Tsarnaev & the Death Penalty: Some Christian Considerations

tsarnaev-boston-court-580On Wednesday, a jury found Dzhokhar Tsarnaev guilty of all 30 counts against him in regards to the Boston Marathon bombing of 2013. This verdict was not entirely surprising. Many experts say that the real question is whether or not Tsarnaev can be saved from the death penalty. Although he’s being represented by the infamous Judy Clark, seventeen of the counts for which Tsarnaev has been convicted qualify him for the death penalty.

The Boston Marathon bombings were a horrific atrocity. Four people were brutally killed, one of them was a child of eight. In total, 264 civilians were harmed in the event. To say nothing of the lockdown of an entire city and killing of an MIT Police Officer several days later.

I was not in Boston on the day of the attacks. And it was not my child, spouse, sister or friend who was heartlessly murdered that day. As Christians, our primary concern must be for the victims in this situation. And immense support and love has been extended to them. We must not stop loving them.

But -again, speaking as Christians– we are called to show the same love to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Jesus was very clear that we are to “love our enemies” (Matthew 5:44). Such a notion seems offensive at a time like this. Understandably so. But we would do well to remember that it was equally offensive for Christ to tell a group of Jews to love the Roman soldiers. Romans were brutal rulers. One emperor responded to a Jewish insurgence by crucifying so many civilians that they actually ran out of wood.

And Jesus told the parents, relatives, townspeople and fellow countrymen of those victims to love the Romans.

But does that mean Christians ought to oppose the death penalty for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev? Is it not possible that, in this case, love means we do not protect Tsarnaev from the consequences of his actions? Did not God establish a standard of justice, which has been entrusted to human governments, so that divine justice is accomplished?

Jesus said “he who lives by the sword, shall die by the sword” (Matthew 26:52). This seems to apply to the current situation. Tsarnaev killed and, thus, he should also be killed.

But we must examine the context of this verse. Jesus was not calling down condemnation and judgement. Nor was he granting permission to judge and execute to any human institute. Rather, Christ told Peter to put away his sword. Christ then appealed to a prophetic reality: those who live in violence, perish in violence. Such is the way of the world.

By contrast, Christ was submitting himself to violence. Jesus notes that at his command legions of angels could save him. Yet Christ refused to use his power, refused to use violence. He gave himself over to death and injustice. In doing so Christ conquered death. He overcame violence, evil and the grave. And it began with submission to its injustice.

In the eyes of the United States judicial system, justice may require that Tsarnaev be put to death. But in the eyes of the Christian, justice looks very different from what the world expects. Justice looks like Christ- not executing God’s wrath- but submitting in non-violence. As a result, Jesus beats death at it’s own game.

But such standards look like injustice. Christ’s death leads to our salvation. Our faith hinges on the belief that God executed his judgement on his perfect Son, which is- by retributive standards- horribly unjust. Sinners live, a perfect Savior died. There’s nothing more unjust in the world.

And the word we use to describe this injustice is “grace.”

I am not a juror in this case. Nor am I judge. Nor am I the executioner or warden who will one day literally have power over Tsarnaev’s life.

But I am a Christian.

And, as a Christian, I live in the injustice of grace. I live in the reality that Christ suffered so that I might not. I live in the reality that Christ defeated death so that I might not submit to it’s power over me. This means that I do not need to use death as a weapon against injustice, because mercy is more powerful.

Christians are called to pray for the victims of the Boston Marathon bombings. And they are called to pray for the healing, for the families left behind, for the souls of the departed.

But we are also called to love and pray for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. And we are called to testify to truth we do not desire death as retribution, because we ourselves have not received it. We are called to live lives reflecting the reality that death is not our weapon, but grace is. And grace nullifies executions, it nullifies death itself.

Such is the cross. Such is a life of grace. Such is the calling of a Christian. That we follow in the steps of Christ to the perplexity of the world. For we seek not power, money, security, justification or even personal freedom. And we seek not death, not for anyone.

We only seek Christ.

For in him we all shall live.

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The People Who Made Me A Pacifist

Pacifist

I grew up in a military family. My father was an Air Force pilot, as was his father before him. I always admired them both. So it made sense that, when it came to deciding on my future, the military held prominent appeal.

I entered college with a Reserve Officer Training Corps scholarship; my goal was to earn a college degree then begin my career as an Infantry officer. I woke up for physical training at 4 AM. I ran extra miles on the weekend. I dreamt of going to Ranger School.

I was always aware that there were some people who viewed my choice of profession as immoral, even anti-Christian. And I had no problem publically disputing such claims. I wrote editorials for the school newspaper. I cited Christian thinkers like C.S. Lewis and Augustine as support. And I appealed to Biblical notions of justice, wrath and even Christ’s demands for selfless service.

But then I underwent a transformation. Through conversation, research, and prayer I adopted pacifist beliefs. This change of heart did not occur in isolation; I was deeply influenced by numerous writers, friends, co-workers and mentors.

Here’s a few of those people:

  1. Shane Claiborne

Shane Claiborne is a radical character. His father was a Vietnam veteran and died when he was young. He attended college and seminary, during which he developed a firm conviction for Christ’s calling to nonviolence and radical love towards others.

During my junior year of college- my third year of Army officer training- I picked up a copy of Claiborne’s book Irresistible Revolution. C.S. Lewis once said that a young atheist couldn’t be too careful with what he reads; the same should be said for a young Army officer.

In his book, Claiborne tells of how he journeyed with a group of like-minded Christians to Iraq during the United States “Shock and Awe” campaign at the beginning of the Second Gulf War. While there, Claiborne witnessed the pain, horror and aguish brought about by American bombs. He saw hospitals destroyed, churches annihilated, and children orphaned. Such tragedies weren’t necessarily news to me. But American media reported them callously. They were “collateral damage”: a necessary evil for a greater good.

But Claiborne pulled bodies from wreckage. He cried and worshiped with scores of Iraqi Christians, huddled in bomb shelters and church basements. During this time, he had a conversation with Iraqi Christians who wondered why American Christians were bombing them. Claiborne tried to explain that the Christians who dropped bombs believed that, in doing so, they were doing God’s will.

This story had a profound impact on me; it prompted me to realize that the enemies of my country are not necessarily enemies of mine. More troubling was the thought that they also weren’t enemies of Christ.

  1. Sergeant Jones

Shortly after encountering Shane Claiborne, I participated in a day of weapons training. I was waiting in a line of fellow officers at the range, preparing to practice firing an M240 machine gun. A sergeant was inspecting all the officers, ensuring proper wear of our flak vests and earplugs. He was a grisly character, vividly wrinkled and scarred. He had about half a container of chewing tobacco stuffed in his bottom lip.

As he went along the line of officers, he asked each of us: “why did you join the Army?!”. It didn’t matter what the answer was, Sergeant Jones always responded with: “WRONG! You joined the Army to kill!”

Sergeant Jones may have had the appearance and demeanor of a Dostoevsky antagonist. But his philosophy is neither unprecedented nor rare in military ranks and training. Army running cadences unite soldiers with cries of: “Shoot! Shoot! Shoot to kill!” All soldiers- regardless of their duty description- are required to qualify at the weapons range. The Soldiers Creed- also memorized by all- states that members “… stand ready to deploy, engage, and destroy the enemies of the United States.”

Sergeant Jones opened my eyes to the poignant reality that engagement in the military demanded forfeiture of personal convictions to those of my nation. If my nation said: “kill!” then I had sworn to kill.

But I’m a Christian whose sole allegiance is to Christ; Christ who tells me to love my enemies, pray for those who would do me harm.

How then can I serve?

  1. Adolf Hitler

The history books of my youth shied away from one vital lesson: the villains never believe they are villains.

Adolf Hitler is a good example. A simple reading of Mein Kempf reveals a conscience who: “believes today that my conduct is in accordance with the will of the Almighty.” Vincent J. Donovan, in his book Christianity Rediscovered, tells of how Hitler always prayed for the blessing of “Almighty God” upon his troops. Donovan recounts a conversation he had with a Nazi doctor who told him how the nuns and students in German schools were sure to pray for blessings on the Nazi endeavors.

Adolf Hitler believed he had a duty to “be a fighter for truth and justice.” To such an end, Hitler said, “It matters not whether these weapons of ours are humane: if they gain us our freedom, they are justified before our conscience and before our God.”

When I stumbled upon these little tidbits of history, when I compared the rhetoric of my military leaders with villains of ages past, I felt a shiver go down my spine.

What side of history would I have been on? What side am I on?

  1. Jesus Christ

It is not fair to say, as many pacifists might, that Jesus words on this issue were “cut and dry”. Though I hold to the belief that Jesus truly commanded nonviolence, most of his teachings were parabolous and vague. And appeals to a purely literal reading of Christ’s words aren’t helpful to the nuances of this conversation. Additionally, such arguments are easily bypassed or shot down.

But what Christians cannot overlook is the story Christ’s life told. Christ who had infinite power did not use it to subjugate creation to his will. Rather, he submitted to his enemies and suffered as the recipient, not the perpetrator, of violence. As Christians, we are committed to making Christ’s story our story.

NT Wright put it well when he said: “our story is not a power story but a love story.” And I have come to the conviction that I cannot live as a testimony to this story while also accepting employment as a lethal weapon for my country.

Still, it’s easy for me to tout this ethic from the comforts of middle-class America. My family will probably never be threatened and I am unlikely to ever be put in a situation that forces me to choose between my commitment to non-violence and my own personal safety. As such, I hold this ethic humbly and understand the cost it demands is not one I may ever have to pay. I live in a country defended by men and women who bravely (and virtuously) fight for my freedom.

But a necessity for humility does not mean I should abandon a pacifist ethic. I cannot control the times in which I live, but I can control the story I tell. As a Christian, the story of my life should be one that follows closely and fervently in the steps of a crucified Savior. And there is no room for an M16 on the cross; no swords allowed in the hands of his disciples.

It is with such a conviction that I proclaim that I am a Christian. And, therefore, I am also a pacifist. For I truly believe that, as Tertullian once put it: “Christ in disarming Peter disarmed every soldier.”

And so I lay down my sword.

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Dear Indiana, This Is NOT Religious Freedom

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Dear Indiana,

You’re a nice state. I mean, you’ve got Bloomington and the Colts, dunes on Lake Michigan, cornfields, windmills, country concerts and the world’s best funnel cakes at your county fairs. You have a lot going for you.

But if there’s one mark against you, its last week’s signing of ‘The Religious Freedom Restoration Act’ by Governor Mike Pence. The act allows for the citing of religious beliefs as a defense for anyone prosecuted by a private party for discrimination. The main concerns with this legislature regard treatments of same-sex couples. Because Indiana business owners now are legally protected from ramifications for their refusal to serve, sell, aid or cater to gay persons on the basis of personal convictions.

“I support the freedom of religion for every Hoosier of every faith,” Governor Pence said in a very private, quiet ceremony last week.

Which is ironic. Because this is not religious freedom.

The legislative mandate that I am able to deny someone else goods or services because I judge their beliefs as being in opposition to mine, creates a dangerous paradigm. As a Christian, I am now protected in openly and publically refusing mechanical assistance, food services, and even banking to someone, just because they are gay. Take a moment to tinker with that sentence; remove the words “Christian” and “gay” and insert “Aryan” and “Jewish” in their stead. Try it with “white” and “black.” Are you nervous yet?

This is why history books will one day recognize the gay rights movement as another sad chapter in the story of the American Church.

Because we, as American Christians, have proven once again that we will go to great lengths to avoid our oppression. We’ve proven that our knee-jerk reaction to the slightest scent of persecution is to rise up and pull whatever political strings are necessary to ensure that we are safe. It doesn’t matter who isn’t protected, just so long as we’re left unscathed.

Thus, in an effort to avoid being oppressed, the Church willingly takes on the role of oppressor.

This is not religious freedom. And it certainly is not Christian.

We would be wise- in debates such as these- to reconsider our earthly role as the body of Christ. Because the calling of the Christian is not to legislate our beliefs. The Biblical mandate for Christian relationships with earthly kingdoms is not to force them into alignment with our personal journeys of sanctification. Rather, God commands that the church be a city on a hill, a vibrant example of Christ’s love in contrast to the world’s corruption, evil, oppression and hate.

We ought not say: “let us ensure that our’s is a Christian government.” Because it never will be.

Rather, what we should be saying, what we should be living, is a life that tells the world: “Look at how nations go to war and kill each other- we Christians love our enemies and pray for those who hurt us. Look at how the kingdoms are enthroned with power and money- we Christians share possessions openly with everyone. Look at how governments close borders to refugees in need- we Christians open our houses to anyone. Look at how people discriminate and hurt, we Christians love and cherish the marginalized, broken and yes- even the sinful. Lest we forget the log in our own eye.”

But we cannot say this. Not right now, anyway. We’re too busy protesting, arguing and advocating for our ‘rights.’ When we’ve accomplished that, we might see to those of others. Maybe.

Which is to say every Christian in Indiana and the rest of America should look upon this law with ominous shudders because of the precedent it establishes for those Christians across the globe who really are facing persecution. Today, thousands of Christians live under the oppression of radical religious rule (have we forgotten the plight of Iraqi Christians under ISIS who are forced to pay a hefty tax or convert?). Christians live in fear, many unable to attain basic services or earn a living. They are boycotted, robbed, beaten and sometimes killed. All this because a radical Muslim’s expression of their religious convictions is protected by their judicial law.

And that’s not religious freedom.

True, refusing to serve someone at the local diner doesn’t equate to beating them and taking their wallet. But history tells us- again, Germany circa 1935- that its not too far behind. And it’s a slippery slide.

To many of us, this law will be of little concern. We will never feel its ramifications. Maybe this is because we don’t live in Indiana. Maybe it’s because we’re part of the religious status quo. Maybe it’s because we’re too busy making sure that religious freedom means: “I’m safe and I’m free.”

But -if we’re being honest, Indiana- we know that this is not religious freedom. It’s the tyranny of self-interest. And it’s been the go-to reaction of American Christians for far too long.

The issue of homosexuality is a real one. It is an issue of moral and theological implications that all Christians should grapple with. But someone else’s conviction regarding their sexuality has nothing to do with Christ’s mandate that- above all else- I am to show love, hospitality, generosity, empathy and care.

We must come to value the freedom of Christ more than our ‘freedom of religion.’ The freedom of Christ moves us to find new ways to love all others at all times. And it certainly doesn’t allow us to go on a legislative binge whenever we get the sense that culture is treading on our toes.

My hope is that one day the American Church will be known, not for the legislature we erect in self-defense, but for the dividing walls we destroy with our love. It can happen. And in the grand scheme of things, Indiana, you’re not a bad place to start.

After all, you have funnel cakes.

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Sincerely,

A Christian in support of freedom

 

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P.S. And, by the way, what exactly is a ‘Hoosier??’