Why has the church taken this stance? Because, as Jesus' followers, we have read Scripture and, somehow, discerned him saying "I am pro-life." While this is true--Jesus is very pro-life--we seemed to have added a caveat, "...but only when it comes to babies."
How do I know this? Partly due to the fact that I've been involved in the church for the past 25 years of my life. Given that length of time, I think it's safe to say the impression I get--that death, sometimes, is perfectly acceptable--has at least some validity. I've heard enough sermons based on the Old Testament passage of "an eye for an eye," to justify their stance on topics like capital punishment and war. I've sat in board meetings where decisions were made to ban people from serving in or even attending the church because of their criminal background. But these aren't the only reasons I know this to be so.
Just a couple weeks ago, every local media outlet informed the Sioux Empire that a death row inmate had committed suicide. He was found dead, in his cell, overnight. Although the penitentiary staff tried to revive him, their efforts were unsuccessful.
For a day or two, the talk of the town seemed to revolve around his apparent suicide. Everyone had their two cents to add to the discussion. Customers came into the office informing me that justice had finally been served and the victim's family would get the closure they had been waiting for. Comments on various news source articles ranged from "he took the easy way out," to "hell has a special place reserved for him." Others gave a sigh of relief because, according to them, "he would no longer be a drain on tax payer dollars." The discussion even spilled over to social media--no surprise there. I read numerous twitter updates (and I don't even have twitter). And my feed on Facebook was hijacked with friends sharing the articles and posting their opinions on the entire situation.
Given his long criminal record and the nature of his crimes, these comments aren't that big of a shock to me. He had, afterall, killed another human being--an elderly woman, whose vehicle he stole in order to drive to the capitol and assassinate the president.
I'd be lying if I said those same sentiments didn't cross my mind at first. Truth be told, I have spent far too much of my life making similar remarks. Rejoicing when enemies of America are killed. Breathing a sigh of relief when another murderer breathes his last breath. All because I am an individual who highly values justice. Like most of you (I assume), there is something deep within me that finds solace when people get what they deserve--unless it's me of course. So, you see, I, too, had bought into the lie that Jesus is pro-life, but only for babies. All of that was to, hopefully, get you to see that I'm not here to cast judgment; because that's the last thing on my mind. However, this whole situation raised some important questions for me.
For starters, all of this makes me wonder if we, the church, are truly pro-life. You see, we have certainly created a culture in the church that is pro-birth, but it seems to fall short of being pro-life. And there is a vast difference. To mourn the loss of one life and celebrate the death of another strikes me as inconsistent, at the very least. This is not what I see when I look to Jesus. I don't recall a single occasion in which Jesus celebrated the death of another human being, even a convicted criminal. He never seemed to condone the concept of casualties of war--indicating that their death was necessary for the greater good. Which brings me to the topic of justice. Namely, are death and justice synonymous? Ever?
It seems to me, here is another example where Christian beliefs have been hijacked by the political right. Where the lines between faith and politics have been blurred. Where we have taken the easy road and failed to holistically approach this idea of pro-life. Because, while Jesus seems to be pro-life, I get the impression it's much more than a stance against abortion.
So, what needs to change about our, the church's, understanding of being pro-life?
If we believe what the book of Genesis tells us about humanity, we have no choice but to believe that all of us were created in the image of God. Male. Female. Gentile. Jew. Muslim. Rich. Poor. Law-abiding citizen. Convicted criminal. While the sin living in each of us tarnishes that image; it doesn't negate the fact that somewhere, somehow, all of us speak to the grandeur of God. That if we look close enough, we are still able to see his imprint on our lives, no matter what state it's in. This is why death, in any form is wrong. Period. Abortion. Euthanasia. Casualties of war. Capital punishment. Not only do they all go against everything Jesus talked about concerning life--which, it seems to me, he talked about an awful lot. But they also suppress the very image of God that resides within each of us. To celebrate their death makes us not only less human, but less like God.
For this reason, according to Shane Claiborne, "We need to be pro-life from the womb to the tomb." And "...to talk about being pro-life," says Cardinal Bernadin of Chicago, "it has to be a seamless statement of life that reaches all the way from abortion to war to caring for the poor." Obviously, these two gentlemen are more in tune with what it means to be a pro-life follower of Jesus. Which leads me to believe that, we, the church, need to revoke the lines we have drawn. That value the life of the unborn over the born. That view foreign life as less significant. That prefer legal justice over divine justice.
Which brings us to justice. Because that's what we're really talking about, isn't it? When death is and isn't just. But this approach fails to take into account everything Jesus taught us about mercy, forgiveness and loving your enemy.
Demonstrating his Mercy, Jesus lamented "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones God's messengers! How often I have wanted to gather your children together as a hen protects her chicks beneath her wings, but you wouldn't let me." (Luke 13:34). And this deep seeded desire to extend compassion to Jerusalem, was only the beginning. Even though Jerusalem wouldn't let him offer the help (and hope) they desperately needed, Jesus still laid down his life for them.
Speaking on forgiveness Jesus tells Peter (and us), to forgive "...not seven times, but seventy times seven!" (Matthew 18:22). Scholars all agree Jesus isn't talking about a literal 490 times. The point Jesus seems to be making is that, as his followers, we should actually follow his example. That example is to not keep score. Not in the church. Not in our relationships. And not even with those who commit atrocious crimes.
Giving us examples on what it looks like to truly love, Jesus says "You have heard the law that says, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say, love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. For he gives sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike." (Matthew 5:43-45). And, just in case this one wasn't clear enough, he offers other examples, just in like: "turn the other cheek," "if a soldier demands that you carry his gear for a mile, carry it two miles," or "if you are sued in court and your shirt is taken from you, give your coat, too."
So, you see, this Old Testament attitude of "an eye for an eye" will not do anymore. Gandhi seemed to recognize this truth so easily, admonishing us that ,"An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind." This is not justice. At least, not according to Jesus. Perhaps it's time we read the Bible, not through the lens of retributive justice, but restorative. Because when we understand justice from this perspective, it takes on a much different meaning. I assert that, to Jesus, justice speaks of our failure to embody God's concern for the well-being of all people. Justice requires that we turn back to God and away from the injustices society finds acceptable--that favor the wealthy, powerful over the vulnerable, poor. Jesus' call to justice is not for judgment, but the way to overcome it.