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Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Capitol Punishment and Abortion: A Trial by Fire

For very, very different reasons, obviously, I feel much the same way about Capitol Punishment as I do about Abortion.

Both need to be necessary, safe and rare.

Unfortunately, both are not - and for much the same reasons.

"We the people" continue to need to punish rather than addressing the reasons people commit crimes of murder or feel compelled to abort a fetus.

There is no doubt about the underlying causes of both:




The Abortion issue is steaming up Capitol Hill in an already hot debate over Health Care Reform.

A few weeks ago, I had a heated discussion myself with one of the Episcopal Church's Washington, DC based lobbyists about this very issue.

I had been asked, as President of the Episcopal Women's Caucus, to sign onto an open letter being circulated by the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice urging the President to include Reproductive Rights as part of Health Care Reform.

I had also been asked to encourage our Presiding Bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori, to sign onto the open letter.

My friend the Lobbyist said that "all the mainline churches" had agreed to back off this single issue so that the entire Health Care Reform package could move through.

Well, that was not entirely true. The judicatory heads had been asked not to sign the open letter, but Religious Women's Groups - from Roman Catholic to Protestant to Jewish - had all signed the letter, urging us not to throw Women's Reproductive Rights under the Health Care Reform bus.

I argued - as persuasively as I know how - that time and time and time again, the Conservatives win issues by default because they get to frame the issues for debate.

I argued - as forcefully as I could - for our religious voices not to be silenced - to take the risk of leadership against the wishes of a newly emerging and deeply annoying 'Centrist' Administration - and keep Reproductive Rights as an issue of importance to the debate about Health Care Reform.

I do believe I said to him, "Our silence will not protect us. Indeed, it may hurt us, just like it did at the beginning of the AIDS Crisis. Have we not learned anything from our history?"

And, now, here comes the Abortion Issue, front and center, complicating an already complicated issue. This article in this morning's NY Times was completely predictable.

It makes me sad when it doesn't make me completely exasperated and pulls my one, last, poor tired nerve.

So much for President Obama's campaign pledge to "support abortion rights but seek middle ground with those who do not." He's now got himself painted right into a corner - which has some pretty sharp objects waiting to snag him, the closer he moves into the corner and nearer to the wall.

You know, he can do that to his own political career if he chooses. When he drags the Reproductive Rights of Women with him, well, now it's personal.

Let us now hear from Blessed Bella Abzug who said, "The personal is political."

What has this got to do with Capitol Punishment? Besides have the same root causes in the debilitating effects of poverty, both are politically-charged issues, with both sides spouting Christian scripture to back their claims.

And, because Reproductive Rights, like Capitol Punishment, are both intensely personal and hotly political.

During a hearing of the Social and Urban Committee of General Convention a few years back, I once heard the testimony of an Episcopal Chaplain to Death Row in a prison in Texas. He said that, in the "final confession" made by Death Row Inmates, there were always expressed one or all of the following three regrets:

1. I wish I had a family.

2. I wish I knew how to read.

3. I wish I had never started using drugs.

Sounds like a call to mission and ministry to me.

Oh, and those are just the ones who are guilty. More and more, we are discovering, there are people sitting on Death Row who were wrongly convicted. Innocent men and a few women who were too poor to be able to afford a proper defense.

Last night, I read 'Trial By Fire: Did Texas execute an innocent man?' by David Grann in the New Yorker Magazine. I can't commend it to you more highly.

It's the story of Cameron Todd Willingham who was accused of setting a house fire that killed his three young daughters. It's a story of one father's undying love for his family. It's a story of human hubris leading to institutional systemic failure to uphold the law.

It is a story that demonstrates that an eye for an eye only makes two people half blind and that the impulse for vengeance makes victims of us all. It is a story that proves the notion that Capitol Punishment, like Abortion, ought to be necessary, safe and rare.
In the summer of 1660, an Englishman named William Harrison vanished on a walk, near the village of Charingworth, in Gloucestershire. His bloodstained hat was soon discovered on the side of a local road. Police interrogated Harrison’s servant, John Perry, and eventually Perry gave a statement that his mother and his brother had killed Harrison for money. Perry, his mother, and his brother were hanged.

Two years later, Harrison reappeared. He insisted, fancifully, that he had been abducted by a band of criminals and sold into slavery. Whatever happened, one thing was indisputable: he had not been murdered by the Perrys.

. . . .In 1868, John Stuart Mill made one of the most eloquent defenses of capital punishment, arguing that executing a murderer did not display a wanton disregard for life but, rather, proof of its value. “We show, on the contrary, most emphatically our regard for it by the adoption of a rule that he who violates that right in another forfeits it for himself,” he said. For Mill, there was one counterargument that carried weight—“that if by an error of justice an innocent person is put to death, the mistake can never be corrected.”

The modern legal system, with its lengthy appeals process and clemency boards, was widely assumed to protect the kind of “error of justice” that Mill feared. In 2000, while George W. Bush was governor of Texas, he said, “I know there are some in the country who don’t care for the death penalty, but . . . we’ve adequately answered innocence or guilt.”
The article goes on to prove that the system does not work. The Texas Board of Appeals did not even review the new evidence which proved the man's innocence - or, at least raised reasonable doubt, enough for a new trial.

Didn't even LOOK at it. They just "made sure things were in order" so that the execution could be legally carried out.

In 2005, Texas established a government commission to investigate allegations of error and misconduct by forensic scientists. There is a chance that Texas could become the first state to acknowledge officially that, since the advent of the modern judicial system, it had carried out the “execution of a legally and factually innocent person.”

I know, I know. "Let the system work."

But, what if 'the system' is broken?
Just before Willingham received the lethal injection, he was asked if he had any last words. He said, “The only statement I want to make is that I am an innocent man convicted of a crime I did not commit. I have been persecuted for twelve years for something I did not do. From God’s dust I came and to dust I will return, so the Earth shall become my throne.”
I am haunted by something Jon Richardson said in his sermon on Sunday. He quoted Mother Theresa who said, "“I have uncovered the paradox that if I love until it hurts, then there is no hurt – only more love.”

We are compelled by Jesus and all the prophets before him to "love mercy, do justice and walk humbly with the Lord."

"Vengeance is mine" said the Lord.

Not ours.


Justice, mercy and humility are three nails in our cross to bear. When we do so, may those who see our work give glory to God whose power working in us can do infinitely more than we could ask or imagine.


Josh H. said...

"justice"...for everyone but the unborn. good to see you waving the flag of justice for every group under the sun except unborn humans. the unfortunate side of your opinion is that you've bastardized the sovereignty of God, His will for our lives and the glory of His creation. I pray for pro-abortion christians who continue to lie to women about their supposed freedom found in the act of abortion. you don't've made up your mind. you view it as justice and your "denomination" continues to preach unfettered abortion rights to anyone who'll listen. truly sad...

dudleysharp said...

Cameron Todd Willingham: Media meltdown & the death penalty:"Trial by Fire: Did Texas execute an innocent man?", by David Grann

Other articles on the Cameron Todd Willingham case