Last night, death was interrupted when the U.S. Supreme Court issued a stay of execution for a Texas man convicted of a double murder in Houston in 1995.
Duane Buck was set for execution by lethal injection sometime after 6 p.m., Thursday September 15 in Huntsville, Texas. His execution would have been the second this week and the 11th so far this year in Texas alone. Two more executions are scheduled for next week.
The Supreme Court issued its stay of execution in order to have time to examine further an appeal filed by Buck's attorneys that argued his rights were violated when, during his 1997 trial, an expert witness told jurors that he would be more dangerous in the future because he is black.
Buck's actual guilt in the murders of his former girlfriend and another man, for which he received the death penalty, is not being contested.
Buck's attorneys also had appealed to Texas Gov. Rick Perry to stay the execution, but Perry refused. When Perry, who is running for president, celebrated Texas' 234 executions last week in a televised candidates debate, the audience roared in applause. (Perry was campaigning in Iowa Thursday when the Supreme Court halted Buck's execution.)
As a Christian I found that deeply disturbing.
There is an incident in the gospels where Jesus is asked about the death penalty. Here's the scene: A woman has been humiliated and dragged before the town, ready to be killed. Her execution was legal; her crime was a capital one. But just because it's legal, doesn't make it right.
Jesus interrupts the scene -- with grace.
He tells all the men who are ready to kill the woman, "Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone." And of course he reminds us all that if we have looked at someone with lust in our eyes we are adulterers. If we have called our neighbor a fool we are a murder.
You can hear the stones start to drop, as the men walk away. The only one who is left with any right to throw a stone is Jesus -- and he has absolutely no inclination to do so.
We can see that the closer we are to God the less we want to throw stones at other people.
It is this dual conviction -- that no one is above reproach and that no one is beyond redemption -- that lies at the heart of our faith. Undoubtedly it's why the early Christians were characterized by nonviolence, even in the face of brutal evil, torture, and execution.
Of all people, we who follow the executed and risen Christ should be people who are pro-life, pro-grace, anti-death.
These last 2,000 years of Christianity have been filled with those interruptions of death. After all, many evangelicals believe that Jesus' own death on the cross was an interruption ("the wages of sin are death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ" Romans 6:23.)
According to conventional evangelical wisdom, our sin would warrant us all the death penalty were it not for Jesus. How then can we who have been spared death so quickly become people who are ready to dish it out?
Besides, much of the Bible is written by murderers who have been given a second chance -- such as David (who committed adultery with Bathsheba and then had her husband killed).
How can we rejoice in death -- even the death of a "terrorist" like Osama bin Laden -- when half of the new testament was written by a terrorist named Saul of Tarsus (who went door to door trying to kill the early Christians before his radical transformation)? His conversion was so radical it was as if "scales fell from his eyes" (Acts 9:18) and so fundamental that he even changed his name.
The interruptions of death continue. I recently heard a friend of mine who is living in prison tell me his story, one very similar to Buck's.
My friend, admittedly and regrettably, committed a terrible crime. But the victim's family members were Christians, and so in court they argued against the death penalty. They insisted that we are all better than the worst things we do, and that no one is beyond redemption. And they knew that there is something wrong with killing someone to show that killing is wrong. Because of their persistent grace, my friend was spared the death penalty. In prison, he pondered their words, began reading the gospels