So, you may have heard that Pres. Barack Obama (D) and VP Joe Biden (D) were re-elected to a 2nd term Tues. night, November 6th, 2012. But you may have missed the many OTHER victories for social justice in the USA. There were also some losses, as Pres. Obama himself has emphasized, progress comes in fits and starts and zig-zags rather than a straightline. This post is a summary of as many of the victories and losses as I can find so that we get some idea of the current “lay of the land” as we prepare for the next struggles. I list these in no order of priority, just as I remember them and find links:
- Women’s Rights won big. The new Congress in 2013 will have a record TWENTY (20) female U.S. Senators, up from 17 this time. On the one hand, this is pitiful. 1/5 of the U.S. Senate will be female when when women are 51% of the nation? When women have had the right to vote since 1920? Clearly, sexism is still alive and well in the USA. BUT, it is improvement: Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) mentions that when he was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 1986, Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) was just elected as the first Democratic woman elected to the Senate in her own right. (Before then, widows of deceased Senators were appointed to serve out the remainders of their husbands’ terms–something that still happens.) Only 39 women have EVER served in the U.S. Senate since the body was created in 1789! The new Senate in 2013 will have 16 Democratic women [Diane Feinstein (D-CA), Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Mary Landrieu (D-LA), Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Claire McCaskill (D-MO), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Kay Hagan (D-NC), Patty Murray (D-WA), Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and the newly elected Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Mazie Hirono (D-HI), & Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND)]and 4 Republican women [Susan Collins (R-ME), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) will be joined by Deb Fischer (R-NE), an ultra-conservative. Two other GOP women senators: Olympia Snowe (R-ME), and Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-TX), retired this year.] All 8 of the men running for House and Senate who opposed abortion even in cases of rape were DEFEATED. Women’s health, including the funding of Planned Parenthood, and coverage for contraception, were reaffirmed. Most of the men who ran and won as Democrats were also strongly committed to women’s rights. New Hampshire became the first state to have all female leaders: Electing Maggie Hassan as Governor (D-NH), and replacing two GOP men with Democratic women: Rep.-elect Carol Shea-Porter (D-NH-01)–reclaiming a seat she lost in 2010–and Rep.-elect Anne McKlane Kuster (D-NH-02). NH already had 2 female Senators: Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), neither of whom were up for reelection this year. For the first time, every state legislative body had at least one female member. After the 2010 mid-terms, Republicans launched a nationwide war on women’s rights, especially reproductive rights, with huge state legislative restrictions on abortion and attempts at restriction on contraception. However, equal pay for equal work, and other women’s rights were also under assault. The victories of Tues. did not completely reverse or end these assaults, but they did constitute a major rejection of this agenda. Women were key to the reelection of the president: with an 18% gender gap between the 2 candidates.
- LGBTQ Rights won several victories. The reelection of Pres. Obama means that the GOP threat to reintroduce “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” into the military was rejected. In addition, marriage equality was legalized by ballot measure in Maine, Maryland, and Washington State, the first time marriage equality was implemented by popular vote. Further, Minnesota, though not yet affirming marriage equality, strongly defeated a state constitutional amendment to define marriage as “between one man and one woman,” again, the first time such a ballot measure in the U.S. was defeated at the ballot box rather than in the courts. In Iowa, an attempt to unseat one of the state’s Supreme Court judges who had ruled in favor of marriage equality in 2009 was defeated. In NY, Rep.-elect Sean Patrick Maloney (D-NY-18) became the first openly gay man who is MARRIED with adopted children elected to Congress and the first openly gay Rep. from NY. Likewise, Sen.-elect Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) will be the first openly lesbian U.S. Senator. The re-election of President Obama also was the first time an incumbent president (and VP!) endorsed marriage equality, wrote marriage equality into the party platform, and campaigned on marriage equality–and WON re-election! That and several legislative victories at the state level means that more progress for LGBTQ folk is surely on the way because of Tuesday’s elections: Several more states will either enact marriage equality or civil union laws (usually an interim step toward full equality as voters see that the sky does not fall, but also that civil unions are still a form of 2nd class citizenship) between now and 2014. At the federal level, I expect a full court press to enact the Employee Nondiscrimination Act (ENDA), preventing workplace discrimination against LGBTQ folk and either Congressional repeal or Supreme Court rejection of the ’90s-era “Defense of Marriage Act” (DOMA) which prevents same-sex married couples from receiving the same federal benefits as heterosexual couples. The next 4 years could even see the first U.S. Supreme Court Justice who is openly a member of the LGBTQ community. Clearly, LGBTQ rights are on the march–a stunning turnaround from 2004, just 8 short years ago, when attacks on LGBTQ folk, and especially on marriage equality, was a winning strategy around the nation.
- Economic Justice. The gains here are more modest, but real. The reelection of Pres. Obama and an enlarged Democratic Senate means that Obamacare will be fully implemented, not repealed or watered down further, that GOP plans to voucherize Medicare, eliminate Medicaid, and privatize Social Security are off the table, as are deep cuts to social programs and education across the board. Michigan voters repealed their state’s “emergency manager” law which had allowed for corporate dictators to usurp the elected government of any city that faced fiscal difficulties (like something out of the “Robocop” movies–set in Detroit!). Voters in CA rejected an attempt to end all union participation in the political process (while allowing corporations to continue unabated). CA also voted to raise taxes on the rich and to a temporary sales tax increase, to fund education instead of facing more layoffs. As well, CA achieved a Democratic 2/3 supermajority in both chambers of the legislature, enabling it to overcome the infamous Prop. 13 , enacted in 1978, which reduced property taxes to pre-1975 levels and then required 2/3 of each House of the legislature to raise them for any reason–leading to CA’s epic budget woes. The new CA legislature will be able to forge a workable budget AND end Prop. 13 forever–a law which had allowed a tiny, tax-hating GOP minority, to rule the majority for decades. In San Antonio, voters approved a tiny sales tax increase to fund quality Pre-K education. Even in Texas, conventional wisdom to the contrary, Democrats CAN campaign and win on tax increases IF the public knows that they will fund worthwhile things. Voters in a few cities around the country also approved small increases in the minimum wage.
- Civil Liberties. Voters in FL killed an attempt to amend the state constitution to allow taxpayer support for religious institutions and activities (in clear violation of the U.S. Constitution’s 1st Amendment). They also blocked attempts to ban use of public funds for abortions and contraception and blocked an attempt to block implementation of Obamacare in the state. They rejected legislature control over judges. Voters in Colorado and Washington State legalized cannabis and in MA authorized medical cannabis. Although it sets up potential conflict with federal law, it shows the end is in sight for the failed “war on drugs” and that a new, sane drug policy will emerge. Prohibition fails and regulation works.
- Diversity and inclusion. With the election of Sen.-elect Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Hawai’i sends the first Buddhist to the U.S. Senate. And with the election of Rep.-elect Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) to Hirono’s old House seat, Hawai’i also sends Congress its first Hindu member–who plans to be sworn in on the Bhagavad-Gita. They join 2 Muslim members of Congress. Native Americans were key to the election of Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) in North Dakota. Hispanic/Latino voters were a decisive factor in the reelection of Pres. Obama and several other races. Asian-Americans also made gains in representation. The days when old white men ruled everything are ending, something that fills many with fear. But those of us who have embraced inclusion and diversity since the Civil Rights movement welcome the coming rainbow society with open arms.
Losses on election day include: Cannabis legalization in Oregon and medical cannabis legalization in Arkansas. Michigan voters failed to guarantee the right to collective bargaining in the state constitution, although that right is still part of MI law. CA tried and failed to abolish the death penalty by ballot measure–with only 48% of the public approving. Death penalty abolition is making gains, but they are not uniform by any means.
There is clearly much work left to be done. But there is no denying that Tuesday night was a good night for social justice in the USA.
Long-time death penalty scholar Hugo Adam Bedau died on August 13, 2012 . Dr. Bedau had been the Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy at Tufts University, and is best known for his work on capital punishment. Dr. Bedau frequently testified about the death penalty before the U.S. Congress and many state legislatures. He authored several books about the death penalty, including The Death Penalty in America (1964; 4th edition, 1997), The Courts, the Constitution, and Capital Punishment (1977), Death is Different (1987), and Killing as Punishment (2004), and co-authored In Spite of Innocence (1992). This last book, written with Prof. Michael Radelet of the University of Colorado and Constance Putnam (Dr. Bedau’s wife), contained one of the best early collections of people who had been wrongly convicted in death penalty cases. In 1997, Bedau received the August Vollmer Award of the American Society of Criminology, and in 2003 he received the Roger Baldwin Award from the ACLU of Massachusetts. Dr. Bedau was a founding member of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. He was a personal hero of mine and he will be missed in the struggle.
On 10 May 2012, Rev. Dr. Walter Wink, passed away less than a week before what would have been his 77th birthday (23 May). He had, apparently, been suffering some form of dementia for several years. Dr. Wink was a huge influence on me through his writings, but I met him only once–in Washington, D.C. in 1989 when we were both arrested for nonviolent civil disobedience outside the White House–protesting the continued support of the Bush I administration for the apartheid-era government of South Africa. (The protests, called “Stand for Truth,” had been planned for months and were huge that Mother’s Day weekend in ’89, but the news was somewhat overshadowed because less than a week earlier, the Chinese government had massacred protesting students and other pro-democracy groups in Tienenmen Square. I met an amazing array of Christian peace and justice folk that weekend including Wink’s wife, June Keener-Wink, a young Jesuit priest named Fr. John Dear, S.J., who would soon make major contributions to peace and nonviolence theory, to theology, and to peace activism, but, who, that weekend before his fame was very quiet because his handcuffs were too tight and he was in great pain; Sister Joan Chittister, OSB; Jim Wallis, founding editor of Sojourners; Joyce Hollyday; Rev. Eugene Rivers, an African-American Pentecostal whose work with the Boston 10 Point Coalition was greatly reducing violence in street gangs; many more. It was a life-changing weekend for me.)
Dr. Wink lived an amazing life of witness. He was born in 1935, in the midst of the Great Depression. He was born and raised in Texas in the midst of Texas Methodism–coming to a very different form of Christian nonviolence than fellow Texas Methodist Stanley Hauerwas. He earned his B.A., magna cum laude from Southern Methodist University (Major: History; Double minor: Philosophy; English), but rather than pursue his theological education at SMU’s own Perkins School of Theology, Wink earned his Master of Divinity (1959) and his Ph.D. in New Testament studies (1963) from New York’s famed Union Theological Seminary, an ecumenical seminary of great influence. There is some irony here: Union Theological Seminary is known as a center of non-pacifist liberal Christianity. True, there are a few pacifist voices associated with UTS: Harry Emerson Fosdick and James Forbes, both Senior Ministers at nearby Riverside Church, were pacifists who taught preaching at UTS. But “Union” has become almost synonymous with names like Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971), proponent of “Christian Realism,” Paul Tillich (1889-1965), German-American proponent of Christian socialism and a neo-liberal theology, James H. Cone (b. 1938-), one of the founders of Black Liberation Theology, and Beverly Wildung Harrison (b. 1932–), foremother of Christian feminist ethics–and all of these voices represent strands of liberal Christianity that, while not militarist or “pro-violence,” are decidedly non-pacifist and endorse nonviolence only tactically and not out of principled conviction.
Wink was an ordained United Methodist Minister who spent time as a youth worker and a parish pastor before teaching at his alma mater, Union Theological Seminary. From 1976 onward, he was Professor of New Testament Interpretation at Auburn Theological Seminary in NYC, a sister-institution to UTS in covenant with the Presbyterian Church, USA (and found on UTS’ campus). During his time as a youth worker at East Harlem Protestant Parish, Wink came under the influence of the lawyer and Episcopal lay-theologian, William Stringfellow. Stringfellow’s interpretation of the “Principalities and Powers” in the New Testament would profoundly influence Wink’s own work.
In 1973, Wink published a small book called, The Bible in Human Transformation that declared “the historical-critical method is bankrupt.” I have to confess that I was unable to follow Wink’s point when I first encountered it. I had come from a tradition of conservative evangelical Christianity and had found the historical-critical method to be liberating from biblicist literalism. But Wink was not wanting to repudiate the gains of the historical-critical method, but to add to them–using insights from psychology (and later from sociology).
He is best known for his 3 volume work on “The Powers,” i.e., on the biblical terminology for power, especially in the Pauline corpus, that uses terms like “Powers, Authorities, Principalities, Thrones, Dominions, Angels, ” etc. For centuries, these terms were simply dismissed as speaking of demons–and demythologized by the likes of Bultmann and fetishized by some Pentecostals and some Fundamentalists. Hendrikus Berkhof, John Howard Yoder, and William Stringfellow began to see the importance of this language as pointing at once to political realities and to spiritual realities “behind” political institutions. Wink, with insights from process theology and depth psychology, gave a metaphysic for the Powers that attempted to be non-reductionistic while acknowledging that none of us on this side of the Enlightenment can simply adopt the pre-modern worldview of the New Testament. Wink also derived a theological ethic from his study of the Powers, especially in his third volume, Engaging the Powers. The Powers form a world-system Wink called “The Domination System,” and the inbreaking Kingdom of God is “God’s New Domination-Free Order.” The Powers are not simply evil for they were created by God to bring order out of chaos. But they are “fallen,” twisted from their created purpose and used to enslave and dominate humanity. They must be engaged–resisted and redeemed–by the followers of Jesus.
Wink also helped many reinterpret the Sermon on the Mount so that Matt. 5:9 is understood not as a call to nonresistance or passivity in the face of evil, but to a “Third Way” of Nonviolent Confrontation of Evil. In a lexical study of the verb αντισθηναι (“antisthenai”), usually translated “resist,” Wink finds that it actually means “stand against” as in armed rebellion or murder, so that Matt. 5:9 should be translated, “Do not violently resist evildoers.” Wink demonstrates that turning the other cheek when backhanded by a social superior , removng both garments in court when sued for one’s outer garment (thus stripping naked in protest), and going a second mile when a soldier of the occupying army compels you to carry his gear the required one mile are all nonviolent direct actions against acts of domination and oppression. He first published this is in a small book published by the Fellowship of Reconciliation for black churches in South Africa during the anti-apartheid struggle–churches that were seeking a way to be true to the gospel but resist the apartheid evil. (See Wink, Violence and Nonviolence in South Africa: Jesus Third Way [Fellowship, 1984]). He expanded and deepened his defense of this approach in several academic articles and book chapters aimed at changing the way New Testament scholars, especially translators and writers of commentaries on Matthew, understood the Sermon on the Mount. Finally, he reworked his original popular study for a larger audience–beyond the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. See Walter Wink, Jesus and Violence: A Third Way. Because of this “active nonviolence” interpretation, Wink did not like the term “pacifism,” (too easy to confuse with “passivity,” and refused to be called a pacifist even though his dedication to nonviolence was strong–and he was a critic of the way that Christian admiration for the life and testimony of Dietrich Bonhoeffer translated into justifications of violence. (The liberationist left often uses Bonhoeffer to justify violent insurrection against conservative governments and the rightwing uses it to justify bombings of abortion clinics.)
Wink was an early defender of full inclusion of gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, and transgendered persons in the church. Eventually, he edited a collection of writings on the topic that did not simply include the “usual suspects,” but also the voices of pro-gay evangelicals like Peggy Campolo, Lewis Smedes, and Ken L. Sehested. See Wink, Homosexuality and Christian Faith: Questions of Conscience for the Churches.
Wink also edited one of the best collections of writings on nonviolence by members of the Fellowship of Reconciliation over a 50 year period. See Wink, Peace is the Way: Writings on Nonviolence from the Fellowship of Reconciliation. It’s truly a remarkable collection.
Walter Wink seamlessly combined the roles of pastor, teacher, scholar, and nonviolent Christian activist. I give thanks for his life and witness hope that God continues to raise up prophetic voices like his.
I am reprinting a series of brief posts on the nature of theology from my old blog Levellers. After I reprint each post, I’ll make an index page and put the series up on my page of “popular posts and series.” (The series was popular on my old blog, anyway, and I’m trying to make sure that former readers can still find material they liked on this blog, Pilgrim Pathways.)
What IS ‘theology?”
Different definitions of theology lead to different methods/approaches of “doing theology.” I propose the definition given by the late Baptist theologian of the “[b]aptist Vision,” i.e., the constitutive vision of the Believers’ Churches, James Wm. McClendon, Jr. (1924-2000). Theology, McClendon said, is “the discovery, understanding or interpretation, and transformation of the convictions of a convictional community, including the discovery and critical revision of their relation to one another and to whatever else there is.” He intended this definition to be broad enough to encompass the theologies of other world religions and of philosophical substitutes for religion, such as Marxism, socio-biology, etc. If the “convictional community” in question is the Christian Church, then theology is the discovery, understanding or interpretation, and transformation of the convictions of the Christian Church, including the discovery and critical revision of disciples’ relation(s) to one another, to the Triune GOD, and to the rest of Creation.” (My adaptation.)
Certain things follow from such a definition: i. Theology is pluralistic; done in different, even rival, camps. There is struggle in theology–the struggle for truth. This sometimes involves struggle against the perceived errors of others. Because Christ prayed that the Church would enjoy the same unity that he enjoys with the Father, striving for ecumenical reconciliation in the fractured Church is mandatory. But all the ecumenical good will in the world cannot disguise the fact that theologians (and churches) disagree and that some of these disagreements are sharp and deep. Another way to say this is that theology is contextual –related to differing church traditions (e.g., Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Protestant, “baptist,” etc.), differing eras, differing cultural contexts.
ii. Theology is narrative based, construing the lived experience of the convictional community by means of Scripture. There are, of course, different readings of Scripture: A 12th C. Franciscan “take” on the biblical narrative differs from a 17th C. Jesuit take on the same narrative–but they are both much closer than either is to the “take” of a 16th C. Dutch Mennonite, of 19th C. antebellum African-American Christians in the U.S. South, of a WWI-era Pentecostal, of a Peruvian “base community” in the 1970s, of a Reformed “take” in South Africa during the “Boer War” resistance to British rule, of an African Christian response to both the British and Afrikaaner readings, etc.
iii. Theology is rational. Some (Schleiermacher, Barth) have called theology a “science,” and in the broadest sense of the term, this is true. But because in English “science” is understood after the model of the natural sciences, McClendon suggests (and I agree) that it is less confusing to call theology a discipline that is to display the rationality appropriate to its metier, just as the disciplines of art, law, and medicine display their own particular rationalities. Thus, like these other cases, theology is a practice, a craft, that is rooted in the other practices (e.g., mission, evangelism, worship, communal prayer, preaching, hospitality to the poor and the stranger, life together in the Body, nonviolent service to the neighbor, nonviolent encounter/witness with the enemy, etc.) of the Church. The theologian must likewise be rooted in these practices, in a particular Christian community, even if s/he is employed by a secular or pluralist university.
iv. This leads us to the fact that theology is self-involving. Possibly in rare circumstances a Christian theologian could write a Muslim or Jewish or Buddhist theology (Hans Küng has attempted this regarding Judaism and Islam) or some non-Christian could undertake to write a Christian theology. But these would be exceptions that prove the rule. In convictional work, self-involvement is the rule, exceptions must be explained case-by-case. (This is NOT to say that Christian theologians should not be in dialogue with non-Christian movements. The missionary nature of the Church means that, in each context, theologians will dialogue with major forces and thought-forms in their cultural context. But the theologian does not attempt to adopt a “neutral” or “detached” observer frame. S/he is not an anthropologist.)
I. Is this a good way to understand theology? Why or why not?
II. What does the practice of theology look like when understood this way?
I’m behind on this blog. Among other things, I’ve promised a personal tribute to New Testament theologian Walter Wink, who died a few days ago. I’ll have to publish that on Sunday, I guess. A Facebook conversation with one of my nephews last night prompted this blog post–more than the heartbreaking passage of Amendment 1 in North Carolina (defining marriage as one man and one woman–thereby not only banning same-sex marriage, but also same-sex civil unions, domestic partner benefits and protections even for unmarried heterosexual couples, etc.) on Tuesday. It was also a greater prompt than Wednesday’s surprise announcement by President Obama that he has finished “evolving” and now fully supports marriage equality–both heart-stopping events for different reasons.
Last night, one of my nephews, a college student active in the LGBT rights group on the campus of Virginia Tech, and who came out last year while at university (although he started coming out at the end of high school), thanked me for my efforts as a straight ally. Actually, I’m not sure I’ve done all that much. Yes, I wrote a blog series on “LGBT Persons in the Church: The Case for Full Inclusion.” I’ve preached some sermons along this line in places where they’ve seldom heard a Christian support LGBT equality. I spoke against and voted “no” in 2000 when the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship voted to include a rule against hiring any personnel or endorsing any missionaries who were out, non-celibate lesbian, gay, bi-sexual or transgendered persons. (I think the CBF actually said, “practicing homosexuals,” but that language is misleading and I won’t use it.) When I returned home from that meeting, I recommended to our congregation (and they followed through) that we cease to be members of CBF and not contribute to their missions. I voted “yes,” in 2004 when the Alliance of Baptists, the small denomination to which I and my congregation belong, endorsed marriage equality. (The Alliance was already strongly on record for LGBT rights, including ordaining out LGBT persons for ministry and endorsing out LGBT missionaries. Several Alliance congregations had already performed same-sex weddings by 2004–some in states where these marriages would have legal recognition and some, like mine, where the state would not recognize what God’s people did in blessing covenantal unions.) After the 2004 elections resulted in 11 states, including KY where I live, writing discriminatory bans against same-sex marriage into their state constitutions, I urged my congregation (already a leader in LGBT equality fights–with many persons in our congregation well ahead of me in actions taken and leadership shown) to lift our flag higher by joining The Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists (AWAB), a network of gay-affirming Baptist congregations–mostly, but not entirely, in American Baptist circles. Since 2000, I have spoken and marched more on these kind of issues than before–but it is minor compared to other justice causes and very minor compared to what others have done. So, I’m not sure I deserve my nephew’s praise.
I take that praise as a goad to do more–to be more worthy of the title “straight ally” in the struggle for LGBT Equality. But whether I am a strong ally or a weak one, I didn’t really start out trying to be an ally in this movement whatsoever–and this is a good chance to state why I’ve become a straight ally (however weakly or poorly) and what led me, precisely as a Christian, to take such a stance.
First, I should say, that, although I never sought to be an ally in this struggle, nor did I seek to be an adversary or opponent, much less an LGBT enemy. I’m not saying that I didn’t grow up with homophobic and heterosexist prejudices–that would be nearly impossible in this culture. I don’t think there are any non-racist American whites–just recovering racists who struggle for racial justice while also seeking constantly to root out hidden racial prejudices and keep repenting and struggling toward greater sanctification in this area. I don’t believe there are any men in this or other patriarchal cultures who are completely non-sexist–just those of us who keep repenting of our sexism and keep struggling for sex and gender justice in home, church (synagogue, mosque, etc.), and society and seeking greater sanctification in our own lives. I must say the same thing regarding homophobia and heterosexism–I seek to be a recovering homophobe and recovering heterosexist. One of my hopes is that there can be generational progress as well as individual progress.
But even from childhood, I did try somewhat to swim upstream on these issues when I first became aware of them in the 1970s. The issue of marriage equality was nowhere on my radar, but I join my parents in opposing former Mouseketeer and orange juice saleswoman, Anita Bryant, in her hate-filled witch-hunt against gays in public schools who were supposedly “recruiting” because they couldn’t reproduce. My mother was furious that Bryant was using her fear-mongering as an excuse to get FL to vote against the Equal Rights Amendment (and this bait-and-switch was successful)–and, from this, we both learned that there is a profound connection between patriarchy and homophobia. I had one gay teacher (that I know) and he was amazing–the man who first made history important for me. I knew him to be a person of integrity who had no designs on anyone’s children–except to get them to fall in love with learning. By contrast, in those far off days, I knew several male teachers sleeping with high school girls and two female teachers sleeping with high school boys. The former were at risk of prison for statutory rape, but the same abuse of boys by adult women was only considered “contributing to the delinquency of a minor,” and there was little risk of prosecution in those days. Fathers of boys seduced by a female teacher would probably have patted the kid on the back and thanked the teacher for “making a man out of my boy.” (These attitudes seem archaic–but maybe not. We seem to be going backward in so many areas lately.) So, I early on opposed laws which singled out “homosexuals” for discrimination–the more so after an elderly Jewish couple whose lawn I mowed (Holocaust death camp survivors with numbers tattooed on their arms) told me about the “men of the pink triangle,” the gay men and suspected gay men whom Hitler rouned up and sent to death camps right along with the Jews.
But I didn’t have any openly gay friends in high school. In the 1970s, in Florida, few teens “came out.” I knew a few of those who did, but we were only aquaintances and, as they embodied many stereotypes, they made me uncomfortable. I squirmed around them even though I stopped those who tried bullying. My attitudes were mixed. In my late teens I became a born again evangelical Christian and so adopted the common evangelical view that “homosexual practice” is sinful. (It was a long time before I believed differently.) But I rejected as clearly unbiblical the view that such actions were worse than other sins and needed to be singled out for special condemnation. As a young, liberal, social justice activist (even then), it bothered me that more Christians were angry about the supposed growth of the “gay agenda” than were angry about poverty, war, capital punishment, racism, damage to the environment. Also, I had to sympathize at least a little bit with gays who were bullied. As a born again Christian, I was trying to be celibate until marriage–and in many circles this led people to suspect I was gay. I was also involved in theatre and chess, and was socially awkward around girls (even with 3–and later 4–sisters!). So, I know what it’s like to be called “faggot,” and “queer,” and even though I am heterosexual, I didn’t want others called such names, either. And I was sometimes the victim of violent bullying–and I knew that gays had it worse. So, my teen years were marked by very, very mixed feelings. I thought “homosexuals” were sinning, but I thought those harming them were guilty of greater sins.
When I briefly joined the U.S. Army at 17 (leaving as a conscientious objector), I discovered a small piece of what closeted gays have to endure in the military–and this was before even the “compromise” of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” much less the recent ability for gays and lesbians to serve openly in the armed forces. Even straight men in the military would act “hyper-masculine,” because anyone suspected of being gay would be beaten by gangs of their peers. Some even died and the military did little to investigate their deaths.
By the early 1980s, when finishing college and heading to seminary, I mostly wanted this “issue” to leave me alone. I wanted to help revive the older 19th C. evangelical tradition in which evangelism and mission went hand-in-hand with campaigns for social justice. I was and am an opponent of the Religious Right. But I knew that “evangelical” did not used to mean “political conservative.” In the 19th C., evangelicals–born again, on-fire, holy-rolling, revive-us-again, Jesus-loving, hard-preaching, GOSPEL living Protestant Christians–were often the leaders in such social struggles as: the abolition of slavery, women’s education and women’s right to vote, the end of child labor, prison reform, workers’ rights, including the rights of organized labor to organize and engage in collective bargaining, the rights of immigrants, racial justice, peacemaking and the abolition of war. Today, I would say that the struggle for LGBT equality fits seamlessly in that tradition, but as I headed off to seminary I couldn’t see how it fit. I read a few revisionist biblical interpretations but didn’t find them exegetically or hermeneutically credible and I was (and remain) committed to biblical authority in the church. I don’t mean “inerrancy,” which is a heresy from the late 19th and early 20th C., but the authority of the Word of God speaking in and through the human words of Holy Scripture in power and authority. I hold to that to this very day. I agreed that Christians should defend the civil rights of gays and lesbians versus those who wanted to deny employment and housing, etc., but I thought that those who wanted to ordain out and non-celibate gays and lesbians were simply jumping on a bandwagon. I wanted Christian social activism to flow seamlessly from the gospel and not be driven by whatever fad of political correctness came along–and that’s what I thought the “gay Christian” movement was. But I did not rest easy in this view. My conscience was guilty. I suspected that I was guilty of special pleading.
The AIDS epidemic complicated matters, to say the least. On the one hand, the attitude of the Religious Right that AIDS was God’s punishment for homosecual sins absolutely horrified me. How could anyone worship a God they believed was capable of such things??? And the illogic floored me, too. I knew that lesbians were the group least at risk of catching the HIV virus. Yet no conservative argued that this was a sign of God’s special approval of lesbianism. Yes, risky lifestyles, gay or straight, increased the risk of infection–which in the ’80s meant death, horrifying and 100%. There is a degree of self-punishment in passing one’s body around like pieces of baloney, regardless of whether one catches any diseases or not. Sexual addiction is self-degradating and sex outside of covenant love almost inevitably involves exploitation and abuse (things which are not easily avoided even with covenantal structures in place). And I could see that, socially, AIDS had much in common with leprosy in Scripture and that Jesus would expect the church to minister to AIDS victims in exactly the same way as He healed lepers. But AIDS linked sex and death very closely and this made it difficult for most people to think clearly–it made them, including me, to some extent, victims of fear.
I compartmentalized those feelings and concentrated on other areas–although I began meet gay and lesbian Christians who lived lives of discipleship and holiness that put mine to shame–and this was a chink in my armor. To my shame, I refused to seriously investigate the issues (biblical, psychological, theological, etc.) until after I was married. I remember–and am deeply embarrassed by this memory–that when I first went to the seminary library to check out every book I could on the many related LGBT subjects that I kept flashing my wedding ring in the air–subconsciously afraid that someone would think I might be gay. Why the fear? Why was I so insecure in my sexuality? It is not easy to confront such images in my past.
By the 1990s, I had “evolved,” sort of. I had joined a gay-affirming congregation. I had come to embrace one sexual ethic for everyone. I had come to endorse the ordination of out gays and lesbians, to advocate for full equality of LGBT persons in church and society. (It did take me longer to understand what “transgendered” meant and that Transgendered persons are not “homosexual” at all.) But I wasn’t very loud about it. I wanted to be hired to teach theology and ethics in evangelical contexts and I knew that being an out-front advocate of LGBT equality would make this difficult–and I knew that my degrees from evangelical institutions would make it unlikely that I would be hired by mainline Protestants who were more gay-friendly. I thought that if I simply had academic freedom to “teach all sides of the issues,” I could keep my integrity. I was very afraid that if my views on LGBT equality were known, I would lose influence on issues that were vitally important to me: peace and nonviolence, racial and gender justice, economic justice for the poor, etc. Others could take up the cause of justice for LGBT persons–none of us can do it all. I tread this path for most of the 1990s. But as more LGBT persons “came out” to me, I knew my silence was harming them–especially as American society seemed to become more homophobic and heterosexist than ever. By 2000, I decided that by virtue of being a married heterosexual white male with a Ph.D. in theological ethics, I had, ipso facto some social power–even if not very much because I was always at the bottom of the academic heirarchy. It finally dawned on me that I needed to take some risks on behalf of LGBT persons with less power, whose very lives could be at risk if they spoke out. Coming out as an ally might cost me some jobs (it has), but it likely would not lead to humiliation, eviction from home, family, or congregation, and not to legal charges or loss of life. All of that could be true for LGBT persons, whom I now knew included friends and at least one family member (one of my wife’s brothers).
The elections of 2004 pushed me, too. The Republican Party put bans against same-sex marriage as amendments into 11 state constitutions–and it was done simply to turn out more rightwing voters in order to “re”-elect George W. Bush president. What horrified me the most about this was that I knew that George W. Bush didn’t really care about this issue. Laura Bush is in favor of same-sex marriage. Dick Cheney’s daughter is an out lesbian. Thousands of lives of LGBT persons were harmed and they weren’t really the target–just an excuse to advance OTHER (equally bad, in my view) political agendas. That brought the men of the pink triangle back to my mind. And I couldn’t pretend that LGBT equality was a “lesser cause,” however worthy, than economic justice, racial or gender justice, or peace and nonviolence–all causes that were originally closer to my heart.
So, stumblingly, and fearfully, I became a straight ally. Since that time, the “issue” (and no person likes to be thought of as “an issue”) has become more personal for me. We Baptists don’t really have godparents, but my daughters’ unofficial godmother is lesbian. I have participated in the ordination of several out gay friends, now. And my daughters were flower girls at a lesbian wedding–in a state where this has no legal standing at all. Two brothers-in-law are out gays and one is a Presbyterian minister. And, about a year ago, as I said at the beginning, one of my nephews came out in his first year at university–and his mother, my sister, is a much more conservative evangelical Protestant than I am–a devotee of the Religious Right I have spent my adult life opposing. She’s been as supportive of her son as she knows how, but I have felt compelled to give more open support. My nephew’s “coming out,” (and becoming an activist) has subtly (without his asking at all) pushed me to do more–just as the thanks he gave me, which I don’t really deserve, pushes me to go further and risk more.
Even with setbacks like NC’s Amendment 1 (and NH, MD, MN, and Washington State may see similar rollbacks on election day in November), I’ve been thoroughly amazed at the rapid pace of progress since 2004. And my daughters’ generation cannot see what the fuss is about. I don’t mean to downplay the bullying in school, not at all, but their generation has known many more out gays and lesbians personally, adults and people of their own age, as well as far more celebrities than in my generation. (My mother’s generation didn’t realize Liberace was gay and my generation didn’t know Elton John was gay! We seriously had no gaydar at all.) I cannot explain to my daughters why Ellen deGeneris lost her 1990s sit-com by coming out of the closet. They grew up on Will and Grace and their favorite news anchor is openly lesbian Rachel Maddow. Polling shows that from Gen X onward even evangelicals are far more accepting of gays and lesbians than their elders. (Younger evangelicals are even MORE anti-abortion-for-any-reason than were those of my generation, so this change is NOT a result of simply going along with the wider culture.) And, although young people are leading the way, polling shows that ALL age groups, including the 65 and older (which is the most anti-gay) and all demographics, are becoming more accepting of LGBT equality–though at different rates. Frankly, I have more hope for social progress here than on other pressing concerns which seem to be moving the other direction. But it is no time for resting. As progress is made, those who are most homophobic and heterosexist, most fearful of change, are getting desperate. They are enacting laws they themselves predict will be overturned within 20 years–just to set back the changes as long as possible.
So this Christian straight ally, along with everyone else who cares about justice, has more work to do.
STATES WITHOUT THE DEATH PENALTY AND YEAR OF ABOLITION:
Alaska 1957–Abolished the death penalty in process of becoming a state. Only 12 people executed during AK’s time as a territory.
Connecticut 2012 Voted to abolish in 2009, but vetoed by governor.
Hawai’i 1957–Abolished the death penalty in process of becoming a state.
Illinois 2011–De facto moratorium since mid-1990s.
Michigan 1846–Michigan never had the death penalty, but formally outlawed it in the process of becoming a state.
New Jersey 2007 –New Jersey Supreme Court struck down its death penalty statute as violating the state constitution. Legislators debated rewriting the statute, but, instead, formally abolished the death penalty and commuted the death row inmates to life without parole sentences.
New Mexico 2009–In 2009 the NM legislature voted to abolish the death penalty for all future crimes, but left unchanged the status of the two inmates on death row. Theoretically, they could still be executed. Attempts to reinstate the death penalty have gone nowhere.
New York 2007–In 2004, the NY Court of Appeals ruled that part of NY’s death penalty was a violation of the state constitution. In 2007, they ruled that this applied to all remaining inmates on NY’s death row. New York formally abolished the death penalty that year.
North Dakota 1973
Rhode Island 1984
West Virginia 1965
Also–District of Columbia 1981
STATES WITH THE DEATH PENALTY
California Repeal by ballot measure likely in November 2012.
Colorado Legislature came 2 votes short of repeal in 2010. Continued efforts at repeal would probably succeed in CO in near future.
Maryland Repeal efforts have led to stricter standards and momentum is building for repeal.
Nebraska Repeal efforts have frequently come close–twice passing the legislature to be vetoed by different governors and several times falling only a few votes short in the legislature.
New Hampshire Last remaining state with death penalty in New England, NH is ripe for a major repeal effort by abolitionists.
North Carolina Repeal efforts are growing and very organized. I predict that NC will be the first state of the former Confederacy to abolish the death penalty.
Oregon Moratorium on executions in place. OR is a prime state for abolitionists to target for repeal.
Texas Leader in executions–and in death sentences overturned by federal courts.
Virginia Has passed TX in numbers of death sentences per year and trying to catch up in number of executions!
Washington Like OR, Washington should be a prime target of abolitionists in the state-by-state repeal process.
U.S. Federal Govt. has the death penalty for several crimes, though it hasn’t executed anyone in decades.
U.S. Military has the death penalty, though it hasn’t used it since the end of the Vietnam War.
Prediction–The pace of abolition will pick up state-by-state as more DNA exonerations make headlines. IF the U.S. Supreme Court is shifted by Democratic appointments even by 1-2 justices, then when the number of states without the death penalty reaches 25, the Supreme Court will probably strike down the death penalty nationwide. If not, by the time 30 states have abolished the death penalty, we will have a good chance of passing abolition by means of a Constitutional amendment. My guess is that, in a worst case scenario, the death penalty is abolished in the United States by 2050.
I am assuming that the Catholic Church will continue its campaign against capital punishment, joined by the Historic Peace Churches, mainline Protestants, and an increasing number of younger evangelicals. Jewish voices, long opponents of the death penalty, will get louder. The racial inequalities of the death penalty will become more and more apparent–as will the economic ones. The error prone nature of the death penalty will become more and more obvious with DNA releases more common. International pressure will continue to isolate the country and treat the U.S. and its death penalty as a moral pariah. These factors could speed up that 2050 date–but wars or violent crime waves could slow it. But the end of this moral outrage against which I have fought since I was 16 is coming. The high tide of pro-death penalty feeling in the U.S. was in the 1990s and that tide is fast receding.
Last night, Wednesday 11 April 2012, the lower chamber of the Connecticut legislature followed its senate in voting to repeal that state’s death penalty. Again. CT voted to repeal the death penalty in 2009, but then-Gov. Jodi Rell (R-CT) vetoed the legislation. This time Gov. Daniel Malloy (D) has vowed to sign the bill. This makes CT the 17th state in the U.S. to either abolish the death penalty or to forbid it from the time of statehood onward. It is also the 5th state in the last 5 years to abolish the death penalty. We may get two abolitions this year since CA, with the nation’s largest death row, is attempting to repeal its death penalty by ballot measure this November.
Meanwhile, congratulations to CT!
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.
Like the International Fellowship of Reconciliation (IFOR), the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) began out of the horrors of the First World War. It also grew from the first wave of international feminism. As women in Europe and North America were struggling for the vote (suffrage) and equal rights with men, they also were leading the way to more just and compassionate societies. Many of the women involved in the struggle for women’s rights had also been part of the movement to abolish slavery and some were still struggling for equal rights for minorities. Many were working to end child labor and for better housing and working conditions for the poor. They also worked for international peace. In fact, it was widely believed at the time that women would more likely vote for peace and against war–this was an argument many feminists themselves used–that female suffrage would transform the world because women were more naturally just and compassionate and peaceful than men. (This belief in female moral superiority was also used by men to argue AGAINST female suffrage.)
While subsequent history has proven that women are just as fallen and sinful as men are, it is true that the early feminists were also campaigners in many moral and social causes, and none more so than the budding peace movement of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. Thus, the eruption of the First World War in 1914 was seen as a horror by many of these leaders. True, some women rallied round the flags of their various nations–reverting to nationalist militarism–and others, like Alice Paul, used the contradictions of a supposed “war for democracy” when women did not have the vote to put pressure for passage of women’s suffrage. But for many of the leaders of this first wave feminism, stopping the war became the most essential cause of their lives.
The war began in August 1914. In April, 1915, some 1300 women from Europe and North America gathered for a Congress of Women at the Hague in the Netherlands. They came from both belligerant countries and neutral countries. The women were responding to the call of Dr. Aletta Jacobs, M.D., a Dutch suffragist and feminist, who urged women concerned for peace come to the Hague. The purpose of the Congress of Women was to protest the killing then raging throughout Europe–which would soon spread to Europe’s colonies in Asia and Africa and would draw in the United States as well. The Congress issued some 20 resolutions: some short-term such as calls for cease fire and resolution by binding arbitration from neutral parties, and others with more longterm goals–to lay the foundations to prevent future wars and produce a world culture of peace. They called on all neutral nations to refuse to join sides in the war, to pressure the belligerant nations to cease fire and to pledge to help solve their differences through binding arbitration. They called for a league of neutral nations (an idea that U.S. President Woodrow Wilson would later use in his argument for a League of Nations–in fact, most of Wilson’s 14 point peace plan came originally from the Congress of Women’s 20 resolutions!).
At the end of the Congress, the women elected small teams of delegates to take the messages of the conferences to the belligerant and neutral states of Europe and to the President of the U.S.A. These delegations managed to visit 14 countries (during wartime!) between May and June 1915. They also decided to form themselves into a permanent organization with an international headquarters and national branches. This beginning of WILPF was first called the International Women’s Committee. They elected Jane Addams (1860-1935) of the U.S.A. as the first president of the Congress and as the delegate to Pres. Wilson. Addams was already famous throughout North America and Europe as a pioneer in what today would be called social work and community organizing. (See Hull House.) Addams had been raised a Quaker, though her father had served in the U.S. Calvary and was a great admirer of Abraham Lincoln. The adult Addams left her Friends meeting, tried for a time to be a Unitarian (because of their greater acceptance of male/female equality), but eventually became a baptized member of the Presbyterian Church. She had been elected to the Chicago City Council on a reform ticket. Upon returning to the U.S. from the Hague, she not only presented the views of the Congress to President Wilson (who, as I said, “borrowed” heavily from them when he formed his own peace plan), but formed the Women’s Peace Party to try to keep the U.S. out of the war.
When the U.S. entered the war in 1917, the rights of pacifists and conscientious objectors were greatly trampled. Speaking out against the war was prosecuted as treason, as was counseling draft resistance or even refusal to promote the buying of war bonds! Freedom of the press and speech were greatly curtailed–even ignored–during the war fever. Addams, who continued to protest the U.S. involvement in the War, did not end up in jail as so many, but she had her passport revoked and lost much of her prestige, attacked in the press. She was kept a virtual house prisoner for some time. Addams’ younger associate, Emily Greene Balch (1867-1961) lost her post as Professor of Sociology at Wellesley College due to her refusal to support the war or sign a loyalty oath. Other International Women’s Committee women in other countries faced similar or worse hardships, some even being thrown into prison for the duration of the war.
When the war ended in 1919, the International Women’s Committee attempted to be true to its promise to hold a parallel Congress to the official peace meetings of the belligerant nations. Because the French government would not allow German delegates to meet in France, the IWC’s Congress met not at Versailles as they’d planned, but in Zurich, Switzerland. A small number of women “ran shuttle” from the Zurich meeting to the governmental deliberations at Versailles–though they do not seem to have made much of an impact. The Treaty of Versailles was so brutal in its treatment of Germany and other defeated nations that historians widely credit it with sowing the seeds of the rise of Naziism and the Second World War. The Women’s Congress denounced the terms of the Treaty of Versailles as revenge of the victors and correctly predicted that it would lead to another global war. They decided to make the International Women’s Committee permanent, called it the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) and stated its purpose as “to bring together women of different political views, and philosophical and religious backgrounds, to study and make known the causes of war and to work for a permanent peace.” That remains the purpose of WILPF to this day.
In 1922, WILPF tried to get the League of Nations to convene a World Congress to renegotiate the Treaty of Versailles at a “Conference on a New Peace.”
In 1924, correctly seeing the development and global sale of arms as a major cause of war, WILPF worked to mobilize scientists to refuse to work on weapons of war or on projects funded by the military.
In 1927 WILPF first went to China and Indochina, moving beyond the European and North American scope of its concerns.
In 1931, first WILPF president Jane Addams, now in failing health, was belatedly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, but she was too ill to travel to Oslo to receive it. (Addams would finally die in 1935.)
In 1932, WILPF delivered over a million signatures for complete global disarmament to a disarmament conference.
From 1940 to 1945, WILPF found ways to aid victims of fascism, Naziism, and Japanese imperialism.
In 1946, WILPF was at the founding of the United Nations and pushed for the concept of mutual security–urging that security be based on justice and freedom from want, rather than on military might and prestige. WILPF gained official UN status as a non-governmental organization (NGO) at that founding meeting of the UN.
In 1946, Emily Greene Balch, first International Secretary of the WILPF, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. In 1958, WILPF sent missions to the Middle East. In 1961, WILPF convened the first of many meetings between American and Soviet women to break down the barriers of the Cold WAr.
From 1963 onward, WILPF was a major force urging an end to the Vietnam War, undertaking investigative missions to North and South Vietnam. In 1971, they went to Chile, where the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (C.I.A.) had just toppled the elected government of Salvador Allende and installed military dictator Pinochet, to investigate Pinochet’s human rights abuses.
From Northern Ireland to the Middle East to East Timor, WILPF has been a force for peace. With an International Secretariat in Geneva, Switzerland, WILPF has a UN Office in NYC, and national “Sections” on every continent except Antartica. There are 36 national Sections in all. WILPF works on peace, disarmament, racial justice, economic justice, environmental health, the democratization of the United Nations (especially the reform of the Security Council), defense of human rights. It also pushes for greater roles for women in negotiating peace treaties since women and children are often disproportionally affected by war and conflict. And it recruits young women peacemakers for the next generations.
As WILPF approaches 100 years of work (2015), it’s vision is still that of its founding:
- the equality of all people in a world free of racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia.
- the guarantee of all to fundamental human rights including the right to sustainable economic development
- an end to all forms of violence: rape, battering, exploitation, military intervention, and war.
- the transfer of world resources from military to human needs, leading to economic justice within and between nations
- world disarmament and the peaceful arbitration of conflicts through the United Nations.
The U.S. Section has a Jane Addams Peace Association (JAPA) that focuses on peace education among children.
In addition to Nobel Prize winners, Addams and Balch, WILPF has had numerous amazing members and leaders including Coretta Scott King, Phyllis Bennis (whom I suggested as Under-Secretary of State for the Middle East, though no one took me seriously), Evelyn Peak, Dr. Elise Boulding, and many others. I urge women who read this blog to check out WILPF and its national sections and men to pass this page on to the powerful peacemaking women in your life.