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  • Writer's pictureCourtney Heard

This Believer Is The Perfect Example Of How Religion Threatens Critical Thought

Unless you’ve been reading my blog with your eyes closed, you know I am dead set against the death penalty. So much so, that I consider myself an anti-death penalty activist. Hopefully, you’ve read my in-depth series on the death penalty here, but if you haven’t, here’s the long and short of my position delivered in a little thought experiment:

Electric Chair

If there was a way to try and prevent most, or even some, violent crime, would you want to know, even if part of it was putting an end to the death penalty?

For most of us, the answer is yes, of course.

For others, preventing more victims of murder is a secondary priority only to seeking out retribution and vengeance. More bodies is an acceptable side effect when it comes to what we love to call “justice”. Some of us love the death penalty more than we do the idea of reducing crime rates, fewer victims, less dead.

One such person is Charles Colson from the Gospel Coalition. Once against capital punishment, Charles found Jesus and has since found a reason to support state-sanctioned murder in the Bible. Now, this is not so shocking to me, despite the fact that the very foundation of Christian morality, the Ten Commandments, says not to kill. No, as Godless Mom, I’ve sat in the front row at a crazy parade of theists bending and twisting their doctrine to justify their own bloodlust. Charles, ignoring the seventh commandment, only wants blood.

Justice in God’s eyes requires that the response to an offense—whether against God or against humanity—be proportionate.

You see, if anyone were to assert, to me, that the response to an offence needs to be proportionate, I would immediately ask why. What are the benefits of this? Does it act to reduce crime? Is there evidence that this does not increase crime, at least? I would not just accept the statement without question. I need reasons. I need evidence. I need to know why.

Essentially, Chuck, what you’re saying here, is that your belief in God has eliminated your need to know the reasons why. You said that at one point in time, you had all of these questions mulling around in your head. You were against the death penalty because you saw the flaws in the system and you had your doubts about it acting as a deterrent. But since finding Jesus, you don’t need those answers anymore. All you need is the divine command of god to tell you what’s what, even if it doesn’t make sense as it manifests down here, on mortal earth. You have surrendered your critical thought, given up your reason and your curiosity and your need to know what best suits our world, in favour of, as Hitch so eloquently put it, a celestial dictatorship.

Bury your questions.

God. Has. Spoken.

“What about mercy?” one may be inclined to ask. My response is simple. There can be no mercy where justice is not satisfied.

Justice, as it is defined, is the administration of fairness. A hypothetical, if you will:

A loving, attentive mother is murdered, brutally, left dead and bloody to be discovered by her two young children who will forever suffer from the PTSD they have from that day. Her killer is caught, also a parent of two young children. Expedited through the justice system with guilty pleas and ample evidence, the killer is put to death in front of an audience, including his now teenaged children. One of his teenaged kids struggles for years with what he saw at the execution as the corrections officers and medical techs struggled to find a vein and his father writhed, foaming at the mouth, in pain. The kid eventually kills himself. As does one of the hard-working corrections officers, who could never manage to fall asleep without seeing the face of a dying man and those of his children watching him leave this world. The officer also had two kids. 

One crime. Four bodies. Six orphans. 

Was this “justice” fair to the corrections officer whose task was to be part of a team that ended a life? Was justice fair to the killer’s child who committed suicide? Was it fair to the reporters who witnessed the execution who went home with PTSD? Was it fair to the medical staff present who had to suspend their Hippocratic oath to carry out the punishment? What if the killer had suffered from an untreated mental illness and, had he been treated prior to the crime, may never have committed it? Is it still fair to have carried out this punishment? What if, like Cameron Todd Willingham, evidence surfaced after the execution that he was an innocent man? Is that fair, Charles? Is it fair to fatherless children of the corrections officer? Is it fair to the fatherless children of the killer? Is it fair to all the other victims of crime in that state who need support services but can’t find them because funding was cut in order to keep death row chugging along? Is it fair to the law enforcement agencies in the state who continue to have their resources limited by budget cuts, while the state still spends billions on the expensive capital system?

Fairness, Chuck… fairness and justice seem to mean very different things to me than they do to you.

To be punished, however severely, because we indeed deserve it, as C. S. Lewis observed, is to be treated with dignity as human beings created in God’s image.

And now you have to make the case that we deserve it and that we can be 100% sure of this, 100% of the time. Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed for setting a fire that near a dozen arson experts across the USA claim was not arson at all, should be enough to prove this is not possible. We can never be 100% sure 100% of the time. We are fallible little meat sacks running around with hard-ons and we get shit wrong. As long as this is true, whether or not we deserve something as irreversible as death is not a call any human with a conscience can make.

mercy extended to offenders whose guilt is certain yet ignored creates a moral travesty that, over time, helps pave the way for collapse of the entire social order.

This is a claim. It sure sounds like it could be true, but as a skeptic with healthy doubt, before I can accept such a claim, I would need evidence.

The implication of Romans 13 is that by not punishing moral evil, authorities aren’t performing their God-appointed responsibility in society.

That’s not evidence, Mr. Colson. That’s a storybook. If you want me to take this passage from your storybook as the truth, you must satisfy three things:

  1. You must prove there is a god.

  2. You must prove the god you believe in is the god that exists.

  3. You must prove that Romans 13 is the divinely commanded word of said god.

Then, and only then, would I accept what you’ve said as… ahem… gospel.

Perhaps the emotional event that pushed me over the (philosophical) edge was the John Wayne Gacy case some years ago. I visited him on death row. During our hour-long conversation he was totally unrepentant; in fact, he was arrogant. He insisted that he was a Christian, that he believed in Christ, yet he showed not a hint of remorse. The testimony in the trial, of course, was overwhelming. I don’t think anyone could possibly believe he didn’t commit those unspeakably barbaric crimes. What I realized in the days prior to Gacy’s execution was that there was simply no other appropriate response than execution if justice was to be served.

In other words, he made you angry. He made you angry, and we can’t have that. Had he not made you angry, you might have continued to see a reason to not kill a man, but because he made you angry, we now have to put him to death. You see, this is the perfect illustration of how the death penalty is an emotional reaction to a problem best treated with logic, reason and evidence. At this point, you don’t care if his execution causes more harm than good in the long run. You don’t care if it costs more, takes more money away from victims support services and law enforcement. You don’t give a shit if the death penalty actually has the opposite effect of a deterrent, promoting, via the state, murder as a way to solve your problems. You don’t care if corrections officers involved in executions get PTSD and become suicidal. None of this matters to you. Bad guy make Chuck mad. Bad guy must die.

Which leads me to a second observation. The death penalty ultimately confronts us with the issue of moral accountability in the present life. Contemporary society seems totally unwilling to assign moral responsibility to anyone. Everything imaginable is due to a dysfunctional family or to having had our knuckles rapped while we were in grade-school. We really have reached a point where the Menendez brothers plead for mercy—and get it!—because they are orphans, after acknowledging they made themselves orphans by killing their parents.

Chuck, when one opposes the death penalty, they are not advocating for no accountability. There are other punishments. There are other ways to be made accountable for your actions. One does not have to die to face accountability. That, I’m afraid, is a solely theistic idea. If there is no god, there is no accountability after death. All you’ve managed to do is stop a heart and begin oblivion for a killer. He’s not being burned for eternity thinking, “Well, shucks! Probs shouldn’t have done that!”. No, he’s nowhere. There is no reflection on his crime. There is no accountability, no lesson learned, no punishment. He’s just gone, unaware of his own goneness… dust in the wind. How is nothingness, like the time before we were conceived, a method of accountability?

Society should not execute capital offenders merely for the sake of revenge, but to balance the scales of moral justice that have been disturbed.

This, Mr. Colson, is what we like to call word salad. It has no real meaning; no way of manifesting itself in the real world. It’s a deepity: something that sounds really good coming out of your mouth, or being slapped down in a blog post, but when put to the test of rigorous thought and questioning, it bears no fruit. There is nothing to this sentence. Nothing.

The data is clear: the death penalty does nothing to reduce crime, with some criminologists claiming it can actually have the opposite effect. it only serves to hurt people – no, not the killer. Rather, the corrections officers, the family of the killer, the family of the victim and anyone else present to watch a man be put to death.

The way I see it, there are only three reasons anyone supports the death penalty, and if you hack away at the thick outer crust of deepities and word salad, you’ll find that every supporter of capital punishment falls into one of these three categories:

  1. They are uninformed.

  2. They believe god commands it.

  3. Revenge.

There is no fourth option, Chuck. You, it appears, hover between number 2 and number 3.

For as long as I can remember, I have opposed capital punishment. As a lawyer I observed how flawed the legal system is… Naturally, as I came to deal increasingly with ethical issues, I found myself seriously questioning whether the death penalty was an effective deterrent… But my views have changed…The reason is quite simple. Justice in God’s eyes requires that the response to an offense—whether against God or against humanity—be proportionate.

You don’t care what the evidence says. You’re unconcerned with the data. Preventing future victims is not on your radar. No, what you need is to satisfy both god and your anger. Bury your questions, surrender your skepticism and give in because god commands that blood should flow.

It’s too bad, Charles. It’s really too bad because it sounds like you were, at one point in time, a truly reasonable man. Now, you make the perfect poster boy for why religion is harmful. Before it, you were full of questions, curiosity, healthy doubt and skepticism. You were concerned with what was true, and not what sounded prettiest. After it, you became a good little soldier, marching along in time with your fellow believers, chanting the passages of a 2000-year-old book as the reason you must deny your own doubt.

Your post about why you now support capital punishment would have been just as effective with only two words:

Because God.

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