JANUARY 20, 2003
Martin E. Marty
When former Illinois Governor George Ryan commuted the death sentences of 167 inmates on Illinois's Death Row earlier this month, he prompted a new round of intense theological and moral debate. Chicago Sun-Times columnist John O'Sullivan weighed in from the furiously-opposed-to-commutation side (January 14), ignoring religious voices and shooting down the arguments of the "academic, media and political elites." O'Sullivan makes clear that the "elites" have to be wrong because "70 percent of [the American people] endorse capital punishment."
As O'Sullivan paints it, this is "the latest skirmish in the ongoing culture war" between "the people" and those "elites," including Ryan's approving Northwestern University audience with their "obscene" applause. By overlooking the religious perspective, O'Sullivan missed hearing the emphatic anti-death penalty voices of Pope John Paul II, the Catholic bishops, and leaders of many other-than-Roman-Catholic church bodies who, thus, also had to be wrong, if not evil.
Had he monitored the whole religious front, O'Sullivan could also have found some pro-capital punishment elites, especially among "evangelicals" or the "Christian right" -- often the politically best-connected of American religious leaders. From many of them, he would have heard enthusiastic support for capital punishment. Why? They usually quote some biblical passage or invoke ancient precedents, in or out of context, to justify the killing. In doing so, they counteract their own views of conversion, repentance, and eternal destiny.
Ryan pointed out this apparent contradiction in his side comments. Aware that many of the executed were born again or otherwise converted, he wondered why any believers in heaven and the death penalty would see execution as preferable to life in prison. He'd been to many funerals where the preacher professed that the dead were now in a better place, in bliss. Why, he asked, send these killers prematurely to a better place? Prison has to be less blissful.
And there's a flip side to Ryan's observation that's equally hard to resolve from an evangelical perspective: execution of the not-yet-born-again prisoners. By choosing to execute them, the time needed to come to repentance is prematurely cut off; the opportunities for the evil ones to repent are taken away.
I remain puzzled even after the back-and-forth I had with prison minister Charles Colson after he announced his conversion to the pro-capital punishment camp some seasons ago. When such an aborting of conversion-possibilities is pointed out to these evangelizers, they either ignore the issue or respond in predestinarian terms: if God had it in mind and plan for sinners to be saved, they say, God would have acted to save before the executioner killed.
Those who are so sure of what God had in mind might, one would think, be cautious about being the agents of such cutting-short and thus such sending of sinners to eternal punishment. We'll monitor future responses.