The death penalty will exist as long as people of faith stay silent

by Bill Tammeus

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Sometimes patriotism requires protest. For people who, like me, live in Missouri, the end of 2014 definitely has been one of those times.

And I'm not even thinking about protests having to do with the late November decision by a St. Louis County grand jury not to indict a white police officer in the Aug. 9 shooting of an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Mo.

Rather, I'm thinking of the fact that as I write this, Missouri is tied with Texas for executing the most prisoners of any state in 2014 -- 10, a record for the Show Me State.

It's appalling. It shames every Missourian, just as each execution in the U.S. shames all Americans.

Capital punishment is a barbarous approach to criminal justice that contemptuously rejects the most important teachings of the world's great religions. For Christians, the death penalty means the state has replaced God, giver and sustainer of life, with an expensive, untrustworthy, vengeful system that takes life.

What makes all this even worse is that Missouri officials who represent me also think it's just fine to execute people with low IQs, people who may have precious little understanding of the crime they've been accused of committing, or of the punishment that will cut off their breath.

Missouri and Georgia both this year have executed prisoners who fit that description. It's loathsome public policy. And my governor, Jay Nixon of Missouri, has gone along with all this carnage when he could have stopped it. His lack of humanity and humility shocks me.

Whatever good Nixon has accomplished in his two terms -- and there have been some achievements -- his failure to stop our state from executing 10 prisoners this year will forever be a disgraceful stain on his record.

What is it about the United States that allows us to keep capital punishment when nearly every other developed country in the world has grasped its uncivilized character and banned it? Is it that people of faith aren't together in knowing why their religions should lead them to oppose the death penalty? Does it have something to do with a residual spirit of the Wild West that continues to characterize our national soul, glorifying vigilante justice and approving the harshest of punishments out of vengeance or fear?

I wish I knew why we're only slowly moving away from the death penalty. I wish I knew what we could do to ban it everywhere immediately.

What I do know is that if people of faith who oppose capital punishment stay silent, nothing is likely to change.

The Catholic church clearly has been a moral leader in its opposition to the death penalty, though many Protestant denominations, including my own Presbyterian Church (USA), have long stood against capital punishment, too.

One of the most persuasive Catholic voices on this issue is my friend W. Paul Jones, a priest and Trappist monk who serves as resident director of the Hermitage Spiritual Retreat Center, on the board of which I serve. Just as I had begun writing this piece, Paul's annual Christmas letter arrived. It said, in part:

"Last week Missouri continued its monthly executions, hell-bent on establishing records ... This week I will chair [a] legislative oversight committee in constructing a futile bill proposing a moratorium until the legislature corrects the 120 faults in the death penalty system identified by a two-year American Bar Association Missouri study. How absurdly I live, insisting that totally unwilling legislators render 'humane' a system for which abolition is the only moral option."

Surely, Paul is right. But he's also right that our call as Christians in the face of evil is "to defy a society turned backwards, hope in the face of a sneering cynicism and wager on whispered guesses blowing in the wind with hints of being Holy."

So we protest. Which, well, is what Protestants do. And some Catholics, too.

[Bill Tammeus, a Presbyterian elder and award-winning former faith columnist for The Kansas City Star, writes the daily "Faith Matters" blog for the Star's website and a monthly column for The Presbyterian Outlook. His latest book is Woodstock: A Story of Middle Americans. Email him at]

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