Oct 7, 2012: Why do we kill to teach that killing is wrong?

Posted on : Oct 4th, 2012 | By | Category: This Sunday's Service

Most of our history as members of the United Church of Christ is pretty darn good.  However, there is one really awful part of our history and it comes from the Puritan Congregationalists in New England.  Of course what I’m referring to is the “Salem Witch Trials.”

The Salem witch trials were a series of hearings and prosecutions of people accused of witchcraft in colonial Massachusetts, between February 1692 and May 1693. Despite being generally known as the Salem witch trials, the preliminary hearings in 1692 were conducted in a variety of towns across the province: Salem Village (now Danvers), Ipswich, Andover and Salem Town.

The most infamous trials were conducted by the Court of Oyer and Terminer in 1692 in Salem Town. One contemporary writer summed the results of the trials thus:

“And now Nineteen persons having been hang’d, and one prest to death, and Eight more condemned, in all Twenty and Eight, of which above a third part were Members of some of the Churches of New England.

The Puritans were wrong.  Dead wrong.  And in their passion to be “pure” Christians, not unlike the “purity” movement in Evangelical Christianity today, they grossly violated the basic teachings of Jesus.   In their effort to purge “the unclean” (i.e. “witches”), innocent women who simply practiced a different form of spirituality than the rigid Puritans, were put to death.

For an awfully long period in history, “killing by execution” seemed to be the most popular way of “controlling evil.”  That is what crucifixion was about.  It was a gruelingly slow and painful form of execution.  Those who were crucified – the word crucified means “nailed to a cross” – died by suffocation.  Eventually the weight of the chest caused the lungs to collapse and the person died.  It was a slow miserable death.  It could take days.  That’s why in the crucifixion story about Jesus’ death, they pierce his side with a sword, to “help speed the process along” since the Jewish observance of “Passover” was about to begin.  The Roman authorities didn’t want “the Jewish messiah” slowly dying on the cross during one of the most sacred observances of the Jewish faith!  That would be too politically dangerous.   But the most important aspect of crucifixion was that it was a public event.  The road leading into Rome was lined with crosses with skeletons hanging on them.  There were also public places of execution, such as “Golgotha,” “the place of the Skull” where Jesus was executed.  The public-ness of both crucifixion and it’s “end result” was intentional.  It showed all citizens of the Roman Empire exactly what fate was before them if they dared to bring about any threat to the Empire or accusation against Caesar!

For the most part, when we think of these portions of our history, we’re most likely to say, “God, those people were barbaric!”  But unfortunately that same desire for revenge is with us today.

A short history of the death penalty in California can be found at Death Penalty Focus.

Here are just a few highlights:

Capital punishment is authorized in Penal Code.

California law is amended allowing for executions to take place inside state prisons only. Previous executions were conducted by county sheriffs.

March 3, 1893
Jose Gabriel is hanged at San Quentin State Prison in the first state-conducted execution. Hangings are carried out at both state prisons: San Quentin and Folsom.

August 27, 1937
Gas chamber replaces hanging as method of execution.

December 3, 1937
Ninety-second and last hanging at Folsom. All executions now take place at San Quentin.

December 2, 1938
Robert Lee Cannon and Albert Kessel are the first to be executed in the San Quentin gas chamber.

November 21, 1941
Ethel Leta Juanita Spinelli becomes the first woman executed in California.

May 1, 1942
215th and last hanging at San Quentin.

February 18, 1972
California Supreme Court declares the death penalty cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the state constitution. 107 inmates are taken off death row and resentenced. A similar decision is rendered in 1976 and 68 inmates are resentenced.

August 11, 1977
Legislature re-enacts the death penalty. Under the new statute, evidence in mitigation is permitted. The death penalty is reinstated as a possible punishment for first degree murder under certain conditions. These “special circumstances” include: murder for financial gain, murder by a person previously convicted of murder, murder of multiple victims, murder with torture, murder of a peace officer, murder of a witness to prevent testimony and several other murders under particular circumstances.

In 1977, the Penal Code was revised to include the sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. At that time, the punishment for kidnapping for ransom, extortion, or robbery was changed from death to life without parole. Treason, train derailing or wrecking, and securing the death of an innocent person through perjury became punishable by death or life imprisonment without parole.

November 7, 1978
Voters approve a broader death penalty law that replaces the 1977 statute.

April 21, 1992
California resumes executions with the execution of Robert Alton Harris.

August 27, 1992
Lethal injection is added as a method of execution. Inmates may now choose between injection and lethal gas.

October 4, 1994
Gas chamber is ruled cruel and unusual punishment and therefore unconstitutional. Lethal injection is now sole the method of execution.

February 23, 1996
William Bonin is the first executed by lethal injection.

July 14, 1998
Thomas Martin Thompson is executed, despite evidence of innocence.

May 4, 1999
Manual Babbitt, a Vietnam war veteran with a history of mental illness and post traumatic stress syndrome, is executed.

January 17, 2006
Clarence Ray Allen is executed by the State of California.

Clarence Allen was the last person executed in our State – not because it has become illegal, but because of legal and Constitutional complexities surrounding the methods of execution.  Here’s the moral and legal problem:  the California Supreme Court has determined that the State may not inflict “cruel and unusual punishment” on those being executed.  So we go through all these, may I be so bold as to say, “idiotic” determinations of what constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.  Let’s be clear.  The progression from stoning, to crucifixion, to beheading by a guillotine, to hanging, to gas chambers to electric chairs, to lethal injection by 3 drug cocktail to lethal injection by one drug cocktail, is all nonsense.  There is NO humane way to execute another human being.  That’s the plain and spiritual truth.  So the legal and medical mixologists might just as well pack it up because no sooner than the next “new and improved” method of execution comes along, it will soon be found to be “cruel and unusual punishment.”

Meanwhile, we, the residents of California, are spending a small fortune trying to execute people.  According to George Skelton writing in the LA Times (September 13, 2012):

California has executed only 13 people in the last 34 years, and none since 2006.  A study last year found that the state had spent $4 billion to administer capital punishment since 1978. That’s about $308 million per execution.

And, we have 729 people waiting execution on death row.

One moral and economic solution to this problem is being offered to CA voters in Prop. 34.  Prop 34 would repeal California’s death penalty and replace it with life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

Ironically, the 6th commandment of Jewish Law (The Ten Commandments) and Jesus both opposed capital punishment.  That hasn’t gotten us very far, has it?

What is it about execution/capital punishment that meets a human need?  And, are there “better” moral alternatives to the problem of violent crime?  We will explore some of those options this Sunday.




~ This Sunday’s Scriptures ~

Deuteronomy 5: 6-21

Moses proclaims to the people of Israel “the law of God” (The Ten Commandments) which he has received from God.

God said to you:

“I am your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of bondage!

[1]  You must have no other gods before me.”

[2]  “You must not make for yourselves idols formed like anything in the heavens above or on the earth below or under the waters.  You must not bow down to them or worship them.  For I am a jealous God.  I punish my children for the sins of their parents who turn against me, until the third and the fourth generation.  But my love will flow unwaveringly for a thousand generations to those who love and keep my laws.”

[3]  “You must not dishonor the Name of your God, for I, your God, will not let go unpunished any who misuse it.”

[4]  “Honor the Sabbath day and keep it holy, as I have commanded.  For six days you will labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to your God.  You will do no work that day, neither you nor your daughters nor your sons, nor your workers – women or men – nor your ox nor your donkey, nor any of your animals – nor even foreigners among you. Thus your workers – both women and men – will rest as you do.  Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt and that your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and outstretched arm; because of this, your God has commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.”

[5]  “Honor your mother and father, as I have commanded you, so that you may live a long life, and that it will go well for you in the land that I am giving you.”

[6]  “Do not murder.”

[7]  “Do not commit adultery.”

[8]  “Do not steal.”

[9]  “Do not give false testimony against your neighbor.”

[10]  “Do not lust for your neighbor’s spouse.  Do not crave your neighbor’s house, field, or female or male bonded workers, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”

These are the words God spoke to the entire assembly.


Matthew 5:38-48

“You’ve heard the commandment, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you, offer no resistance whatsoever when you are confronted with violence. When someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn and offer the other.

If anyone wants to sue you for your shirt, hand over your coat as well.  Should anyone press you into service for one mile, go two miles. Give to those who beg from you. And don’t turn your back on those who want to borrow from you.

“You have heard it said, ‘Love your neighbor but hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for your persecutors. This will prove that you are children of God. For God makes the sun rise on bad and good alike; God’s rain falls on the just and the unjust.

If you love those who love you, what merit is there in that? Don’t tax collectors do as much? And if you greet only your sisters and brothers, what is so praiseworthy about that? Don’t Gentiles do as much? Therefore be perfect, as our Compassionate God in heaven is perfect.”

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