the pie chart have the death penalty on the books, but have essentially stopped implementing it. One conclusion the data supports is in states that have populations that support the death penalty, there is tolerance for it's non-use.

One of the reasons may be the onslaught of evidence that innocent people have been executed. Conventional anti-death penalty orthodoxy has been to try and convince people an innocent has been executed. There has been meticulously researched, well written long form pieces in the New Yorker and Columbia University Law School that Texas has executed at least two innocent men, Cameron Todd Willingham and Carlos DeLuna, respectively.

The thinking goes that most informed people will be persuaded the death penalty is wrong if it can be proved an innocent has been executed. In Texas, however, many people seem not persuaded. It may not be the intellectually correct position, or even morally right, but there it is. It might work to edge my friend off, but not enough to move to the side of the argument I want him to be on.

How, then, do you soften his hard heart? Can it be done? Is it a waste of time? Can, perhaps, people like him can be softened to a point where their heart allows their head to justify the more rational position that the death penalty makes no public policy or fiscal sense? If my conservative friend can be brought around, anyone can.

But how? How to, if possible, convince, or at least soften, people like my friend on the death penalty? 

I read a book several years ago that started me thinking of a another approach, at least in the court of public opinion in Texas. Written by the late Joe Bageant, the book is a underground classic, Deer Hunting With Jesus: Dispatches from America's Class WarsMother Jones magazine gave a summary in a 2007 review of the disconnect Deer Hunting explores between the people of rural Virginia and conventional liberal thinking:
Bageant uncovers harsh lessons about how liberals failed the people who do society's grunt work, as well as fight our wars, and wind up with nothing to show for it but a broken-down trailer in foreclosure. They're bitter as hell, but they 'vote Republican' because no liberal voice...that speaks the rock-bottom, undeniable truth, ever enters their lives.' 
The wit is merciless and withering. Bageant takes no prisoners. I listen to his ideas because Texas has more in common with Bageant's Shenandoah Valley of Virginia than Southern California. It helps me try and understanding why liberal orthodoxy, and by extension the anti-death penalty message inevitably associated with it fall flat in Texas.

Bageant's listened to people he knew personally to understand why they felt the way they did. He listened not because he agreed with them politically, but he had to know what made them tick, He wanted to know why liberal orthodoxy fell on deaf ears in places that should logically listen. I have tried to hew a path blazed by him.

In other words, I listen to my friend, as difficult as that may be. How can the execution of a almost certainly innocent man be justified? My friend's reply, "That's really a shame, but 'most certainly' we've executed a bunch more who deserved the killin'. Too bad we can't kill 'em the way the killed their victims." 

See that? He justifies the death penalty by the more substantial number who, he believes, not only deserved execution but deserved more of it. My friend is not a brute. He is a voter and goes for jury duty every time summoned. The problem is he has no connection to it, no personal stake. If he stopped and thought about it, which I have tried to make him do, he feels worse about it. It has yet not overridden his abstract thinking that the ultimate punishment should be paid for the ultimate crime. 

I attend church with many people like my friend. I see them at the grocery store. These are not evil people. Thinking of them so is not only wrong headed, it is a dead end. They can be convinced the death penalty is bad public policy, but it is a much easier sell if their heart has been softened. They may always support the death penalty, but perhaps they can tolerate a world without it. 

My conclusions from my small town perch in the reddest part of red Texas?

Death penalty abolitionists must do a better job of acknowledging the suffering of capital murder victims. All of them. According to my one man focus group, we too often have a tin ear when it comes to victims and their families. It is easy to paint us as prioritizing the brutal over their weak. Is he wrong? Prove it. We must embrace ALL the innocents, not just the ones wrongly accused.

We also need to make it more personal to people like my friend. Hold a mirror up to them. They must come to understand they are better people and, yes, citizens if they opposes all death, especially the state sponsored retributive kind, Moreover they can simultaneously embrace the victim of the horrible crime. Help them get to a place where they can accommodate, if not fully support, the idea that they honor the victim by not taking another life, no matter how deserving they believe the death may be.

Let me be even more concrete. Church. Why are we not there? Because we feel alienated by evangelicals? Sorry death penalty abolitionists, that is where most of the voting, jury duty folks are getting their moral fiber in death penalty states like Texas. To my way of thinking, we ought to be evangelizing against the death penalty there.

What some biblical ammunition? Three of the greatest heroes of the inerrant Bible committed murder.

First, Moses. Seeing an Egyptian who was engaged in "beating a Hebrew" Moses "Glanced this way and that" and "[S]eeing no one, he killed [the Egyptian]. When later called on it, Moses fled to Midian so scared, he hid down a well. (Exodus 2:11-15, NIV). Think of what a prosecutor would do with it. Moses acted intentionally, checking for witnesses before the evil deed. He then fled. Guilty knowledge.

Second, King David. He decided to have sex with a married woman, Bathsheba. He was in a position of power over her when he took her. Clouds up consent, eh? Then to rid himself of her husband, Uriah, he intentionally sent him to certain death. "[David wrote] 'Put Uriah at the front line where the fighting is fiercest. Then withdraw from him so he will be struck down and die.'" (2 Samuel 11:1-17, NIV). Aye. Think about that one.

 Finally, the Apostle Paul, the architect of much of the New Testament and its evangelical fervor.. Before converting on the road to Damascus, Saul, as he was then known, was in charge of the brutal stoning death of a spreader of the Word, Stephen. Saul both "approved" the death of this Christian martyr, and  "witnesses laid their clothes at his feet." This is generally accepted to mean Saul was a member of the Sanhedrin, and in charge of the killing. (Acts 7:57-8:1, NIV). In other words, a brutal, sanctioned execution.

I am no scholar, and my purpose is not to preach. Instead, my point is these men killed but were spared from death themselves. They were punished, but shown mercy. More important the mercy shown was repaid.

I am saying convincing people requires going to them on their ground, and using what is important to them. If that ground is in their church, their deer stand (Yes they own weapons. A whole bunch of them. Live with it.) or even over a cold beer, so be it. The tools are there. If they are unfamiliar to you, make yourself familiar to them.

Next, the gift of social media. Write. Blog. Join twitter. Tell and repeat stories that resonate with real people about the death penalty.

Let your friends know about how messed up the death penalty is, especially here in Texas. Talk less about constitutional arguments, more about fairness. Same argument, just framed differently. For starters, why is Texas killing the intellectual disabled even though we are not supposed to be?

There have been plenty of movies and fiction about innocents being executed or those accused crimes they did not commit. What is missing is more of ground plowed by Sister Helen Prejean in the book Dead Man WalkingStories about people guilty of their crimes, and the trauma the death penalty has on all. Themes exploring forgiveness while embracing the horrors of death and what it brings to all. It might not sell to Hollywood, but damn, use the resources of the internet, and the people in your own backyard.

Remember all victims. Make it personal. It may not always work, but one more softened hard heart can lead to another.

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