I didn’t make any New Year’s resolutions, but I did set new priorities this year. One of them is to spend 2012 expressing more appreciation for friends I often take for granted. There are several reasons I haven’t always been appreciative of my friend, Dr. David P. Gushee, Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics at Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology. I won’t go into all of those reasons here in public. Some were motivated by envy of his success as my career stalled, his publication productivity which far outstripped mine, and by jealousy in a period several years ago when he seemed to have more influence with a mutual mentor than I did. Those are not pretty sides of my personality and confronting those feelings is not easy. Other reasons for my lack of appreciation, and for a period of strain between Dave and myself are less ignoble, but involve some miscommunications and some honest differences of conviction on matters we both care about strongly. On some issues in Christian ethics Dave is more conservative than I am and it was here that his growing influence bothered me the most. We didn’t just differ, we differed strongly, and we both believed (and still believe) the differences matter in both the life of the Christian churches and in the life of the nation. Our division wasn’t as sharp as Barth vs. Brunner on “general revelation” and, thankfully, didn’t result in decades of estrangement like theirs did–but it was a matter of degree rather than kind.
When we put aside the differences in personality, success, and the like, there remain some areas where we are friends who differ on principle:
- I, a former soldier, am a convinced Christian pacifist (of a basically Anabaptist shape) whereas Dave is from the Just War tradition, although of the stricter sort that does not easily approve of wars or weapons–and he knows that ALL Christians are called to be peacemakers.
- Although I believe that abortion is always a tragedy, I do not believe it is always immoral. Though uncomfortable with the “pro-choice” label, I basically agree with the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade that this is a private decision between a pregnant woman, her doctor, family, and religious tradition–within the first trimester of pregnancy, neither federal or state governments have a right to ban abortions. I do want to reduce the need for abortions by reducing unwanted pregnancies, making adoption easier, and by increasing the choices for women in difficult pregnancies, but I want abortion to remain a legal option for all women. Dave is “pro-life.” While agreeing with me on steps to reduce unwanted pregnancies, make adoption easier, etc., he also thinks abortion should be outlawed. At a time when Dave’s view is gaining ground in state legislatures across the nation, this tension is both real and very strong.
- Although I once was “welcoming but NOT affirming” of LGBT folk in church and society, I became converted to a strong believer that the traditional church teaching of exclusion was dead wrong. For about 15 years, I have counted myself an LGBT ally, advocating same-sex marriage (in society and church), the ordination of LGBT folks without any standards of sexual behavior (or inquiry) that would not be made of their heterosexual counterparts, and full equality of LGBT folk in all aspects of society. Dave stands up for the civil rights of LGBT folk in employment, housing, adoption rights, but whereas he knows that sexual orientation and gender identity are not chosen, Dave holds to the church tradition that same sex coital behavior is sinful. He opposes the ordination of non-celibate LGBT folk and opposes same sex marriages in both church and society.
- We are both very concerned about the huge divorce rate in U.S. society, but Dave thinks this can be helped by laws–such as the proposals for “covenant marriages” in which divorces would be legally more difficult and he thinks that church and society should return to a time when divorced persons felt social disapproval. He believes that churches should stop performing 2nd marriages except under very limited criteria. I think this is a counterproductive approach.
- Dave believes in the “sanctity” of human life. I am wary of such labels for anyone or anything but God. They strike me as idolatrous. I want to value all life, especially human life (made in the image of God), but I worry about “sacred” or “sanctity” language.
These are real differences and they remain differences that matter to both of us–but I do not want anyone to think that they prevent us from being friends or me from appreciating Dave’s leadership in many areas. Especially since 9/11, when many U.S. Christian leaders failed the greatest moral test of our time, Dave stood up and stood strong. He opposed the war on Afghanistan on just war grounds (“Last resort” had not been reached, especially since Taliban leaders were offering to extradite Osama bin Laden for trial in a neutral country) and even more strongly opposed the war in Iraq. Dave stood against the rising Islamophobia in America after 9/11 and called for greater Christian-Muslim dialogue. He did this while on faculty at very conservative Christian college in Tennessee and he spoke out not only in his classroom, but in a column in the local paper –in a deeply “red” county. Since Dave is especially known for his work in Jewish-Christian dialogue, having first come to fame as a scholar of the Holocaust, and since he deeply identifies with both diaspora Jews and Jews in Israel, Dave’s stand against Islamaphobia took even more courage than for other white evangelical leaders in the U.S. South.
But it was on the issue of torture that Dave’s post-9/11 leadership was strongest. From the moment the pictures taken at Abu-Ghraib revealed U.S. torture of Iraqi prisoners of war, Dave Gushee worked to create a moral opposition in the churches. (This was well before the public knew that the techniques used at Abu Ghraib had been authorized at the highest levels of the Bush admin. and were first perfected on detainees at Guantanemo Bay, Cuba.) Not only did Dave quickly join the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT), a network founded by Princeton Seminary’s George Hunsinger, but he founded a partner organization that would work especially with evangelical churches, Evangelicals for Human Rights (EHR). (This has been subsumed into another group I’ll mention below.) At the very time much of the world was learning to associate American Christians, especially white evangelical Christians in the U.S., as “pro-torture,” Dave Gushee created and led an organization to abolish it in law and practice–and centered this opposition in specifically evangelical circles.
Along with Glen H. Stassen, Dave took on the evangelical heresy of “Christian Zionism” as a major obstacle to a just peace between Israel and Palestine.
Dave continued to work for nuclear disarmament and to rally evangelicals behind efforts to slow and reverse human-caused climate change–even as numerous evangelical leaders embraced the “it’s all a hoax” meme.
In 2010, Dave decided that EHR had run its course and combined these various efforts into a new organization: The New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good. NEPCG works for greater Muslim-Christian dialogue, prison reform (including abolition of the death penalty), the abolition of nuclear weapons, ending torture forever, getting Red Cross access to detainees in the “war on terror,” promotion of “Creation Care,” including the Evangelical Climate Initiative, “third way” reduction of abortions, and much else. NEPCG’s very first action upon founding was to call for the U.S. and other rich nations to forgive ALL of Haiti’s debt following the devastating Haiti earthquake of 2010.
At a time when far too many U.S. evangelical voices (especially in white and Southern evangelical circles) appear to hate the poor, treat women as inferior, demonize GLBT folk, hate the environment, appear to hate Muslisms, demonize immigrants, call for UNREGULATED, ANYTHING-GOES forms of capitalism, and appear to love war, torture, and nuclear weapons, Dave Gushee not only breaks such stereotypes, but has been at the forefront of efforts to form countervailing movements. Dave hearkens back to the evangelical heritage of the 19th C., when American evangelicals led in efforts to abolish slavery, end child labor laws, work to get women the right to vote, stand with unions, and work for peace. If there is any hope that 21st C. U.S. evangelicals can reclaim that earlier heritage and wrest the term “evangelical” away from the theocrats of the Religious Right, it will be through the efforts of those like my friend, Dave Gushee–our differences notwithstanding.
The first social cause I joined, as a teenager in Florida, was the movement to abolish the death penalty. It was a hard time to be against executing convicted murderers. In the early 1960s, polls showed that most Americans (but not a large majority) wanted to abolish the death penalty. But the social unrest of the decade, combined with rising crime rates, much of it related to increased drug abuse, changed that view. By the time the U.S. Supreme Court struck down state death penalties as then written as unconstitutional violations of the 8th Amendment’s ban on “cruel and unusual punishment” in 1972 (Furman v. Georgia), the public reacted angrily at the Court’s “liberalism.” State legislatures quickly acted to change their death penalty statutes to meet the Court’s standards (consistent application and a 2-stage trial in which guilt was decided prior to a decision between death and life imprisonment) and in 1976, the Supreme Court ruled in Gregg v. Georgia that these revised statutes passed constitutional muster. The public roared its approval and rushed to find candidates to execute. By the early 1990s, popular support for capital punishment in the U.S. was at an all-time high. Bill Clinton interrupted his campaign for U.S. president in 1992 to rush home and sign a death penalty execution order as governor of Arkansas. When Clinton won the nomination, he changed the Democratic platform, long opposed to the death penalty, to support it. As president, Clinton expanded the federal death penalty to include over 50 crimes. Support for the death penalty remained high despite growing evidence that it was applied in a racially biased manner (if the victim is white, the odds increase that the prosecution will ask for the death penalty and black killers of white victims are far more likely to draw a death sentence than white killers of black victims). In 1987, the Supreme Court acknowledged that racial bias in McClesky v. Kemp but ruled that it had to be proven in each particular case in order to be unconstitutional. (The logic of McClesky contradicts that of Furman and Gregg since the acknowledgement of racial bias is an acknowledgement of arbitrariness which Furman and Gregg ruled had to be eliminated, but by the time of McClesky the Court’s makeup was far more conservative.) In 1993, the Supreme Court even ruled that, absent other constitutional issues, even new evidence that the convicted defendant is actually innocent is not sufficient to prevent execution (Herrera v. Collins)!
During all this time, public support for the death penalty remained high, to the extreme frustration of abolitionists like myself. All our moral arguments fell on deaf ears. But, then developments began which started to unravel this. First, throughout the decade of the ’90s, the number of executions increased dramatically. As this happened, people’s theoretical support for the death penalty began to be in tension with a discomfort at the sheer volume of executions. Next, journalism students in Chicago ran a series of investigative articles showing the Illinois death penalty system to be very broken–full of errors that made the execution of innocent people likely. They showed that, since the restoration of the death penalty post-Gregg, more people had been freed from Illinois’ death row (because of new evidence of innocence) than had been executed. This story became national news and alarmed much of the public (although many governors rushed to assure their citizens that their states had no such problems–despite evidence to the contrary). In 2000, Illinois Gov. Ryan, a Republican, ordered a moratorium on executions “until he could be morally certain that no innocent person would be executed in Illinois, and before he left office, he cleared the IL death row by commuting all sentences to life imprisonment. The Illinois legislature tried to reform the death penalty system, but public support continued to decline.
Meanwhile, DNA science began in the ’90s to demonstrate that many convicted criminals–including those convicted by several eyewitnesses–were wrongly convicted–even many on death rows. More sentences were overturned and more people exonerated and released after years on death rows. As the new decade dawned, even with the advent of a “war on terror,” executions declined sharply across the nation. Abolitionists began to make headway for the first time in decades.
Then the costs of the death penalty became clear. Like most abolitionists, I am uncomfortable with the idea that money should be a factor. Human life should always trump monetary concerns. But most supporters of the death penalty believe that it is cheaper than life imprisonment and, since they believe murderers have forfeited a right to life, they believe that keeping such people alive at taxpayer expense is unwarranted. But the facts are otherwise. Study after study has shown that the death penalty is more expensive than life imprisonment without parole. Nor is it just the appeals process that is expensive: capital cases take extra security and capital trials cost extra, especially the two-stage sentencing process. While on death row, the expenses continue, including the need to keep death row inmates separate from the general prison population while working through the appeals process. The state of Maryland just concluded an exhaustive study showing that the death penalty was costing taxpayers an avge. of $37 million per case, far more than murder cases where the death penalty is off the table. In the midst of economic hard times, recognition of the economic costs of capital punishment opens the door for many otherwise “law and order” legislators to hear arguments for the reliability of life imprisonment without parole and moral arguments against the death penalty. Both New Mexico and Illinois cited the costs of the death penalty when they abolished it. As countries in the European Union are refusing to export the chemicals needed for lethal injections, these costs will continue to rise.
In 2004, the New York State Supreme Court struck down part of the NY death penalty as a violation of the state constitution. In 2007, the state legislature prevented an attempt to re-write and restore that death penalty. This was the first state abolition of capital punishment since Massachusetts and Rhode Island abolished capital punishment in 1984! But things were about to pick up speed. New Jersey’s legislature abolished capital punishment in 2007. New Mexico abolished its death penalty in 2009. Several states came close to abolishing their death penalties in 2009-2011: Colorado came within 2 votes of abolishing the death penalty in 2009. Connecticut did vote to abolish the death penalty, but the Republican governor vetoed the legislation. In 2011, CT’s new governor, a Democrat, said he would sign legislation to abolish the death penalty, but he did not put forth effort to get it through the state legislature and an emotional case led the legislature to fall short. Maryland’s Democratic governor actually campaigned on abolishing the death penalty. He has not yet succeeded, but he continues to push such legislation. New Hampshire came close to abolishing the death penalty in 2010. The State of Washington came close to abolishing the death penalty in 2011. In 2011, Illinois finally abolished it’s death penalty altogether. This now brings the number of states without capital punishment to 16, plus the District of Columbia.
In 2012, Maryland, Ohio, Kansas, and Connecticut all are introducing legislation to abolish the death penalty. I think the chances of passage are very good in Connecticut and Maryland. Ohio is hard to call. In many ways, it is conservative, but it is also next door to Michigan which hasn’t had the death penalty since becoming a state in 1846! More and more influential people are speaking out against the death penalty. The state where passage is least likely is Kansas, which is deeply conservative, but, like Ohio, it is next door to a state without the death penalty(Iowa) that is similar in culture, so anything is possible. I think it is possible that Colorado and New Hampshire will also abolish the death penalty in the near future. Even in Kentucky, where I live, there is a growing movement for a moratorium on executions–an important first step in abolition.
California, which has the largest number of people on death row (although Texas, Virginia, and Florida are responsible for the vast majority of executions in this country), is poised to put abolition of the death penalty on the ballot for the public to vote up or down. Both sides will mobilize this year, and it will be intertwined with the national elections this year. If California abolitionists succeed in abolishing the death penalty this year, it will have a tremendous influence on other states. If the effort fails, but comes close, it will return in the next year or so and I predict it will pass.
The momentum on this issue has finally turned toward abolition in the United States. The international isolation is also having an effect. U. S. citizens don’t like being told what to do by others (although we constantly assume that we have the right to tell the rest of the world what to do). Disapproval of the death penalty by other nations, especially in Europe, usually makes Americans defensive. But the international and diplomatic isolation DOES have an effect. U.S. lawmakers have already found that they often cannot get nations to extradite suspected murderers or suspected terrorists unless they receive guarantees that the suspect won’t be executed. This lack of cooperation is frustrating and has led the U.S. State Department to testify before Congress that an abolition of the federal and military death penalties would greatly aid cooperation in anti-terrorism efforts.
Religious leaders are helping, too. Of course, the most of the mainline denominations of the National Council of Churches have long been on record as opposing the death penalty, but quite often these statements were very far from the beliefs of most laity in those very denominations. But the strong opposition of the Roman Catholic Church, especially beginning in the 1980s, has gone beyond statements to catechetical instruction at the parish level, leading more and more Catholic laity (including elected Catholic public officials) who oppose the death penalty. Several faith groups have organized around this issue and that has, again, changed the landscape of the debate.
So, my prayer and hope (which I believe to be realistic) is that by the end of this decade (2020) we will see the death penalty eliminated in the United States.
If you would like to help make this prayer happen, take action: 1)Write your state legislators, governors, and U.S. Representatives and urge them to support abolition, especially as co-sponsors of bills for abolition or a moratorium on executions. 2) Write letters to the editorial pages of local papers supporting abolition, especially if a bill for abolition is nearing an important hearing or vote. Legislator and elected officials pay far more attention to letters to the editor than to most letters and phone calls and far more than to email petitions. They assume that every letter on a subject represents 5-10 others who feel the same way. 2-3 letters on a given subject in a short time will get at least a legislative aid assigned to research an issue. 3) Get your church, synagogue, mosque or civic association to pass a resolution against the death penalty and have the press cover this. 4) Join an anti-death penalty organization in your area.