Monday, June 6

Death Penalty Ground Rules

With this post, I am launching another multi-part discussion, this time to address the issue of the death penalty. The letters that comprise the first part of the discussion were exchanged between me and a long-time acquaintance, Beth. They will be posted over a number of days, and my most recent contribution, which I am now composing, will be uploaded in due time.

While I am for the universal abolition of the death penalty, Beth defends the death penalty on what she understands as religious grounds. I cannot say that I am a specialist on the topic and I'm open to all manner of information and arguments both for and against. So, if you have comments, please type them in and they will receive their response.
To kick off the discussion, I will quote from a work by Victor L. Streib, who in the final chapter of his historical overview of both the death penalty and the arguments for and against it, writes that,
"As the world community continues to move toward total abolition of all death penalties, the United States can expect to be seen as out of step with the 21st century. The fact that every other country in the world anything like the United States has now abandoned the death penalty is a serious issue of international relations for us. [...] Increasingly, the United States is being portrayed as a human rights violator by nations we consider to be our friends and allies" (2003, Death Penalty in a Nutshell, Thomson/West, p. 285).
Streib substantiates the global evolution away from the death penalty by noting that,
"The latter third of the 20th century saw an ever-increasing number of countries formally reject the death penalty, either by constitutional amendment, by statutory amendment, or by high court ruling. During this period, 58 additional countries abolished the death penalty (46 totally and 12 for ordinary crimes). [...] The five leading death penalty nations in terms of annual executions were China, Iraq, the Congo, the United States, and Iran" (ibid., p. 271, 272).
One task that Streib's work invites us to tackle is that of determining whether we can understand the meaning of the U.S. government's resistance to join this worldwide movement away from the death penalty. Hopefully, the following discussion will move in that direction.

Once the discussion topic was established, my discussion partner Beth sent me the following remarks:

Beth: I want to set some parameters for our 'discussion', if you will agree.

First, I don't have a lot of time on my hands, but I can commit one hour a week to our exchange, that is in reading and responding.

Second, I desire to learn from you, but I don't want us to sink to an exchange of insults. Please be sensitive to the way in which you voice your objections, being careful to respond to what I actually say and not to what you think I mean or what someone 'like me' might say. I will be careful to do the same.

Third, I think we will be most productive if we tackle one issue at a time, whenever that is possible.

Finally, I see Christianity as a defining issue here, meaning that it sets the ground work for all other discussions. I have asked you before who you think Jesus is, but have not gotten a response. I can live with that for now, but I see it as a key omission to our exchange.

I will happily get back to that when I hear your response to these 'ground rules'.

terrette: I think all of your "ground rules" are reasonable; only one, in fact, perplexes me somewhat. It concerns this statement, which may or may not have been intended as a "ground rule":

Finally, I see Christianity as a defining issue here, meaning that it sets the ground work for all other discussions. I have asked you before who you think Jesus is, but have not gotten a response. I can live with that for now, but I see it as a key omission to our exchange.
Well, this is the one "ground rule" (if it is one) that I don't wholly understand, even if I remain sympathetic to your will to profess your faith. If I thought that Jesus was a fictional fabrication of the neo-conservative majority in the House of Representatives, would that prohibit all dialogue between us on, say, the death penalty? If I thought of him as my savior, would it render our dialogue meaningless, because thoroughly harmonious in principle, if not in the details?

I understand the importance of Christianity, but saying that it sets the "ground work" for all other discussions means what? "Ground work," as I understand it, has a less dogmatic and circumscribing nature than you seem to want to lend the expression. It is a point of departure rather than a limiting horizon. Nonetheless, on the one hand, I completely agree, I think Western culture is unthinkable without Christianity, and that Christianity is in some sense the ground work of Western culture and society; on the other, I feel like I am being submitted to an identity check at the door of the public hall, and that, if I do not proclaim myself a believer, then you will shut me out and close off every avenue to thoughtful exchange.

I don't understand this demand on your part. I think that a possible difference in how we view Jesus Christ, the historical or spiritual figure, can inform our different perspectives on things without rendering us mute before one another. If you mean to say that, in every issue, "Jesus is the savior," can be the only answer and explanation, and that no reasonable discussion can be had that does not begin and end with this proclamation, then you are only admitting the limits you pose, from the outset, to open discussion. Unless, of course, you can show me otherwise. I would be interested to know--precisely!--how the thought of Jesus the savior can explain, justify, or lend support to the idea of a government of men and women that takes it upon itself to destroy the bodies of certain of its citizens.

It is worth mentioning that Jesus himself was himself tried, convicted, and killed by the state -- only, as any Christian would say, to live again. There is certainly something very significant in this Christian valorization of sacrifice that still informs modern-day thinking on the death penalty. Our discussion will have to take this into consideration, at some point, I would think.