The Moral Universe – Death Penalty Must Go

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This is not about race, but it is about the moral universe.

On Wednesday, March 19, 2015, a man named Cecil Clayton was executed in Missouri despite the fact that he did not meet Missouri’s criteria of understanding why he was being executed.

Cecil Clayton shortly before his execution

Cecil Clayton shortly before his execution

In the early 1970s, Mr. Clayton was severely injured at the sawmill where he worked. A piece of wood flew from the saw and lodged itself in his head. In order to save Mr. Clayton’s life, surgeons had to remove about 20% of his left frontal lobe. This is the area of the brain where impulse control, anger management, and other executive functions are made. But the hole in Mr. Clayton’s brain did not allow him to use these functions as you or I would do.

He could see the toll that the injury’s aftermath was taking on his relationships. He sought help because he knew he had episodes of uncontrolled anger and he didn’t know why he was so angry.

On a fateful day in 1996, a police officer was dispatched to the Clayton home on a call of domestic violence. Mr. Clayton, with a pistol in his hand, met the officer in the driveway and, before he’d even got out of the car, Mr. Clayton shot him dead.

This tragedy was only compounded by the state of Missouri’s refusal to look at Mr. Clayton’s traumatic brain injury as a mitigating factor in administering the death penalty.

clayton brain

A scan of Cecil Clayton’s brain shortly before his execution

A child can look at an MRI of Mr. Clayton’s brain and a normal brain and see that there is something very wrong in the former. Time had not healed Mr. Clayton’s injury, but made it worse. By the time Mr. Clayton’s execution date came around, he was unable even to get food from a kiosk in the prison; inmates had to assist him.

Missouri law says that an inmate, in order to be executed, has to be able to understand why he is being executed. Mr. Clayton’s lawyers put in a last-minute bid on Tuesday, March 17, to the Supreme Court to stay the execution. This did not happen.

If you Google Cecil Clayton’s name, you will come upon many debates about the ethics of putting people with brain injuries or developmental disabilities to death. But is that the right conversation to be having? Shouldn’t it be, “Why are we still putting people to death in the US?”

Study upon study has shown that the death penalty is not a deterrent to crime. More studies have shown how much more expensive execution is, because of appeals, than a sentence of life in prison is. Other “developed” nations no longer practice execution; I can’t say offhand from a revulsion of judicial murder or because of the economic and social issues tied up with it.

I have gone back and forth through many reasons for not executing prisoners. My first reason was the lack of the chance for redemption, but that ignored the fact that innocent people have been executed.

I had a recent discussion with a co-worker about the trial of the surviving Boston Marathon bomber. It is clear that the prosecution would like to see a conviction with the death penalty attached. So people who do not agree with the death penalty were not allowed to sit on the jury. Only people who would find the death penalty “appropriate” in certain cases are serving on that jury. In other words, the jury is stacked.

My co-worker does not call it stacked and argues that one could find the death penalty appropriate at times and not at others.

I cannot agree. I despise the acts of terrorists; I mourn the lives of their victims; my heart aches for the sorrows and injuries of the survivors. I still do not believe that the death penalty is “appropriate.” I also do not understand how one could find it justified in one case and not in another.

Many families of murder victims agree with me. I have a friend whose sister was murdered; she is against the death penalty. The father of a woman killed in the Oklahoma bombing befriended Timothy McVey’s father and sister of the man convicted. He sat with them while their son and brother was executed.

Many family members of people whose lives have been taken become the fiercest advocates against the death penalty.

I don’t justify my anti-death penalty stance anymore; I don’t give reasons for being against it anymore. The death penalty is of a piece with our litigious, vigilante, war-loving, nuclear weapon-loving society. I will not align myself with it. It has no place in the moral universe, that’s all.

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Recognizing Indigenous Pacific Struggles in the Lei at Selma

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I am in the grip of work and have not been able to settle my mind enough to write this past week. I think this is an important article and so am reblogging it.

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By Hinemoana of Turtle Island: Lani Teves, Natalee Kēhaulani Bauer, Fuifuilupe Niumetolu, Maile Arvin, Kēhaulani Vaughn, and Liza Keanuenueokalani Williams

Last week during the 50th year commemoration of “Blood Sunday” in Selma, Alabama, this article was circulating around the Asian American blogosphere. Showing a striking black and white photograph of Martin Luther King Jr. and several other marchers wearing white plumeria lei, the article explains the so-called “untold backstory of aloha” and its role in supporting the civil rights movement, which the author uses as an example of Asian American inclusion. Despite lei often being understood only as symbols of the American tourist vacation to Hawaiʻi, giving lei is a meaningful, traditional and contemporary Native Hawaiian practice that acknowledges special occasions and expresses love, gratitude, and respect. The lei of this photo were given by Rev. Abraham Akaka, and thus must be understood within a Native Hawaiian context, not a general “Asian and…

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The Moral Universe – A Sermon for Bloody Sunday, March 8, 2015

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I take as my text Exodus: The Ten Commandments

God of wilderness and water, your Son was baptized and tempted as we are. Guide us through this season, that we may not avoid struggle, but open ourselves to blessing, through the cleansing depths of repentance and the heaven-rending words of the Spirit. Amen.

“Heaven-rending words of the Spirit.” For Moses and the Israelites, God’s voice coming out of a thunderstorm saying, “YOU SHALL NOT MURDER,” must indeed have been heaven-rending. Down through the millennia since that literally earth-shaking event, we have been reminded again and again, “YOU SHALL NOT MURDER.” And the response of God’s people has been, of course we won’t murder, since you tell us not to. We believe in you and we want to follow your commandments.

Then Jesus came and turned the commandment upside down; “I give you a new commandment,” he told His disciples the night before His own murder, “that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone shall know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

And once again, for two thousand years followers of Jesus have said, of course we love one another because we believe in you and we want to follow your commandments.

Did we no longer murder? Did we, in fact, love one another, even as Jesus loves us? Or did we continue to murder, not only killing the physical bodies of others, but also killing the spiritual lives of those who didn’t fit into our society.

I hope that everyone knows that this weekend marks the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama, when hundreds of African-Americans were savagely and with impunity beaten by law enforcement officials and their deputized racist thugs for trying to cross a bridge and walk to the state capital in Montgomery.

What irony that that bridge was named for a Confederate general who, during Reconstruction, became grand wizard of a Ku Klux Klan klavern.

Congressman John Lewis and Amelia Boynton, survivors of Bloody Sunday, were on that bridge yesterday with the President. Both were severely injured in 1965; the now 97-year-old Amelia Boynton left for dead until an unknown person carried her to safety and an aid station. Mr. Lewis, 25 years old at the time, was already a survivor of many beatings during efforts to integrate lunch counters and bus stations and then, on March 7, 1965, as a leader of the march, one of the first to be attacked, his skull was fractured.

Though set in the context of the struggle for voting rights for African Americans, the immediate motivation for the march was the murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson, a 27-year-old church deacon in Marion, Alabama, who was engaged in a peaceful protest when state troopers attacked. Jimmie and his mother and his grandfather ran in Mack’s Café, hoping to get out of the maelstrom. Two or three troopers stormed the café, threw Jimmie’s grandfather to the floor and started hitting his mother. Jimmie intervened. He was unarmed. He was shot. He died several days later.

Would that we were celebrating this weekend the end of such acts by those who call themselves Christians against people who do not fit into their idea of what society should be.

Would that the Voting Rights Act that came out of Bloody Sunday stood today in its original form instead of having every important nuance removed from it almost a year ago.

Would that Selma has not been reenacted again and again in the last 50 years, yet without liberating legislation arising out of it.

Would that people of faith really believed in the commandment, YOU SHALL NOT MURDER, and that white Christians really followed Jesus’ commandment to love one another even as Jesus loves us.

One hopes, no, I know that you don’t have to be a Christian to believe this is wrong. If we only believed this was wrong because we are Christians, we would be very weak Christians indeed. You don’t have to be a Christian to know right from wrong.

But, if we claim to be Christians, then we claim each and every day that we love one another. When we wake up and when we go to bed and every moment in between, we tacitly say that we believe that we should love one another; that we believe Jesus when He told us to heal, to feed, to cloth, to sustain, to nourish body and soul of all those whom society marginalizes.

Yet we have allowed the outrages of history to be committed in our Christian names. The first enslaved Africans were brought to this country in the early 17th century by white Christians. They were sold to white Christians. They were owned by white Christians. They were brutalized by white Christians. They tilled the soil of white Christian plantations and picked the cotton of white Christian fields. After Emancipation, they were tortured and lynched by white Christians, denied economic rights by white Christians, denied housing rights by white Christians and, ultimately, denied life by white Christians.

(At this point, I showed pictures of Jimmy Lee Jackson, George Stinney, Viola Liuzzo, Tamir Rice, John Crawford, Michael Brown, Oscar Grant, and Trayvon Martin.)

The details in the report that came out of Ferguson this week are not peculiar just to Ferguson. Ferguson is a microcosm of cities and towns North and South, East and West, where such abuses are happening.

Did you know that right here in Berkshire County, confederate flag decals are appearing on trucks? Someone is putting them on children’s lockers at Monument Mountain and in other schools in the county.

All of my church life, I have been told that Lent is a time to resist temptation, as Jesus resisted temptation in the wilderness. But what, I have to ask myself, does my not having potato chips for 40 days do for the good of the world? I was also told, in my early catechism, that every time I lied or did not obey my parents or fought with my siblings (these were the stock sins) that Jesus’ cross became heavier. I was never taught to think of myself as a part of history, about collective guilt and collective responsibility and being part of atonement and repentance for the sins of all mankind. Shouldn’t this be as important a part of Lent as giving up meat or not watching TV. Would it not be more worth our while to think of our collective roles in the oppression of a huge population of our country, to ask God for forgiveness for the collective sins of the white race, and to show true repentance by take an active part in righting the wrongs of history?

Implied with the commandment YOU SHALL NOT MURDER is the commandment to do what one can to prevent murder. Implicit with the commandment to love one another as Jesus love us is the commandment to fight against whatever denies that love to another. We cannot obey one commandment without obeying the other.

If we are Christians, then we simply MUST be part of the Beloved Community that early civil rights leaders envisioned. We MUST join hands with everyone who would work to undo the systemic, institutionalized racism that still exists in our country and walk where we have to again and again and again until we do, truly, show that we are Christians by our love.

I chose the Battle Hymn of the Republic as the song of the day because before Julia Ward Howe wrote the lyrics we know today, the hymn was an homage to John Brown. Frederick Douglass called John Brown the only white man he’d ever met who really saw no difference between himself and a black man. During the Civil War, African-American contrabands who sought the safely of Union regiments starting humming a song about John Brown. The lyrics were made up as they went along, but the melody and the sentiment spread like wildfire among the African-Americans and then to Union soldiers. “His truth” referred to John Brown’s truth that a nation that enslaved people was a nation without a soul. Julia Ward Howe transformed the informal homage into a hymn that captures the thunderstorm out of which God spoke to the Israelites. YOU SHALL NOT MURDER. Amen.