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Capital Punishment & Tookie Williams

December 9th, 2005 by Jason · 14 Comments

I’ve been thinking about capital punishment for the past few days since my state is scheduled to execute Tookie Williams on Tuesday, barring clemency being granted by Arnold. This article in First Things is one of the best pieces I’ve read on the subject in a while (hat tip: Hugo).

Tags: theology

14 responses so far ↓

  • 1 JJ Glendenning // Dec 10, 2005 at 7:39 am


    Like you I have been pondering this question. I don’t know what it is about this case but it really has me thinking. The only conclusion I have come up with is this, I don’t know if he should be given clemency or not, but I do know this, if anyone deserves it, he does. He is no longer a part of the problem, he is a part of the solution.

  • 2 Jason // Dec 10, 2005 at 8:45 am

    Like you JJ, I don’t know why Tookie’s case has got me thinking so much about it. Maybe because it’s taking place in my state, so I feel more responsibility for what is happening, or maybe because it’s received so much press attention.

    I’ve been against the death penalty since American History class in 10th grade, when my teacher told us how ineffective and expensive the process was, and then my pacifist leanings I gained in college only support that conviction. However, I consider myself a state pacifist, meaning I think the state does have the legitimate power to wage war in defense of itself. But, I have been thinking, this seems at odds with being against state sponsored capital punishment. The article in First Things was so interesting to me because he argues for the right of a nation to go to war to defend itself, but argues a state cannot legitimately enact ultimate justice in executing a criminal. Anyhow, all that to say, that regardless of Tookie’s reform (which I hope genuinely has happened), I find myself ever more firmly against capital punishment on practical and theological grounds.

  • 3 Toot Toot Tookie // Dec 10, 2005 at 12:07 pm

    Nobody should be spared simply because they found Jeezus or were really, really sorry. Would he have been sorry if he didn’t get caught? Boo Hoo, tookie!

  • 4 isaac // Dec 13, 2005 at 10:36 am

    Jason, thanks for the link to that article. It was pretty good. Bottum’s conclusion is quite powerful: “Without constant pressure from the New Testament’s revelation of Christ’s death and resurrection, the state always threatens to rise back up as an idol. And one sign of a government’s overreaching is its claim of power to balance the books of the universe—to repay blood with blood.” That sounds right to my ears. The state takes on the powers of Revelation’s beast when it assumes the responsibility to balance the books of justice. And state sponsered executions are exactly this sort of offence against God’s mandate to be humans, merely humans, not God’s who adjudicate vengence—that’s God’s responsibility, not ours (see Rom.12).

    I cannot believe Reuven’s insensitive, bloodthirsty comment above. No amount of blood shed will satisfy the cry of the blood already shed (Bottum makes this case powerfully in his discussion of Cain and Abel). The extravagent self-gift of God revealed in Jesus on the cross is the only possible answer to any and all the blood that cries out from the earth—like’s Abel’s still does. For the Christian, it is not a question of who may be justifiably spared, but who dares to assume the divine position and kick Jesus out of the seat where life and death are decided.

    Jason, I can’t say that I can go with your theological decision to “think the state does have the legitimate power to wage war in defense of itself.” Augustine makes the ontological point that there is no sphere of soveriegnty that allows something called “the state” to have legitimate authority for establishing justice. For Augustine, that can’t happen outside a polis sustained by the worship of God (i.e., the city of God, the church). All other authorities are parodies of the ecclesia. But forget Augustine, how about the bible? So, yeah, that Romans 13 passage is full of ambiguities that might possibly provide room for an anxious modern reader to justify the authority of the state to kill people. But that is quite a bold move given all the gaps in the text. For one thing, for the civil authorities to “wield the sword” in first century Rome looks quite different than the modern state (Foucault gives a genealogy of the Western state that is birthed in bloodshed and never escapes the violence of its birth). Another thing is the ambiguity of the active verb in the passage: is it “ordained,” or “ordered,” or “instituted,” etc? There are all sorts of semantic decisions that need to be explained, and these differences make theological differences. But why not turn to the conception of the government articulated in Revelation?—i.e., it’s a beast sustained by human self-destruction and will ultimately be vanquished by the Lamb that was slain; and all the inhabitants of ‘the state’ will find their true home in the new Jerusalem that comes down from heaven. Ok, so maybe that book’s imagery scares everyone away from making theological convictions. How about the Gospel of Luke? Isn’t that a bit more safe? In the story of Jesus’ temptation at the beginning of the book, the text tells us that Satan exercises his dominion of the world through the political orders How else can Satan offer Jesus the “kingdoms of the world” (see Luke. 4:5-7)?

  • 5 Jason // Dec 13, 2005 at 8:24 pm

    Dang Isaac, I should’ve known you would pick up on the “state pacifist” bit and throw it in the limelight. A lot of my thought on the idea comes from a series of Telford’s posts here I see two reasons why the state should be allowed to wage just (i.e. in defense of itself) violence:
    1. The state isn’t the church. And as such it’s not held to the same standards as the church. A nation-sate’s whole purpose is to foster peace and prosperity for its citizens. Violence, in the form of police or military, may be employed to those ends and Christans are called to be witnesses to the state, reminding them that there is a deeper peace than the absence of war and chastising them when war is waged unjustly.
    2. Rom. 13:4: “But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer” (NRSV). I know you said the Greek is debatable but it seems you have to do some tough work to say that this passage does not allow for any sort of legitimate violence to be waged by the state. Whether the “sword” refers to police or military it is still a violent weapon that is used to kill.

    And what about the beast in Revelation? What about this take: Rom. 13 is prescriptive of what a government should look like (which includes the ability to wage just violence), while Revelation is descriptive of a government gone berserk, killing her prophets and making herself into a god.

    Luke may be more compelling, but I fail to see how Jesus refusal to use coercive power to redeem the world translates to “governments can never use violence justly.” Unless you want to say that Satan is in control of all the “kingdoms of the world” (read: governments). But I’m not willing to say that governments as a power structure are inherently evil. I think there are some that are decent and some that are wicked.

  • 6 isaac // Dec 15, 2005 at 10:14 am

    You just want to get me in trouble. Jason, I can’t believe you’re egging me on like this. Ok, so I can go with you on your first point: the state isn’t the church. Great. That’s an important point. I’m totally on board. And I also want to say that I like all sorts of things about this country, about the ways democracy has helped order our lives—I like getting mail and water and electricity and firefighters, and I like roads and schools and all sorts of stuff like that. Good people. Good work. In fact, I just drove on a road today and can’t thank God enough for civil servants who make that stuff work, and the local community associations who get together and try to make our common life better. That’s great. And I think I am willing to go as far as to say that churches should pay get to know their neighbors (i still think the idea of a “parish” is a good one, even for non-denom folks) and learn what we need to do for us to flourish. This is what Yoder calls “tactical alliances”—the church listens to outsider voices and figures out how it can work for God’s kingdom irrupting all around us. Go Democracy Go! I can go for all this fostering of “peace and prosperity,” like you (i.e., Jason) said. But I here’s the problem, as I have come to see it. We assume that what Paul means by “governing authorities” is the same thing as ‘THE NATION-STATE.’ (For some reason, I imagine a drumroll when i write The Nation-State ). We assume we know what Paul means before ever letting the text get strange (as you can see from my recent posts, I’m into this whole strangeness of Scripture thing). I think it’s a stretch to say that what Paul means by “the governing authorities” (notice the plural) is the same thing as what we mean when we talk about the NATION-STATE (notice the singularity). The link is not self-evident. For one thing (now I will talk specifically about our nation-state), to speak about the nation-state in the singular, as a singular authority speaking for all the people (this is what social contract theory is all about), or to say that there can be any representation of peoples, is to entertain a fiction at the heart of conceptions of modern soveriegnty. That inscription on those coins we carry in our pockets is more like a declaration of faith, a conviction, than anything factual: E pluribus unum (from many, a unity). As Sheldon Wolin (he’s the man as far as US political theory/history goes) puts it, “E pluribus unum has been more of an expression of faith, the political equivalent of trinitarianism, than a political fact” (PRESENCE OF THE PAST, p.10). And from the foundation of this country, this declaration of unity has functioned as a suppression of dissention and difference (see Wolin’s essay, “E Pluribus Unum” in the above mentioned book). So, what’s the point. Ok, all this to say that I have a hard time imagining how our nation-state is prima facia the same thing as what the Roman Christians experienced as “authorities.” So, when Jason says, “A nation-sate’s whole purpose is to foster peace and prosperity for its citizens,” I have to wonder. The genealogy of the the Western formulation of the nation-state, and the N. American version, doesn’t quite reveal a benevolent soveriengty. I would say, just like what Wolin says about Unum , that Jason’s statement sounds more like a conviction, a declaration of faith, then a self-evident reading of our history (and the contemporary product of that history). Maybe Paul really thought those Roman governing authorities were benevolent, but that doesn’t mean he thinks all future soveriengties will be good. And Yes, I think at some point it may be important to historicize the text, to allow this ancient letter to an ancient people take us into a differnt world—a “strange new world,” to co-opt a phrase from Barth—from which we can gain a new vantage-point on our present.

    I think Jim McClendon is great on this point (see the revised edition of ETHICS, pp.310f). Here’s what he says about how we frame Romans 13: “Roman Christians, who will in just seven years face the first general persecution (under Nero in 64 CE), and who are therefor bound to regard the state as a potential if not yet an actual dangerous enemy, are reminded by the Apostle of Jesus’ requirement to love one’s enemies—to ‘use good to conquer evil’ (Rom.12:21). Immediately, Paul gives these saints some helpful ways to love their imperial enemy: Remember that God created him; consider the good God thereby intended; have respect for the enemy and give him his due (13:1-7). (Naturally Paul does not call the Roman state ‘the enemy’; to do so would be particularly dangerous in a document sent into the capital city itself, into the jaws of the Roman wolf). Still, the point would not be lost.” Along these same lines, I think it might be important to think how crazy it would be for any follow of Jesus (let alone an apostle) to say that the Roman crucifixion of Jesus was just Rome exercizing it’s God-given right to punish evil-doers! Jesus is the innocent victim, and his murder at the hands of the Roman imperium has to call into question the ability of the Roman “governing authorities” to discern good from evil, to see what is just. So it seems to me that McClendon offers a decent reading of Romans 12-13: the Roman Christians may not start a revolution, or join a movement of rebellion (it almost sounds like Paul is talking to his former self at this point because he was a Zealot, a Jew ready to liberate Israel from Roman occupation for the sake of the Torah).

    The problem, I think, is that we wanna think Paul is making a metaphysical claim that gives the NATION-STATE ontological status—that is, that we can talk about it as a dehistoricized, ideal or form in which subsequent social orders participate. But Paul is not being ontological here; there’s no metaphysics. He’s talking providing a shape for the moral world of these scattered christians in Rome so that they won’t join the revolutionaries. (Now this might be an an interesting link worth pursuing: what sense to we make about our N. American social order that started with a revolutionary movement, given Paul’s admonishment! I dunno, worth some investigation, it seems). So, when Jason talks about “legitimation” of something called “the state”, I have to wonder why the metaphysics? I am not all that sure that Paul all of a sudden jumps into a dogmatic, ontological discourse when he uses the word tasso (“to order, arrange, fix, appoint, put in place” see BDAG). He’s just saying what God’s been about the whole time when God uses the goyim—God uses the rulers of the nations to accomplish the things God’s wants to accomplish; but that doesn’t mean that God all of a sudden creates for them a special ontological order with its own rules of legitimation, and approves of their activities (in Isaiah 10 God uses Assyria, but does not morally or metaphysically justify it). Of course J. Yoder is in the background here: “God is not said to create or institute or ordain the powers that be, but only to order them, to put them in order, sovereignly to tell them where they belong, what is their place. It is not as if there was a time when there was no government and then God made government through a new creative intervention; there has been hierarchy and authority and power since human society existed. Its exercise has involved dominion, disrespect for human dignity, and real or potential violence ever since sin has existed. Nor is it that by ordering this realm God specifically, morally approves of what a government does… The librarian does not create nor approve of the book she or he catalogs and shelves. Likewise God does not take the responsibility for the existence of the rebellious ‘powers that be’ or for their shape or identity; they already are” (POLITICS OF JESUS, p.201).

    Ok, I gotta stop. I’ve spent too much time here. I was supposed to work this construction job today, but it’s pouring outside so the boss-man called off the day’s work. So, why not blog?

  • 7 Jason // Jan 2, 2006 at 5:32 pm

    Isaac, good food for thought. You’re challenging some largely unexamined convictions of mine which is always fun. First, a quibble. You make the point that “governing authorities” (v. 1) is plural, but for the rest of the passage the singular is used: “the authority,” “God’s servant,” etc.

    Anyhow, here is what seems to be at the heart of this argument: Does God institute orders, realities, structures (whatever you want to call it) that are sanctioned by God, but whose rules for conduct are different than those of the church? Your answer is no, God only permits them to exist, but God does not approve of what they do.

    My first question is:  Might not there be a difference between God’s permissible will and perfect will? Splitting hairs? I don’t think so. The world is fallen, and God has obviously decided to work within its fallenness instead of wiping it out and starting afresh. So, might not God allow for, even sanction a government which uses violence at times in order that sin might be restrained, even if this isn’t the how God ultimately desires the world to operate? To use your example, I don’t think God is stoked to have to send the Israelites into Exile via the Assyrians. But God is willing to do it in order that they might be disciplined. I’m not proposing an ethic of accomplishing a good end via immoral means, I’m only saying that in order for sin to be restrained and chastened God seems willing to use force.

    But enough theory, let’s look at the actual text: Rom. 13:1-6. Some things that strike me about it:

    • Regardless of who the “governing authorities” are, they have been given some sort of special charge and power that is not given to the church: “those authorities that exist have been instituted by God” (v. 1)
    • I will admit that the main point of the passage is to instruct Christians on how to live in an honorable way under the authority. It is not a treatise on how a government is to operate. We are making inferences, which always leads to a measure of uncertainty about conclusions.
    • That said, I must ask, Why is this “authority” described as a “terror” to bad conduct, an entity that “bears the sword,” and “execute[s] wrath on the wrongdoer” if it has no sanction to use violence.?You may say, “that’s because it’s a fallen structuure, that’s permitted by God but not endorsed by God.” Yet, I can’t buy that because it’s specifically described as “God’s servant” for our good (v. 4). Technically, the “servant” is the actual ruler who operates as part of the governing authority, but I think the point still holds.  Now, somewhere interesting to go with may be that Pharoah was also God’s servant, but I don’t want to try and unravel that yarn of why God made Pharoah’s heart hard.
    • God appears to sanction the “authority” of this passage to collect taxes (v. 6). This is an example of another “moral rule” given to the “governing authorities,” but not to the Church
    • Why would God command Christians to be subject to something if God thinks it is an evil thing? Moreover, we are commanded to be subject to this authority precisely because of its wrath (and also because of our conscience) (v. 5).
    • Now, I don’t want to overstate my case. I agree with most of what you say in the first part of your comment. The “nation state” is not directly equatable to the “governing authorities” Paul describes. But the nation state is a governing authority, so it seems to have some sort of connection. Also, I certainly agree that not all sovereignties are perfect, ours included! There are many governments that do not even come close to living up to the standards set forth in Rom. 13. In fact, more often than not it seems nations use their “sword” unjustly and heinously. The current war in Iraq seems but one example of an unjust war and ill use of violence.

      However, I still want to hold out that there is a place for the “governing authorities” to use force (either in the form of police force, and even war) legitimately, not because I have some sort of faith in the nation-state, but because that seems to be what Rom. 13 implies.

  • 8 isaac // Jan 5, 2006 at 4:48 am

    Jason, at issue is exactly what you pointed to in your first point: “they have been given some sort of special charge and power that is not given to the church.” That’s the crux. As you already said, I have a problem with your language about a “special charge and power” that is distinct from the kingdom of God inaugurated through Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, exploding all around us. Let me try to explain why I think what you said doesn’t work. The place we learn to see God’s kingdom, live in this kingdom, and witness to the kingdom is called “church.” That’s where I detect your ontological claims that echo that Reformed conception of “sphere sovereignty.” Right? If not, then I wonder where you are pulling this “special charge and powers” from. Anyhow, I think “sphere sovereignty” inadequately accounts for the NT witness of a Kingdom or a New Creation—these are realities without ontologically distinct domains that necessitate naturally determined ethics. Christ begins one new creation, not new creations; He inaugurates a Kingdom, not kingdoms. And the church is the foretaste of this kingdom, the eschatological prolepsis, the gathered people who learn to see and describe the wonder of God’s good future breaking into the present.

    So, all that to say, I have a hard time reconciling what you say about “special powers” with Paul’s teaching about the new world come in Jesus… For example: “And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way?” (Eph. 1:22-23). There seems to be a singularity and universality of Christ’s domain that is made particular in “the church, which is his body.” Sure, Christ fills “everything in every way,” but the church is the place where the gift of God’s universal dominion is seen and received with joy. The church is the forerunner, the new political community whose life is all about struggling to bear witness to this new reality, this gift of Jesus through the ever-present Spirit who guarantees our link to the consummated kingdom. There are no spheres of the Kingdom, no distinct vassal states within the empire. It’s all Christ. At least, in Christ we find the things of the present that will survive the apocalypse. The rest fades away. This is where I think your read of the “authorities” in Romans 13 needs a little more of Paul’s apocalyptic vision. It all goes away. It fades away. There is nothing to those structures. They are here today…and gone tomorrow. Done. Finished. “For this world in its present form is passing away” (I Cor. 7:31). That’s a taste of Paul’s apocalyptic. This will all end tomorrow. It’s the end of the world as we know it, to steal a line from REM. No reason to resist the authorities because they don’t matter. They are relativized. Paul is telling those Gentile Christians in Rome that they do not need to join the Jewish resistance forces in their desire to overthrown the Roman Imperium. That’s why I wrote above, “it almost sounds like Paul is talking to his former self at this point because he was a Zealot, a Jew ready to liberate Israel from Roman occupation for the sake of the Torah.”

    But, if you want to get specific about the Romans 13 passage, then you have to say more about why you want to read tasso like those among the Reformed camp. I think it’s an exegetical choice you’re making that has more to do with Reformed ideology than what the text actually says. It’s a slippery word, and I can’t understand why you want to make so much of it. As I said in my above comment, “I am not all that sure that Paul all of a sudden jumps into a dogmatic, ontological discourse when he uses the word tasso (‘to order, arrange, fix, appoint, put in place’ see BDAG).” Paul is far too apocalyptic about the powers and structures of this world to sustain the Lutheran reading of that one verb.

    Another thing… You have to say more about what you mean by God’s “permissible will” and God’s “perfect will” for me to think it’s helpful here. But, apparently you think I would buy it because you said, “You [Isaac] may say, ‘that’s because it’s a fallen structure, that’s permitted by God but not endorsed by God.’ Yet, I can’t buy that because it’s specifically described as ‘God’s servant’ for our good (v. 4).” Yeah, I don’t think I’d ay that :) . Sorry. I’ll rather stick with that Yoder quote I mentioned above: “God does not take the responsibility for the existence of the rebellious ‘powers that be’ or for their shape or identity; they already are.” The Fall just is; there’s no explaining it. Sure, God is sovereign, but that shouldn’t mean that we can pin everything on God. The Fall is absurd. Sin is absurd. The rebellion of the powers is absurd. It makes no sense. It’s irrational. And that’s the point. It’s just there. I feel no impetus to give “the authorites” a reason for being. But you do, and that makes me curious. Hey, I wonder… now this might be interesting… Does your reading of this whole “God’s servant” thing flow of what sense you are trying to make of the so-called ‘problem of evil’? I never thought of that before, but your side comments about Pharaoh and permissible/perfect will might suggest something of the sort.

    One last thing, if you want to make a big deal about these governing authorities being “God’s good servant,” then tell me how that makes sense with a Jesus who willingly dies at the hands of “God’s good servant” near Jerusalem? That’s fresh on everyone’s minds as the Roman Christians hear Paul’s letter only around 3 or 4 decades after the event. So, let me repeat what I said in my previous comment: “I think it might be important to think how crazy it would be for any follower of Jesus (let alone an apostle) to say that the Roman crucifixion of Jesus was just Rome exercizing it’s God-given right to punish evil-doers! Jesus is the innocent victim, and his murder at the hands of the Roman imperium has to call into question the ability of the Roman ‘governing authorities’ to discern good from evil, to see what is just.”

    Ok, so, let me answer your rhetorical question: “Why would God command Christians to be subject to something if God thinks it is an evil thing?” Well, because that’s what Jesus did. That’s what the witness of “revolutionary subordination” (see Yoder, Politics of Jesus) looks like.

  • 9 Eric Lee // Jan 5, 2006 at 1:22 pm

    Isaac, so it sounds like the Lutheran “two kingdoms” isn’t something you buy into? 😀 (Me neither, now that I’ve been studying it a little more over the last few months. It’s far to problematic.)

    Something I bring up in discussions is the alleged difference between Romans 12 & Romans 13. It seems to me that there in fact isn’t one, but people who use a reading of Romans 13 to justify state stuff (coercion, force, evil) need remember that it is not a different Christian ethic than what is described in detail in Romans 12. I could be wrong, but the Lutheran “two kingdoms” view (as well as the “just war” theory) seems to place an arbitrary divide between these two chapters that really shouldn’t be there. We’ve divided the texts up into nice chapter headings for topical reasons, but those weren’t originally there. (This is an aside, but it irks me to see various Bibles with a topical heading before it says that wives are supposed to submit to their husbands. The problem with this is that the verse right before it that our eyes often skip over commands us to “submit to one another.” Anyway, similar kind of thing, sorta. )

    Peace,

    Eric

    p.s. btw, comment rss is a lot of fun to keep track of all these conversations as they happen!

    p.p.s. Sir Jason of Rust, is there any way to enable the ability to preview comments in this installation of WP?

  • 10 Jason // Jan 6, 2006 at 11:21 am

    Great idea about the comment preview, Eric. I’ve added the plugin.

  • 11 Eric Lee // Jan 6, 2006 at 2:12 pm

    Sweet! We web programmers know what’s up :)

    Peace,

    Eric

  • 12 NNR // Jan 27, 2006 at 6:08 am

    I do not think that Tookie should of been excuted. I do think what he did was wrong and he sould be punished for it but that doesn’t mean they have the right to take away another mans life. My english class is studing this right now, at least for the moment. And he had a hard life. His dad left him, his mom wouldn’t take him. He probaly had alot of anger inside of him. But ayways, about him being excuted. It’s just not right. He becamse a better man. He made peace between the Crips gang and the Bloods. and they all agreed on no more volience, even though there still is alot of it today from the two gangs. You all know how it is wrong to kill somebody? Well what do you think the goverment just did. They killed someone. I may be just a 15 year old girl but I do know whats wrong and whats right. Don’t miss judge me. He shouldn’t of been killed

  • 13 isaac // Feb 1, 2006 at 8:42 am

    Thank you, NNR, for your comment. It may be the best comment that has appeared on this blog. Thanks for your honesty about what sounds to me to be your developing convictions. I also appreciate the way you brought up the social forces that affected Tookie—”a hard life, his dad left him, his mom wouldn’t take him.” I also think that stuff is really important to think about. I think it’s important because it makes us think about all the ways we might participate in those social forces that somehow contribute in making somebody like Tookie do something terrible like kill people.

    Anyhow. Yeah, I think it’s wrong to kill enemies because I’m a Christian and Jesus told me to “love my enenies,” and I have a hard time thinking that killing them might be a way to love them. So, I agree with you, California shouldn’t have killed Tookie. But, at the same time, I’m a bit of a pessimist. This county is pretty good at killing people, so it doesn’t suprise me when citizens think it’s a good idea to kill other citizens for the sake of the society.

  • 14 rock8092 // Apr 6, 2007 at 8:14 pm

    It is really easy for one to say boo whoo tookie and act as if he is an article we throw away. He was a human being first so the respect should be given. That aside, one of the main purposes of the criminal justice system is rehabilitation. If there ever was an example of rehabilitation, it can be exemplified in Tookie. He was a noble peace prize winner for goodness’ sake. You can’t fake a turn around like that. Next time if we as Americans would give a little bit more thought and humanity we may not have so many people in jail.

    Just a thought.