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What Churches’ Silence Says About Our View on Death Penalty

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A man in Texas named Rodney Reed was scheduled to be executed on Nov. 20, 2019.

After outcries from celebrities, civil rights activists, lawmakers and the general public, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals made the decision to halt the execution.

It appears as though this was the right thing to do considering the uncertainty regarding physical evidence, due legal process and potential witnesses.

Each of these presents the possibility that this man could be innocent of the charges of which he was initially found guilty.

Reed was convicted in 1997 of the abduction, rape and murder of 19-year-old Stacey Stites by an all-white jury.

One of the major parts of this case is the all-too-familiar narrative of the sin of a black man being associated romantically with a white woman.

This is especially true when the woman is supposedly already in a relationship with another white man. In this case, Stites was engaged to a white man named Jimmy Fennell.

The courts determined that, based on the seriousness of the crime and the fact that he had been accused, but not convicted, of other sexual assaults, Reed deserved the death penalty.

And, like many before him, Rodney Reed found himself on death row.

As a Christian and local pastor, I am troubled that the church seems to be silent. In fact, the church’s silence on the death penalty is deafening.

In this case, we have a man who claims his innocence, has evidence to prove his innocence, claims poor legal representation, as well as other issues, and the state was still prepared to put this man to death.

Where is the outcry (myself included) from those of us who believe in a God that values human life? Why don’t we hear the same passion when a black man is, potentially, unjustly on the road to execution that we hear on other issues?

Kim Kardashian West was supposedly with Reed when he learned the court stayed his execution. Rihanna and Meek Mill were also listed as celebrities that supported Reed’s cause. The petition to stop his execution was signed by around 2 million people.

And although there are individual churches and pastors who spoke about the possible execution, in general, it went largely unnoticed in the church. Hollywood and popular culture fought for this man and yet those of us that profess Christ are largely silent.

Why is this? Isn’t there something wrong with this picture?

I don’t have enough time in a brief article to fully comment on these issues. However, I do want to present several areas that I believe the church of Jesus Christ should be thinking about and wrestling with.

First, we need to have a conversation about the lenses through which we read Scripture.

I believe that all Scripture should be read through the lens of God’s character and love.

For instance, the Bible doesn’t specifically speak about domestic abuse. However, I hope we would all agree that God would not want a man or woman to stay in a marriage where they can possibly be killed.

I understand this is tricky and often seems like a slippery slope, especially regarding certain issues. However, we need to start having those conversations.

Second, we need to have a conversation about how we expound upon and interpret Scripture.

When the subject of capital punishment comes up, I begin hearing quotes such as this: “But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise” (Exodus 21:24).

However, if you read Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:38-42 and also consider Jesus as the fulfilment of the law (see Matthew 5:17), it brings into question how we are to expound upon and interpret the Hebrew Bible.

Would Jesus support taking the life of another human being, even if that individual is found guilty of murder? Are grace and capital punishment supposed to coexist?

Do we actually believe that humanity should take matters of guilt and innocence into our own hands and pronounce capital punishment on another human being? How does our answer take into account the fact that Christ was executed as an innocent man?

Asking these questions is especially critical when it is clear that we have an unfair and unjust criminal justice system.

The fact that there is a need for the Innocence Project strongly suggests that our jails and prisons are filled with people who are either innocent or overly punished.

If Rodney Reed’s execution had not been halted, the state of Texas could have been executing an innocent man.

If any Christian is OK with that, then there is nothing anyone can say, write, teach or preach that would make any difference.

Cory Jones

Cory Jones is senior pastor of Tabernacle Baptist Church in Burlington, New Jersey, and serves on the EthicsDaily.com / Baptist Center for Ethics board of directors. He holds a Bachelor of Arts Degree from the University of California, Berkeley, a Master of Divinity from the Morehouse School of Religion at the Interdenominational Theological Center, and a Doctor of Ministry from Beeson Divinity School at Samford University.