This photo is in the public domain.

The Death Penalty

This social practice statement was adopted by a more than two-thirds majority vote at the second biennial Churchwide Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, meeting in Orlando, Florida, August 28-September 4, 1991.

Part of a series on the Social Statements of the ELCA.
A complete copy of this social statement can be found here.

The first social statement to tackled a divisive issue, The Death Penalty was a statement that was born at the congregational level, because congregations wanted to discuss it. It is a critique of a world characterized by horrific violence and our responses to it.

Arguments in Favor of the Death Penalty

Lutherans hold a wide range of convictions regarding the death penalty and the statement reminds readers that social statements are persuasive, not coercive. There are arguments in favor of both positions, and I find myself agreeing with some on both sides.

These arguments are cited by the statement in favor of the death penalty:

  • In the scriptures concerned with law, they demand a life given for a life taken and submission to rightful authority, as when it uses violence responsibly, it is acting in accordance with its divine purpose.
  • In the Lutheran understanding of Law and Gospel, the state bears the responsibility of carrying out the duties of Law.
  • Life is precious, so wrongfully taking a life should be paid for with something equally precious: the life of the offender.
  • Society is made safer by the permanent removal of convicted murders.
  • The procedures in place for carrying out the death penalty are heavily scrutinized to make sure that the risk of error is as minimal as possible.
  • The death penalty is a deterrent to violent crime.

Arguments in Opposition to the Death Penalty

  • In the scriptures, Jesus Christ teaches against retribution and that no one has the moral authority to execute another.
  • Governments are ordained for good order, and the death penalty is contrary to good order.
  • The death penalty violates the sanctity of life, which is God-given and belongs only to God.
  • There are other ways to remove people dangerous to society.
  • The risk of a mistake is too great to justify the death penalty.
  • The death penalty is not effective as a deterrent.

All of these arguments are valid and deeply held by faithful Lutherans. Taking all the arguments into account, however, the social statement opposes the death penalty.

Restoration

The primary reason that the ELCA opposes the death penalty is because it believes in restoration, not retribution. We are called, as a church and as Lutherans, to respond to violent crime in the way that Jesus did. Jesus takes the tit-for-tat basis of retaliation and throws it out. “Do not resist an evildoer”, he says, meaning, “if someone hurts you, don’t go and hurt them back”. This is the model we are given, and as disciples, should be the one we seek to emulate.

In its ministry to victims, the church has found that the death penalty does not address their deep wounds and needs–it neither restores them, nor gives them satisfaction. Retribution breeds more violence and more retribution. “Vengeance is mine,” says the Lord, and with good reason: when we human beings use it, it never ends.

Justice

There are also serious justice concerns with the death penalty. The sources of violent crime are many and complex, yet the death penalty reduces violence to a simple 1-for-1 equation. This simplistic treatment of violence is itself an injustice because it ignores the painful reality of those affected by violent crime.

Another justice concern is, “What is the purpose of the death penalty?”. One purpose of the death penalty is to deter violent crime, yet “the body of research on deterrent effect indicates, at best, conflicting evidence. Many proponents of the death penalty have abandoned the deterrence theory altogether.”

If the death penalty neither restores the brokenness of victims or society, nor fulfills its purposes, is it just to continue using it? The social statement says no.

Concerns Regarding Use

The third major reason that the ELCA opposes the death penalty is because of serious concerns about its implementation and use. Were the death penalty perfectly administered, this wouldn’t be an issue. But we know that it isn’t.

First, there are concerns about who is being sentenced to death. The sentence one receives too often hinges on an offender’s race, class, age, gender, and other factors. If it is disproportionately being used against one section of society, then it is not being wielded fairly or justly.

In a recent sermon, I quoted a study on the rate of false conviction of criminals who are sentenced to death. The peer-reviewed study concluded that up to 4.1% of death row inmates are actually innocent and could be executed for crimes they have not committed. The study makes no attempt to identify how many innocent people have actually been executed (that is beyond the scope of the study), but the implications are clear–of the 8000 people who have been executed by the state between 1974 and 2004 (the timeframe of the study), it is very likely that some were innocent.

“The execution of an innocent person is a mistake we cannot correct,” says the social statement. There is no way to restore that brokenness. At least with other forms of punishment, if the person is later found to be innocent, some restitution can be made. This isn’t the case with the death penalty.

Conclusions

For these reasons, the ELCA opposes the death penalty. It does not offer the restoration or healing it is meant to, it does not deter violent crime, it is used unjustly, and the risks of executing an innocent person are too great. I would generally agree.

Yet, there is a part of me that wonders if the death penalty is truly necessary in some cases. I find myself empathizing with the argument that one role of government is to protect society from very clear, very present dangers. Are there people who are so dangerous to society, even in prison or under other forms of punishment, that executing them is not only desirable, but necessary? How do we decide when this really is the case? I cannot answer these questions, and because of those difficulties, the ELCA errs on the side of alternative punishments.

There is also the greater problem of our criminal justice system, which seems to be built around punishing and imprisoning as many people as possible, actively discouraging rehabilitation and encouraging recidivism. Our justice system does not seem to be concerned with restoration. It is no surprise, then, that the social statement published in 2013 addressed criminal justice as a whole. The issue of the death penalty is not a simple matter apart from the rest of our justice system.

In the end, the death penalty is not the solution to our problems. Instead, we desperately need to find other solutions that will serve the purpose of the death penalty, but with a greater focus on restoration, on justice, and on fair and equitable use; and, because we are human, fallible, and sinful, something we can undo when we are wrong. Are our current forms of rehabilitation and punishment enough? If the death penalty is still our best solution, then no, they aren’t. It is up to us to address these problems in our justice system and implement better, effective solutions to stop the cycle of violence.

Featured image is in the public domain.

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Sermon – June 1, 2014 – Ascension of Our Lord

Ascension of Our Lord
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church, Three Lakes, WI.

Acts 1:1-11
Psalm 47
Ephesians 1:15-23
Luke 24:44-53

While I have worshiped God in mostly smaller church buildings, I have had the pleasure of visiting some pretty big church buildings. Some of them have been large buildings or even cathedrals right here in the United States. But the biggest churches I have ever been in were the many shrines, basilicas, and cathedrals in the Holy Land, in Israel and Palestine. These buildings are truly HUGE.

Standing in the back of the Church of the Nativity, I couldn’t make out any of the features of the priest leading the Mass way up in the front. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is so huge, I got lost in it trying to find the front door to get back out.

One of the architectural and artistic features of many of these buildings was the way in which they drew my eyes upward. I didn’t even have to lie on my back to get a good view. When I walked in, my head naturally turned back as the room opened up before me. The ceilings of these places are just as intricately carved, painted, and built as the rest of them. Sometimes, the ceilings are domed and painted with beautiful depictions of the shrine’s patron saint, or of Jesus, particularly at the Ascension, which makes sense.

I could sit in one of the pews or seats in those buildings and just tilt my head back, looking at this art, while everything else happened around me. Which is not necessarily a bad thing, personally.

But what happens when the church itself tilts back and is content to simply stare up? What happens when, like the disciples, the church gets stuck, eyes turned up, unable to see anything around them?

The day of the Ascension falls on the sixth Thursday after Easter. This also, uncoincidentally, is 40 days after Easter. According to one account of the Ascension, after Jesus was raised from the dead, he appeared to the disciples for 40 days, until he was taken up into heaven.

The Feast of the Ascension, then, is significant in many ways. In one way, it is the end of the Easter season, the end of the extended celebration of Immanuel, God With Us in the person of Jesus Christ. Imagine if you suddenly at a second chance to speak to, talk with, and eat with a loved one who has died, and you’ll understand why the 40 days after Easter were so special to the disciples. I wouldn’t want to let go, either.

When a person like that leaves again, for the last time, it is hard to let go. Like the disciples, I would want to keep my eyes on Jesus as long as possible. They lost him once. Would they be able to handle losing him again? It wouldn’t seem real—I mean, they just got him back, and he’s leaving? Maybe if they just stand there a little longer, he’ll come back…

But Jesus doesn’t come back. And while he promises his continued presence by way of the Holy Spirit and promises to return, there is no denying that this chapter of history has come to a close. The Gospel According to Luke ends with this story, the story we heard read this morning, with Jesus leaving. The party is over, so to speak.

However, while the Ascension marks the end of one chapter in the story God continues to write, it also marks the beginning of a new one. The author of Luke’s Gospel is the same person who then followed it up with the Acts of the Apostles. And what is the first story told in this, the sequel to Jesus’s life? The Ascension.

During the 40 days in between the resurrection and the Ascension, the author reports, Jesus urged the disciples to wait for the Holy Spirit to come. And when it comes, on Pentecost, it comes with a bang.

The Spirit comes like fire, much different than when it comes like a gentle dove at Jesus’s baptism. The disciples go from clueless, incompetent followers to bold, charismatic leaders who inspire thousands to recognize Jesus as the Son of God. It is a dramatic, earth-changing event, perhaps the most important event in the history of the church.

There is a reason that the author begins the story of the church with the story of the Ascension. In it is the promise for things yet to come: the promise of the Holy Spirit, and the promise of Jesus’s return.

But—and there’s always a but, isn’t there?–what about today? Today, we move out of Easter, but we haven’t moved into Pentecost. We are in one of those rare in between times. More so than Advent and Lent, seasons of preparation, the short time in our liturgical calendar between Easter and Pentecost marked by the day of the Ascension is a time of waiting. How are we to spend the time?

If we were to follow the lead of the disciples, our eyes would be continually turned upward, waiting for God, waiting for Jesus to come back and tell us what to do. It would like laying on the floor, staring up at the ceiling. And as the kids this morning explained, the problem with looking at the ceiling is that you can’t see anyone else around you.

This is exactly what many churches do. They keep their heads tilted back, always looking for Jesus, focusing on their relationship with God. Like the disciples, they spend all of their time in their temple, offering praise to God. They stay in the same place, sometimes literally and physically.

Worse, there are churches that do the exact opposite—that look down, or ‘navel-gaze’, so to speak, who look neither around them nor to God, but are too concerned with themselves to take notice of anything else. They focus on what they want, their stuff, their building, their traditions, as if those are the most important gifts God has ever given to the world.

That’s not the point of the Ascension. There’s a reason that, when the disciples are caught standing around doing nothing but looking for Jesus, two messengers from God show up and, in different words, tell them to get moving.

Ascension time may be a time of waiting, but it is by no means a time of waiting passively. This is a time of active waiting, of actively preparing for Christ’s return, of creating space for the Holy Spirit to continue the work that God started and that Jesus made intimate.

In this way, Ascension is a blueprint for how the church should live in the time in between now and Jesus’s return. The church cannot look up so often that it neglects the people around it, both inside and outside of it. We as the people of God are called to work in the in between time, to be the presence of God for those who need it.

It is appropriate to turn our eyes to God. It is necessary to do so, in fact, if we ever hope to keep our eyes on what’s important. But it is also necessary to turn our eyes to the image of God in our neighbors, to recognize the Spirit moving through them, and to engage with that Spirit.

This summer, there will be new faces, new neighbors, new people in our community. Will we be too busy looking up to notice them?

"The Holy Trinity" by A. Davey is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Sermon – May 25, 2014 – Easter 6A

Sixth Sunday in Easter A
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church, Three Lakes, WI.

Acts 17:22-31
Psalm 66:8-20
1 Peter 3:13-22
John 14:15-21

There are some things we just don’t talk about very much in Lutheran circles. Not because they’re bad, or because we’re bad, but we tend to focus on some things and not others.

Well, this morning, we’re going to talk about one of those things. We are going to talk about God.

We as Christians profess trust and faith in a triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We talk about God the Father a lot, and Jesus Christ, the Son, like, all the time. But when was the last time you thought about, talked about, or prayed to the Holy Spirit?

Don’t be worried if you can’t remember. While there are parts of Christianity that are very focused on the work of the Holy Spirit, for a good deal of our history, we haven’t really known what to do with this third person of the Trinity.

There has always been some concept of the Spirit of God inherited from our Jewish brothers and sisters: Christ quotes Isaiah talking about the “Spirit of the Lord”, and the story of Genesis begins with the Spirit of God blowing over the waters. The Spirit was understood as an agent of God’s will, making it real.

But the early Christians didn’t have a very clear understanding of this spirit. In the original Creed of Nicaea, the church fathers had this to say about the Holy Spirit:

“And we believe in the Holy Spirit.” That’s it!

Granted, the creeds don’t say much about God the Father, focusing mostly on the work of Jesus Christ, but still, the leaders of the church, gathering in 325 CE, 300 years after Christ died and was raised again, could only say that they believed in the Holy Spirit, and nothing else?

As we pick up Jesus’s speech from last week (or, as one commentator described it, yes, Jesus is still talking), it is important to be reminded that this speech, part of Jesus’s long farewell speech to his disciples, takes place on the night of the Last Supper, which is just before Jesus is betrayed, tried, and executed. He knows that this is about to happen, and, I think, so do his disciples. At least somewhat.

At the very least, they know that Jesus is not going to be around anymore. Remember last week, Thomas, my favorite disciple, is upset that they are being left behind. Jesus Christ, God incarnate, a once in a lifetime, once in all of history occurrence, can’t really leave, can he?

Jesus’s answer, of course, is yes. But just because Christ is leaving doesn’t mean that God is leaving. Enter the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit is described as another advocate. What is an advocate? In Greek, the word parakletos, or “advocate” means this:

1) Someone who speaks on behalf of another when the other stands accused.
2) Someone who offers help, comfort, assistance, or support to another,
3) Or, most literally, one who walks alongside.

The job of the Holy Spirit, then, is to walk alongside us, give us comfort and aid, strengthen us, nourish us, to speak to God for us when we find ourselves unable or unwilling, to lead us and stand by us. Or, as one commentator put it: “The Holy Spirit is an advocate that looks an awful lot like Jesus.”

Nearly 2000 years ago, Jesus Christ first left the world in death, and then, after being raised to life again, left to prepare the way for us to the new reign of God. For any other person, that would spell the end of the story. This is Memorial Day weekend, when we as a country recognize the loss of loved ones fighting for what they believed to be right. For those who have personally felt that loss, the disciples’ fear of being left as orphans stings particularly true.

But we as Christians worship a living, breathing, present God, not a dead or absent God.

Faith is not a memory of something past. It wouldn’t be particularly useful if that’s all it was. Christians are not a people who dwell in the past, as if there is nothing for them to be or do in the present.

Instead, Christians are a people who are always looking ahead to the coming reign of God. Just as the Holy Spirit gave life at the beginning of creation, so too does it breathe life into a people called by God to do even greater things than one man 2000 years ago did.

The Holy Spirit is in us, Jesus says. God is never far off, but always near, giving each of us life and each our communities life as well. This is why we have faith. We could not trust a relationship we’d never experienced. Without God’s presence, we have nothing to hold onto. Jesus was only one man and could physically touch only so many people.

I said earlier that the Holy Spirit is an advocate that looks an awful lot like Jesus. But if the Holy Spirit is in us, then the Holy Spirit is an advocate that also looks an awful lot like this congregation.

This community is appropriately named, Faith Lutheran Church. The heart of Christian life is faith, trust, and a relationship with the God who gathers us together. That faith influences how we live, how we treat each other, how we treat our neighbors, and all of creation.

The Holy Spirit is alive and well here in this place. I’m going to ask you to do something I’ve not asked you to do before.

I get up here and I do an awful lot of talking. Now, it’s your turn. I want you to talk with the people around you, especially if you do not know who they are, and tell them how you’ve seen this community of faith be like the Holy Spirit, an advocate, a helper, a comforter, a community that walks beside and supports others.

I want you to discover the ways in which the presence of God has been felt by your neighbors.

“On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.” You have heard today how this community of faith has embraced its calling. You have heard today where the Holy Spirit has been working, how the command to love one another as Christ loved us has been lived out.

Don’t stop now. The Holy Spirit is still moving and working. We don’t look to the past as if that’s all there is. Be the kingdom of heaven here on earth, for God is with you.

Featured Image: “The Holy Trinity” by A. Davey is licensed under CC BY 2.0.