Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Evangelicals: A Major Force Behind High Rate of Executions in Texas

Like Jonothan Marlowe of The Ivy Bush, I find this article nauseating.  Texas is the capital punishment capital of the USA, which makes it one of the most pro-execution places on the planet, since the U.S. trails only China, Iran, Pakistan, Iraq, and the Sudan in numbers of executions in 2006. In 2005, the U.S. was 4th in numbers of executions, trailing only China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. [ Data Source.] Great company to keep.  The article in question shows that a major factor in the huge Texas support for the death penalty, is the extremely high percentage of U.S. evangelicals in Texas! 

How revolting. “Evangelical” means “gospel centered,” but apparently Texas evangelicals have completely missed the gospel. If we declare “Jesus is Lord,” then we worship and serve One who was, Himself, the victim of unjust state execution.  Have these “evangelicals” missed all of Jesus’ teachings on nonviolence, enemy love, forgiveness, and leaving vengeance to God? (Reconciling God’s compassion and wrath as displayed in Scripture is a major theological problem that we won’t solve here and now. But it is worth noting that throughout Scripture we are commanded to imitate God’s compassion and forbidden to imitate God’s wrath or vengeance.)

In his post on this, Jonothan notes that he has been determined to hold onto the label “evangelical” as a self-description, but that articles like this make it very difficult. I understand completely.  A global view is helpful:  Around the world most evangelicals (and other Christians) are against the death penalty.  The current campaign in Italy (which abolished the death penalty long ago, as with most of Europe) to spread death penalty abolition throughout the world was started, not by Italian Communists or secularists, but by Italian Christians. It began in the evangelical Protestant community, although the campaign was quickly endorsed by the Vatican and spread rapidly through Italy’s much more dominant Catholic community.  If any politician in the UK or Australia or Canada or Europe or South Africa tries to drum up support for a “bring back the death penalty” campaign, their pastors or bishops rebuke them publicly and they get angry letters from Christian constituents–the exact opposite of what happens in the U.S.

It’s almost as if “evangelical” means something in the U.S. completely different than anywhere else.  Everywhere “evangelical” means gospel-centered: Protestants who give supreme authority in matters of faith and morality to Scripture (often-but-not-always using the label “inerrant” for Scripture), who make personal conversion and justification by faith central.  But in the U.S.–AS ALMOST NOWHERE ELSE–“evangelical” has the additional meaning of “politically right wing–in favor of militarism and the death penalty, hating universal healthcare and public education, neglecting the poor, contemptuous of the environmental fragility, lustful for wealth, etc.

So, Jonothan, I suggest that if we “gospel-centered” Christians in the U.S., who follow the nonviolent, compassionate Jesus, crucified and risen, as Lord, want to keep the term “evangelical” without constant embarrassment, we do more give the term the same connotations as it has globally and strip it of its uniquely American connotations. Otherwise, the term is useless.

It is also clear that we will never abolish the death penalty in the U.S. without the support of the churches. So, how do we grow abolitionist Christians–in Texas and throughout ever pro-death penalty state in the U.S.?  How long do we let state-sponsored revenge and the cycle of violence take God’s Name in vain?

August 14, 2007 Posted by | Christianity, death penalty, scandal | 20 Comments