innocence

Racial Reconciliation Demands Christians Reconsider the Death Penalty

Photo via California Department of Corrections / RNS
San Quentin death chamber. Photo via California Department of Corrections / 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.

These are important steps.

But they only mark time if important actions don’t follow.

A New Kind of Virginity

Renata Sedmakova/Shutterstock.com
The concept of virgin birth does not argue for sex being a bad idea. Renata Sedmakova/Shutterstock.com

In her first televised interview in more than a decade, Monica Lewinsky (who needs no introduction) says she was “a virgin to humiliation” at the time she made highly explicit world news about her White House trysts with then-President Bill Clinton.

Lewinsky may have coined a new term here in this National Geographic documentary on the 1990s. (And if she’s trying to change the subject for which she is so unfortunately known, this was not a good choice of words.)

The word virgin, in addition to its usual meaning, uses sexual inexperience as a metaphor for a state of being unviolated, untainted, innocent, clean. That association is damaging. It suggests that sex is bad, that it’s always a violation. I think most can agree that this is not true.

The concept of virgin birth — which occurs in more than one religion — does not argue for sex being a bad idea, though it can easily be taken that way; such an event can instead simply show that the child’s father is divine. In addition, Catholic doctrine of Immaculate Conception does not mean that the birth came about by a “cleaner” method than the usual biological one; this is instead a belief in Mary as a person born without sin.

Four Ways Children Do Faith Better Than Adults

Smiling child,  mimagephotography / Shutterstock.com
Smiling child, mimagephotography / Shutterstock.com

It’s easy for the faith of children to go unnoticed. But here are four spiritual things kids do better than adults:

They Ask Questions:

Nobody asks more — or better — questions than children. “Who?” “What?” “Where?” “When?” and “Why?” are expressions patented by kids everywhere. They’re obnoxiously curious and want to know everything about everything.

They aren’t afraid to ask the most difficult and messy questions. Too often we mistake spiritual maturity for certainty, and lose our thirst for discovery. Kids remind us how to approach God — truthfully, stubbornly, inquisitively, and tirelessly.

 

Missed Reckonings

THE MOST common image of the assassination of President Kennedy is embedded in the collective consciousness due to the fact that it was the subject of what may be the most-seen film in history, Abraham Zapruder’s 26-second home movie, grainy and garish in color and fact. The more recent eruption of reality television may have left us nearly unshockable, but a long, hard look at Zapruder’s short, hard film is still horrifying. The most provocative context in which I’ve seen the film located is Stephen Sondheim’s meaty musical Assassins. The Broadway production had Neil Patrick Harris as Lee Harvey Oswald with the film projected onto his white T-shirt. That the show took place at Studio 54 served to underline the demonic bargain at the intersection of the military-industrial-circus complex: The nightclub theater location satirized the fact that our stories about killing can either critique the cultural appetite for destruction or serve to perpetuate more of it as a form of entertainment.

If Assassins was the most provocative screen for the Zapruder film, the most politically complex is Oliver Stone’s 1991 movie JFK, now being rereleased to mark the assassination anniversary. It’s one of the greatest examples of cinematic craft applied to polemic (current examples are Captain Phillips and 12 Years a Slave)—edited like a dance, with a television miniseries’ worth of big name actors (Jack Lemmon, Sissy Spacek, Walter Matthau, Donald Sutherland, John Candy) in small roles holding up the edifice of big speechifying done by Kevin Costner and Tommy Lee Jones. It’s a thrilling film, and it has intellectual substance—the point is not whether or not the conspiracy theory posited in JFK is true, but that human beings “sin by silence” when we should speak.

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From the Archives: November 1994

I GREW UP in rural Mississippi, a black girl who lived “out in the booneys,” fairly isolated from peers outside school. My God-fearing parents brought me up in an African Methodist Episcopal church that stood just beyond the edge of the woods. At the right age, I waded into a muddy watering hole, only recently vacated by the cows who drank there, and got dunked by the preacher and welcomed into the church and the kingdom of God.

That was my baptism, but I wouldn’t call it a conversion experience. I felt very innocent then, and would until I left home for college in Massachusetts. There I got my first taste of diversity. Most of my classmates didn’t believe as I did. Most of my African-American friends felt as if my faith was some kind of relic from our slave heritage, a white-supremacist trick that I had bought into.

Up until then I hadn’t had any inclination to become political, and life hadn’t given me any reason to be angry. I still haven’t learned these traits well, even though it was in the educated Northeast, not the backwoods of Dixie, that I personally experienced the pain of racial hatred, sexism, and religious bigotry for the first time. ... I’m sure my generation will continue to struggle with meaning, identity, and purpose until they come to realize that, from an eternal perspective, the only equal opportunity that matters is our equal access to God’s grace.

Jennifer Parker was an assistant editor with Urban Family magazine when this article appeared.

Image: Eye, Remus Moise / Shutterstock.com

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It's Hip to be Plain

ONE SUNDAY EVENING during high school, friends from my Mennonite church and I drove around Lancaster County, Pa., stealing mattresses. Bored by too many evenings of roller skating and Truth or Dare, we, like teenagers everywhere, landed on thievery as the solution to adolescent ennui. Having found out which of our friends were away from home, we showed up at their houses, told their parents about our prank, and swore them to secrecy. Then we clomped up narrow staircases to their sons’ and daughters’ bedrooms and wrestled mattresses back downstairs and onto the bed of a pickup truck. Just before our getaways, we left notes on our friends’ dressers, signed with what we thought was a most clever alias: “The Mennonite Mafia.”

We had no idea that 25 years later, Amish Mafia would be a blockbuster reality show, its first episode attracting 10 times more viewers than there are Amish people. Had you told us then that a bunch of Amish and Mennonite kids growing up a few miles away would someday parlay boredom-induced shenanigans into a hit cable TV series, I don’t know whether we would have been flattered or jealous. Kate Stoltzfus? Rebecca Byler? Lebanon Levi? People with names like these—our “plain-dressing” Amish neighbors and the more conservative Mennonite kids we went to school with—were the butt of our jokes, not the cynosures of popular culture.

Only a few decades after we and our families exited the conspicuous conservatism of plain Anabaptism, mass culture is flocking toward it. From Amish-themed reality TV shows to Christian romance novels with Amish characters and settings, the media have finally landed the lucrative Amish account, although the furniture industry and “Weird Al” Yankovic’s “Amish Paradise” got there first. Americans’ enthrallment with the Amish—and schadenfreude about their sometimes wayward youth—has rarely been more intense.

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Four Reasons to Rethink the Death Penalty

Across the political and religious spectrum, Americans are rethinking the death penalty. Here are some reasons why:

Mistakes. In January 2012, Joe D'Ambrosio became the 140th person on death row in the U.S. to be exonerated since 1973. Addressing the issue of biased application, Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan said in 1994 that "the death penalty is imposed not only in a freakish and discriminatory manner, but also in some cases upon defendants who are actually innocent."

Bias. In many death-penalty states, defendants are much more likely to be executed if their victim was white. Studies show that black defendants are more likely to receive the death penalty than others. And in death-penalty states, 98 percent of chief district attorneys are white and only 1 percent are African American.

No deterrent. Study after study shows that capital punishment does not deter murder. The murder rate in states without the death penalty has remained consistently lower than the rates in states with capital punishment.

Cost. As Fox News famously reported in 2010, "Every time a killer is sentenced to die, a school closes." Studies in North Carolina show the state could save $11 million a year by substituting life in prison for death sentences. —The Editors

Image: Time to rethink, donskarpo / Shutterstock.com

 

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Gandalf, Gollum, and the Death Penalty

EARLY IN J.R.R. Tolkien's The Fellowship of the Ring, Gandalf the wizard is talking with the hobbit Frodo Baggins about the dreadful Gollum. The frightened Frodo expresses his regret that his uncle Bilbo had not killed "that vile creature, when he had a chance!"

Because of "all those horrible deeds" that Gollum has done, Frodo adds, "He deserves death." Gandalf replies, "Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. For even the very wise cannot see all ends. I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured before he dies, but there is a chance of it."

I do not know where Tolkien stood on the issue of capital punishment, but Gandalf offers theologically relevant points about innocence, guilt, judgment, and hope that Christians should seriously consider as heated debate continues about the morality of this lethal governmental practice.

While a majority of Americans still view capital punishment as morally justified, there is growing opposition to it. Indeed, the number of death sentences dropped to a 35-year low in 2011, and the annual number of executions since 1999, the year in which the most persons were put to death, has with a few exceptions continued to decrease. Seventeen states have abolished capital punishment, including Connecticut, which outlawed the death penalty on April 25, 2012, for any future crimes committed. In 2012, 12 states had active legislation to end it. Why?

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Trials and Errors

Among democratic nations, the United States has the highest death penalty rate in the world. As the only G8 country to regularly use capital punishment, the United States joins China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, North Korea, and Yemen as the world's leaders in executions.

  • Since 1973, 141 people in 26 states have been exonerated from death row with evidence of their innocence.
  • 17 states and the District of Columbia have abolished the death penalty. However, the federal death penalty can still be enforced in every state.
  • The annual cost of California's current death penalty system is $137 million per year . The cost of a system that imposes lifetime incarceration rather than the death penalty would be $11.5 million per year.
  • Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, 35 percent of those who have been executed have been African American (African Americans constitute about 14 percent of the U.S. population).

—Compiled by Elaina Ramsey

Sources: Amnesty International; Death Penalty Information Center; California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice; U.S. Census.

Image: Hands of a prisoner, BortN66 / Shutterstock.com

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Groundbreaking Report: Exonerees Served More than 10,000 Years in Prison for Crimes They Didn't Commit

A few of the 891 exonerees included in the new Registry. Photo via MauricePossle
A few of the 891 exonerees included in the new Registry. Photo via MauricePossley.com

Nearly a quarter of a century after DNA testing was used to prove that a defendant had been falsely convicted of a crime, the American public has become familiar with the phenomenon and how the script plays out in our courtrooms.

The exonerated defendant stands before a judge and is informed that the conviction is vacated and the charges are dismissed. And then the former inmate —more than 100 have come from Death Row — is joined by family members and lawyers in a celebration on the courthouse steps.

Yes, it is a joyous occasion to step from behind prison bars after years — as many as 30 years in one case —of being locked up for a crime that was not committed.

But, as a report issued Monday by the National Registry of Exonerations makes clear, behind every one of these jubilant moments are tragedies, some of them of enormous proportion.

The report documents nearly 900 individual cases of exoneration. Combined, these (mostly) men and women served more than 10,000 years in prison for crimes they did not commit. In fact, in more than 100 cases, there was no crime at all — accidents were mischaracterized as murders and crimes were just concocted based on a web of lies and falsehoods.

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