death row

Standing Against the Death Penalty: It’s About the Families of the Victims

altanaka /

altanaka /

“We cannot endure even to see a man put to death, though justly…We, deeming that to see a man put to death is as much the same as killing him” (Athenagoras of Athens, a Christian philosopher writing a defense of Christianity, speaking against state-sponsored killings and abortions, around 177 A.D.)

I am not sure where it originated, but somewhere someone started a rumor that if you are against the death penalty then you are soft on crime and care more about the guilty than the victim. Nothing could be farther from the truth!

Through marriage, a close relative of mine was murdered. I officiated the funeral. I attempted to comfort my family. I know the pain and evil of murder. I also know the pain and evil of a justice system that freed the killer after a few short years behind bars.

As a minister, and more importantly as a follower of Jesus, I take his words about visiting prisoners seriously (Matthew 25:36). I believe in forgiveness and grace and mercy. I believe in the Great Commandment (Matthew 22:34-40). I also realize you don’t get placed on death row for being a boy scout. People do need to pay for their crimes. The more serious the crime, the more serious the penalty. But ultimately, as a follower of Jesus, I believe in reconciliation. I believe in redemption. I believe no one is outside the realm of God’s mercy and grace.

The Biblical Case Against the Death Penalty, From a Former Supporter

Man behind bars, ANURAK PONGPATIMET /

Man behind bars, ANURAK PONGPATIMET /

“Capital punishment is against the best judgment of modern criminology and, above all, against the highest expression of love in the nature of God” (Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.)

I despise labels, but I guess you can’t get away from them. For example, I am called an American (a label). I would prefer to be called a United States Citizen because the term “American” is ethnocentristicThe term should mean I am part of the American continents, but it is never used that way. “American” is almost always used to refer to a person who lives in the United States. However, Canadians and Mexicans are also Americans; and so are Hondurans and Brazilians.

I wish I could simply be called “Christian.” But that label necessitates the need for additional labels. Am I Protestant or Catholic? Am I orthodox or neo-orthodox? Am I a fundamentalist, an evangelical, or main-line? Am I emergent, traditional, liberal, progressive, or contemporary? To which denomination do I belong, or am I non-denominational? Maybe I am inter-denominational? Am I charismatic or cessastionist?

It’s maddening!

My preference would be to be called a follower of Jesus. But what does that mean?

Then there are political labels … and they are the worst!

Am I conservative or liberal? Am I a Republican or Democrat or Independent or Libertarian or something else? Am I pro-life or pro-choice? Am I a patriot or and antagonizer? Am I a capitalist, socialist, or communist? Where do I stand on gun rights? What about human rights, or same-sex marriage, or LBGT issues, or immigration, or Obamacare, etc., etc., etc … blah, blah, blah …

Why can’t I just be me?

It’s a lost cause. No matter how hard I try not to be boxed in, people label me. So, let me give you my best shot at who I am based on labels. (Of course, if your definition of the labels is not the same as my definition, then we will have a hard time communicating.) Here goes:

Detained on Charges of Forgery, Meriam Ibrahim Is Not Yet Free

Khartoum International Airport, where Meriam Ibrahim was rearrested on Tuesday. Creative Commons image by Jozef Tóth.

A Sudanese Christian doctor freed from death row on charges of apostasy Monday is not yet free after authorities detained her at a Khartoum airport.

Meriam Yahya Ibrahim, 27, was arrested Tuesday after she attempted to leave Sudan using South Sudan emergency papers, including a U.S. visa, according to reports.

She was apprehended along with her husband, Daniel Bicensio Wani, an American citizen of South Sudanese origin, and their two children — 20-month-old son Martin and a 1-month-old daughter.

Capital Punishment and the Power of Art

Dead Man Walking play performed in 2002, Photo by creighton_ccas /

Dead Man Walking play performed in 2002, Photo by creighton_ccas /

The botched execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma on Tuesday has refocused the nation on the inherent contradictions in the death penalty. But here in Wisconsin last week, an opera helped focus the attention of one community on the many human issues woven into the debate over crime and punishment.

In real life at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester, a mix of lethal drugs injected into the body of Lockett caused seizures rather than immediate death. On stage in the opera version of Dead Man Walking, the drug machine clicks, hums, and whirrs with efficiency, leaving the fictional character Joe DerRocher dead on the stage.

Dead Man Walking — the book by Sr. Helen Prejean about her work with prisoners on death row and the families of their victims — became an award-winning movie in the mid-1990s starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn. It was recreated as an opera in 2000 and since then has played in 40 cities.

What happened in Madison, Wis., last week was more than the presentation of an opera. It was the culmination of six weeks of some 20 events engaging about 1,500 community members in discussion of many facets of the criminal justice system. The two performances of the opera itself drew about 3,000 people. It was a classic example of art engaging life.

Capital punishment itself is not so much of an issue in Wisconsin – the state has banned it since 1853. But Wisconsin does have the highest rate of black male incarceration in the nation. Its prison system tilts far more toward punishment than toward treatment and rehabilitation. It imprisons twice as many people as its neighboring and demographically similar state of Minnesota.

Tennessee Death Row Inmates Invite Governor to Pray With Them

Shane Claiborne and Gov. Bill Haslam. Courtesy Shane Claiborne

Shane Claiborne and Gov. Bill Haslam. Courtesy Shane Claiborne

Last week, the men on Tennessee’s death row, four of whom have scheduled execution dates in the near future, invited Gov. Bill Haslam, the man who signs the death warrants, to join them for prayer

The backdrop for the story is that Tennessee has more executions scheduled in a year than the state has had in the past 50 years. Last week as Christians around the world remembered Good Friday, the day Jesus was executed, legislators in the Bible Belt state passed a bill to reinstate the electric chair (which would make it the only state to require death by electrocution). The only thing that could be more troubling would be if Tennessee decided to start crucifying people again. I even heard one politician defend his position saying, “It is God’s job to judge them, but our job to get them to Him.”

Killing People Is Hard to Do

Moose's Last Photo. Photo provided by LaVonne Neff

Twelve years ago we took our beloved Maltese dog, Moose, to the vet and came home without him. Moose was in the late stages of congestive heart failure, and many times each day he was wheezing and crying out in pain. While my daughter held the little dog, the vet gave him a shot. It was over very quickly.

Why don't we treat death row prisoners at least as well as we treat dogs?

"Secret Drugs, Agonizing Deaths" is the headline on an article in yesterday's New York Times. Back when executioners wielded axes, they tended to wear hoods so people wouldn't recognize them. Nowadays states still conceal executioners' identities — and much more.

As Execution Drugs Grow Short, States Scramble on Capital Punishment

Two cells on Death Row in Old Idaho State Penitentiary on July 31, 2013 in Boise, Idaho. Photo: Nagel Photography/Shutterstock

Prison guards meet in the desert to hand off chemicals for executions. A corrections boss loaded with cash travels to a pharmacy in another state to buy lethal sedatives. States across the country refuse to identify the drugs they use to put the condemned to death.

This is the curious state of capital punishment in America today.

Manufacturers are cutting off supplies of lethal injection drugs because of opposition to the death penalty, and prison officials are scrambling to make up the deficit — sharing drugs, buying them from under-regulated pharmacies or using drug combinations never employed before in putting someone to death.

At the same time, growing numbers of states are ending capital punishment altogether. Others are delaying executions until they have a better understanding of what chemicals work best. And the media report blow-by-blow details of prisoners gasping, snorting, or crying out during improvised lethal injection, taking seemingly forever to die.

Legal challenges across this new capital punishment landscape are flooding courts, further complicating efforts by states that want to keep putting people to death.

Death Penalty for Jesus

Stained glass window of Jesus scourging, Nancy Bauer /

Stained glass window of Jesus scourging, Nancy Bauer /

In 2009, after moving to Southern California, a neighbor, Tom Rotert, who is an attorney, asked about my reporting on wrongful convictions and wrongful executions while I was at the Chicago Tribune.

I explained that along with my fellow reporter Steve Mills, we had documented numerous wrongful convictions in Illinois and the executions of two innocent men in Texas — Carlos DeLuna and Cameron Todd Willingham.

 “You know who the ultimate wrongful execution is, don’t you?” Rotert asked. “It was Jesus Christ. They killed the son of God.”

The crucifixion of Jesus Christ doesn’t come up very often in discussions about wrongful convictions in America, but as California voters prepare to go to the polls to vote on Proposition 34 which would ban the death penalty in this state, two lawyers — one from Chicago and one from Minneapolis — are doing exactly that.

Visiting Jesus in Jail

Prison photo, luxorphoto /

Prison photo, luxorphoto /

What struck me as he spoke was the sheer human potential of this my client, wasted. That matters for all of us because of an unflinching Scriptural text about how we can enter the kingdom of God: “for I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink; I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me….just as you did it to the least of those who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matt. 25:35-40)

That’s the test. Not beliefs or intentions. Actions. 

Specific actions: Jesus tells us to visit people considered the worst among us, those accused of breaking the law. 

It’s not just innocent prisoners we are to see; it’s prisoners. They are all Jesus.