Troy Davis may have been innocent, but that’s not what makes his execution this past Wednesday night morally outrageous. Capital punishment itself is a disgrace in any society that thinks of itself as “civilized,” and even more so for a society that claims Christianity as a dominant influence.
I won’t rehearse here the well-worn arguments as to why capital punishment qualifies as: a) morally suspect if not ethically abhorrent; and b) an ineffectual deterrent to crime. (If you’re unconvinced about either point, I recommend spending some time here.)
Rather than only moral and practical problems, capital punishment should raise profound theological questions for Christians. Those questions begin by remembering that Jesus was unjustly accused of capital crimes and executed by the Roman Empire.
Many Christians, however, tend to skip over that socio-political reality and reflect instead on the doctrine of atonement, or why Jesus “had” to die as the “Lamb of God” for the sins of the world.
Many self-identified liberal or progressive Christians reject entirely that kind of doctrinal overlay on the crucifixion of Jesus. But we might still find some peculiar bits in that doctrinal history worth considering today (and that history is quite diverse) and how it might still speak effectively to our situation today – including the appalling practice of capital punishment in the United States.
Here I’ll mention just two among the many points to ponder for a peculiar faith today:
The first point to ponder is this: why are human beings so blood thirsty?
One response to that question, and a profound one, has emerged from the work of Rene Girard, a 20th century French historian and philosopher. And that work has prompted a great deal of insightful theological reflection on the role of violent scapegoating in the formation of any human community. James Alison’s theological work is the best example of this (and it’s rather complex, so go pour yourself some coffee, sit in a comfy chair, and read more about that here).
The shorthand (and thus inadequate) version of Girard/Alison is just this: human societies pour out their inherent violence on representative figures – the “scapegoat” – who bear the brunt of what would otherwise be uncontainable social chaos. Without scapegoats, there would be no “society” at all.
The Paschal Mystery of the death and resurrection of Jesus (the divine scapegoat) thus offers the possibility of finding a way out of this endless cycle of violence. How that is so requires much more space than a blog to describe. But even naming that possibility, it seems to me, can shed some much needed light on the mechanism of scapegoating in the practice of capital punishment.
And the second point to ponder is this: why are human beings so blood thirsty?
Yes, that’s the same point as the first one. But it admits more than one response. Another response comes from an intriguing theologian, Robert Neville, who teaches at Boston University; I am also privileged to count him among my friends.
Bob’s theological work is amazingly broad and deep at the same time, yet I keep rereading one of his many books, Symbols of Jesus: A Christology of Symbolic Engagement. In that book, Bob devotes a chapter to the symbol of Jesus as the “lamb of God,” and more particularly as the lamb who was slain.
I can’t possibly describe fairly Bob’s profound insights here (any more than I could Girard’s or Alison’s above), but I will offer this: We will never appreciate the symbol of Jesus as the “lamb of God” until we acknowledge our collective “blood guilt.”
As Bob acknowledges, modern western people recoil at the idea of “collective” anything let alone something that sounds as barbaric as “blood guilt.” Yet Bob persuaded me. Consider just two among a host of examples.
First, if you have ever taken a train across the U.S., you did so thanks to the indentured servitude and some deaths of Chinese immigrant laborers, who built the railroad.
Second, if you are in any way benefiting from contemporary American industry, technology, and agriculture, you are indebted to the institution of African slavery on the American continent.
No further examples are necessary – if you’re reading this blog, you are drenched in blood-guilt. How can you bear it? What will erase it, if anything? Can you even stand to think about it? Most of us can’t, so we don’t. But the guilt persists.
Bob then suggests ways that the symbol of Jesus as the slain Lamb of God might address our collective blood-guilt, which I can’t summarize adequately here (I’m working on a way to do that!).
All of this matters as for the peculiar faith Christians claim to adopt and especially when we consider and (I hope) mourn the execution of Troy Davis. He is just one among far too many scapegoats in contemporary US society. Troy Davis is just one among far too many instances of our collective blood-guilt as human beings. Questions of innocence, guilt, evidence, and due process are actually irrelevant. What matters is why any society would collectively kill someone.
Christian people should not do so. Period.
So, why are human beings so blood thirsty? The sad answer is this: We are human. The good news in response is this: the symbol of Jesus as the Lamb of God who was slain might yet transform violent human culture into a culture of life. If so, then Christians might actually find a compelling if not a peculiar way to talk about salvation and redemption.
For the sake of all those still on death row in this country, may it be so.