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capital punishment: “killing in the name of”… idols?

January 25th, 2006 by isaac · 9 Comments

The local weekly paper here in Durham has an article about the most recent execution. Perrie Dyon Simpson was the 40th person killed in Raleigh in the past couple decades, and the 24th person governor Mike Easley has denied clemency. The article focused on the 15 people, dressed in sack-cloth and carrying ashes, who were arrested for peaceably crossing some sort of “line.” At the end of the article is a picture of one of the protestors getting handcuffed. He’s a friend who is now a local minister at a black baptist church in Durham. The article included a prayer he spoke the evening of the execution as he stood outside with other death penalty protestors:

We are angry, Lord. We are deeply sad that we are part of a people who insist on steadily continuing the idolatrous practice of human sacrifice. We repent Lord, of the fear, the desire for security, that is behind that idol worship, and we pray for your forgiveness.

I read that without thinking twice. Then, after I finished the article, I read the prayer again. What brought me back to the quote was that it sounded so normal to me. I mean, I live and breath the Bible—I preach on some passage from it every few weeks, I translate its passages from the original languages, and I am always reading people who write books that engage with it. So, langauge like “idolatry” and “sacrifice” and “worship” and “fear”—all those terms are so familiar; that’s my world, my linguistic home.


I want to hear it’s strangeness. I want to know what that stuff sounds like to someone who doesn’t use that language all the time. I know that prayer must sound crazy, but I just can’t hear it like that. So, I don’t know if there are many non-christians who read this blog (I sorta doubt it). But If there are, or if someone happens to wander onto this page, please let me know how this prayer sounds to you. I’m jealous for your ears.

Tags: theology

9 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Buzz // Jan 26, 2006 at 9:00 am

    “We are angry, Lord. We are deeply sad that we are part of a people who insist on steadily continuing the idolatrous practice of human sacrifice. We repent Lord, of the fear, the desire for security, that is behind that idol worship, and we pray for your forgiveness.”

    I am a Christian but I don’t have your “linguistic home”. I do read alot of things that are outside the more normal linguistic patterns so I may not be what you are looking for. Anyway, what caught my eye was “idolatrous practice of human sacrifice”. I would wonder what idol he is talking about. What is it that he thinks people idolize. Then the last line almost answers it; telling me that it is a perfect world or a perfect system that people idolize. The reason some would think that crazy is because we all believe we should better ourselves and our tools for life. If we aren’t working for perfection in our lives and our systems then what should we do?

  • 2 isaac // Jan 26, 2006 at 10:03 am

    Buzz, thanks for the comment. That’s interesting too. Yeah, I guess that prayer sounds different to Christians as well. I think this is the thing I was after: all the language of the prayer is quite “biblical”—I mean, I don’t think it would be saying too much to say that most Christians (and maybe Jews?) wouldn’t be surprised to read that passage somewhere in the pages of Scripture… like a prophet of Israel could say something like that pretty easily, I think. Correct me if I am wrong, Buzz, but what makes it strange for you (and most of us Christians, probably) is that that familiar language is spoken at a protest against something that is quite normal to our culture—i.e., an execution. It seems out of context. The prayer belongs in the text, in the narrative of the Israel which talks all the time about human sacrifices and idol worship. In that sense, the prayer is quite evocative for some Christians who are not prone to connect a modern, ‘legal’ execution with the human sacrifices of the biblical world. So it jolts us: the prayer forces one world into another, or, it makes us see something of our world through another world that is familiar, but not in this way. And it sounds like you, Buzz, do make some of the connections—”it is a perfect world or a perfect system that people idolize…. If we aren’t working for perfection in our lives and our systems then what should we do?” I think that’s just the sort of response that most of us (i.e., christians) have. And I think that it’s because we know what the prayer is talking about when it says stuff like “idol worship.” We know that stuff. It’s that bad stuff that the Gentiles do in the Old Testament. But how in the world is that connected to capital punishment? And I think your question, Buzz, provokes that sort of response for us Christians. And for that I am grateful and am now interested in how others respond—how other people who share the stories of the bible as points of reference respond when they hear this sort of prayer at a protest for something that is a normal practice for our culture.

    But I am also interested in how others react who don’t know this world, who don’t know those stories from the bible that make sense of what Christians mean by “idol worship,” and why that’s even a bad thing. But, again, I am not sure if those folks read this blog. Maybe I should print out that prayer and go to a coffee shop and ask some random person what they think about it. Oh, wait… I’m in the South, the Bible Belt—Christians are the norm! Maybe somebody on the ‘Left’ coast can run the experiment for me.

  • 3 Camassia // Jan 26, 2006 at 1:05 pm

    Well, I’m left-coast and I think I still have reasonably “non-christian ears”, seeing as I was non-Christian up till recently. (Not sure what I am now—a catechumen?) Anyway, yeah, it sounds bizarre for the reasons already mentioned. Modern people think of sacrifice as something savages did to appease the gods to make the rain fall or something, not as a way of carrying out justice. And “sacrifice” implies giving up something you want, not something that you don’t want (i.e. a criminal). But generally, I think non-Christians would raise the same objection that Buzz does: what’s wrong with security? What’s wrong with wanting to improve society? I think the anti-death-penalty argument is more convincing to the extent that the death penalty actually doesn’t especially lower crime, so the only reason to do it is vengeance. (Which not everyone would object to either, but that’s a different type of idolatry.)

  • 4 isaac // Feb 1, 2006 at 1:01 pm

    Camassia, thanks for your reasonably non-christian, left-coast ears! Yeah, my ears are pretty left-coast as well: born and raised in California, and Arizona (which really wants to be California). I’m with you on the whole “the death penalty actually doesn’t especially lower crimes” bit. It’s also troubling to me that the majority of the people killed by ‘the state’ are African-American… and a glance at the history books shows that this country has always been pretty good at killing black people.

    But on the whole “security” bit, I think I can go in my friend’s direction. Don’t get me wrong… of course safety is important. But I think it’s something that we must learn how to receive as a gift instead of achieving as a possession. I’m thinking of Herbert McCabe’s reading of Eph. 4:13 as a summons; Christians witness to the future of humanity—the gift of the (re)union of humanity in Christ’s body—by dispossessing security and venturing into undiscovered countries. He writes, “Since men can in fact only find their present partial identities in smaller mutually hostile groups, the summons to an identity for mankind implies a constant call to novelty, to creative advance…. It means being prepared to give up the security of my present self to venture into a larger context” (Love, Law and Language, p.114). And then he also has this great read of Exodus 20: “But the harsh God of freedom calls you out of all this into a desert where all the old familiar landmarks are gone, where you cannot rely on the safe workings of nature, on spring-time and harvest, where you must wander over the wilderness waiting for what God will bring. This God of freedom will allow you none of the comforts of religion” (p.118). I guess what I’m trying to get at is that attempting to achieve “security” or fighting to “improve society” doesn’t seem to jive with this patient waiting that wanders into insecurity in order to receive the unexpected gifts of God’s grace. So, scary strangers mediate God’s grace for us along the way. And, maybe, ‘enemies’ mediate grace too because they offer us the risky possibility of learning what Christ’s love is all about. I’m just shooting from the hip now. I guess I’m just trying to think through what it means to receive our selves (our beings, our bodies, whatever) as gifts from God that we discover along the way of discipleship. And how sustaining the walls of the polis—the social order in which we find ouselves—might actually be a way of shooting ourselves in the foot. I worry that when we improve those walls we sometimes barricade our body (and Christ’s body) from those people who might just turn out to be Christ for us, surprising gifts of the Spirit.

    Enough of my ramble. I’m interesting in what others think about my meandering concerns about (dis)possessing security. I’m more than willing to be wrong. I have to admit, the “precarious living” (a wonderful phrase from Sebastian Moore, God’s Is a New Langauage p.77) that makes Christian sense to me isn’t a way of life I’m exactly comfortable with.

  • 5 Camassia // Feb 2, 2006 at 8:59 am

    Oh, the Christian part of my brain understands what you mean, because that part of my brain understands that anything can become an idol if it becomes more important to you than God. But I mean, I think that’s the part of it that non-Christians wouldn’t get, and therefore I’m not sure how useful it is to the public discourse. You’re speaking from the “live the Kingdom now” aspect of the Mennonite tradition, which appeals to me, but it doesn’t really sell to anyone who doesn’t have that particular type of faith.

    By the way, did you see that article in First Things about the death penalty last year? It also says it’s a type of idolatry, but the idol is the state which usurps God’s role in exacting cosmic punishment. The non-Christian in me is more intrigued by that; after all, if there’s no God to enact cosmic punishment, why should we care?

  • 6 isaac // Feb 3, 2006 at 10:02 am

    Yeah, I get it now. I like the way you talk about all this stuff in terms of a divided self: sometimes stuff makes great sense to the “christian” side of us, while the other side of us doesn’t quite get it. Thanks for making clear how all this “security” stuff sounds a bit crazy to our “non-christian” ears. That way of thinking about it sounds right to my ears: we are all divided selves. That reminds me of a quote that James McClendon repeats in his systematics: “The line between the church and the world passes through the heart of every Christian.”

    While I’m at it, this divided self reminds me of the work of Stanley Cavell on “Emersonian perfectionism.” I think what he says might be helpful for us Christians as we try to understand what to do with what feels to be our self that always does what we don’t want to do and doesn’t do what we really want to do, as Paul might put it. Cavell talks about how our self exists in the dynamic relationship between a disappointment with ourself and the world, and a hopefull desire for another world and self. He writes, “In Emerson’s and Thoreau’s sense of human existence, there is no question of reaching a final state of the soul but only and endlessly taking the next step to what Emerson calls ‘an unattained but attainable self’—a self that is always and never ours—a step that turns us not from bad to good, or wrong to right, but from confusion and constriction toward self-knowledge and sociability” (Cities of Words, p.13). That’s the battle that I always feel in my depths: a desire for that new self that is always and never ours. I wonder if this might be a good way to think about what goes on in our selves when desire to follow the direction of our Christian convictions so that we my “put on Christ”, as Paul puts it?

    Enough of that ramble. Camassia, I read that First Things article a bit ago. Jason posted it and it sparked quite the unceasing, though sporadic, conversation between us (look here)—and it’s been his turn to relpy for a long, long, long time. (Are you reading this, Jason?) I thought it was a great piece as well. The author makes a great case. All that aside, I am interested in what you said about public discourse: “I’m not sure how useful it is to the public discourse”. You probably already know this sort of thing, but that’s exactly the kind of criticism that my professor, Stanley Hauerwas, gets all the time: he’s a sectarian tribalist whose language is untranslatable to the wider “public discourse.” So, yeah, I guess I’m wondering if you could say a little bit more about what are the sorts of things that make up “public discourse” and what I should think about saying or not saying when I say things to “the public”. I guess I worry a little bit about what’s lost in translation when I try to leave out the “christian” part about ethics. These are honest, and open questions for me… so please don’t feel like I’m on the attack or something like that. I am really interested.

    I think you might be right about this: “You’re speaking from the ‘live the Kingdom now’ aspect of the Mennonite tradition.” Probably. But it might also be interesting to note that the dude (Herbert McCabe, OP) I was quoting is a Roman Catholic priest/theologian whose students are now doing great non-mennonite theolgical work.

  • 7 Camassia // Feb 3, 2006 at 11:15 am

    Well, not to go on the attack either, but you’re the one who asked how this sounded to non-Christian ears. I doubt Hauerwas would care how it sounded to non-Christians, and normally I’m not big on watering things down for the masses either, but I took “translation” to be the motivation behind the question. Perhaps you could explain a little more about what you were getting at?

    I know that at PMC, there are a number of people who try to forge alliances with non-Christians for actions on specific issues (like the death penalty, or the Iraq war, or some other social issue), and therefore try to frame these things in ways that don’t depend on a specifically Christian view of the world. (Assistant pastor Bert Newton is probably the most conspicuous example.) I’m not a political activist so I don’t deal with those challenges much, but I do suspect that it’s easier to convey some Christian messages than others. In particular, I think you’ll have a hard time overcoming people’s natural fear of injury and death if they don’t have the assurance of eternal life. That’s why I think saying the death penalty is unnecessary for security is going to sell better than saying that it’s idolatrous to be willing to sacrifice others for your own safety, true though it may be.

  • 8 Eric Lee // Feb 3, 2006 at 4:01 pm

    I don’t know how pertinent this is for the discussion (and sorry for intruding in what looks like a good conversation thus far), but this editorial on B16’s ‘Deus Caritas Est’ encyclical from a dude I met a few months back named Mnsgr. Lorenzo Albecete mentions something about how the love of God brings Christians and non-Christians together:

    It’s worth noting that in the second part of the encyclical, Benedict says that the charitable mission of the church is informed by the belief that human and divine love are inseparable. This is why believers and nonbelievers can come together to fight poverty and injustice…

    It’s interesting to note that Benedict makes the move of first talking about God’s love, and then making this move of what then becomes possible because of it. Puts a whole new spin on an ad hoc or Yoderian ‘tactical alliance’ between those within the Church and those without.



  • 9 isaac // Feb 4, 2006 at 6:22 am

    Camassia, you’re right: “you’re the one who asked how this sounded to non-Christian ears. I doubt Hauerwas would care how it sounded to non-Christians.” I wanted access to some strangenss when I hear my friend’s prayer. And, yeah, it’s hard to imagine Hauerwas persuing non-christians—he would probably say “pagans” for effect—to figure out how he sounds, or how people like my friend sound. But, for some reason, that prayer made me curious. Maybe I’m a bit more “seeker-sensitive” than I thought! So, yeah, like I said before, I am grateful for you and Buzz highlighting the security bit. And, like I admitted, if I’m honest with myself, the whole “precarious living” that I think the gospel calls me toward grates against some of my senses—maybe I’m more “non-christian” than I thought, or something like that. Hmmm. Maybe that’s what I’ve learned so far in the conversation. I don’t sit long enough with stuff like my friend’s prayer to let it penetrate my projected self—my wannabe Christian self—and allow it to do work on me where I am right now.

    Camassia, maybe that explains a little more what I was getting at. But I have to admit that I am not sure that I started out with a point to make. I was just curious. And, I like conversations. So, thanks for talking. That’s what I like about posting. I don’t see this venue as a place to pontificate (at least most of the time?). Something strikes my fancy sometimes and so I post it hoping that someone else wants to talk about it.

    Anyhow, Eric, I think your quote that gets at what the pope says about love is real helpful: “human and divine love are inseparable.” Yeah, that’s great. I like that alot. Maybe that makes sense of why I am interested in how other humans, even if not the christian variety, hear stuff about justice. Maybe it flows from a conviction that we are all already enfolded and caressed by God’s graceful love. And we our engagements with justice issues are opportunities to discern that One who is Love in strange places, in people we don’t usually turn to. So, Eric, to turn back to Yoder like you did: “tactical alliances” are vital for the church because they are a means of grace, places where this surprising love of the Spirit engulfs us.