Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Worldly Concerns

The way I hear it, Jesus was unjustly condemned to death, and was brutalized and jeered by a mob who mistook their bloodlust for righteousness, and was finally executed alongside a pair of criminals.

The meaning of this story, assuming I understand it, is that we know not what we do when we refuse to be merciful and hospitable: God is, as Kierkegaard said, "attired in unrecognizability"...and who is less recognizable, as God and as neighbor, than the poor, the sick, the insane, and the imprisoned? The message of his resurrection - the one that interests a bystander like myself, anyway - is the impotence of worldly power at the precise moment that it presents itself as all powerful.

In the topsy-turvy victimology of Bill Murchison, however, it's not the death penalty that threatens the innocent, but the innocent who threaten the death penalty:

[G]rowing numbers of Americans [are] working to put capital punishment itself to death. The technique is, object to everything about the death penalty -- fairness, pain, cost, international opinion, the prospect of executing the innocent. Death by a thousand cuts is the prescription for the death penalty.
Objecting to everything about the death penalty...that's a daring new tactic for abolitionists, alright.

Murchison's love for the death penalty - his faith in it, and therefore in the human judgment that crucified his God - is nothing new in his circles. I wouldn't bother bringing it up, if he didn't go on to insult his own faith to a degree that actually surprises me:
Considerable help [in "killing" the death penalty] would come from liberal Christians, including evangelicals of the Jim Wallis/Sojourners stamp, with their worldly concerns for "social justice."
The quotes around "social justice" are a fairly standard tactic, of course. What really impresses me is the use of "worldly" to describe a belief in mercy and redemption. It's an inversion I'd call Satanic, if I found it possible, let alone necessary, to believe in an entity more deceitful than the average hard-right Christian blabbermouth.

Murchison continues:
What about capital punishment? Does it suddenly, after all these centuries, make no sense? The principle, I mean, not every application, as in the burnings-alive of the Reformation era -- none of which we're likely to imitate as a society.
If nothing else, Murchison has demonstrated that it's possible to get from false premises to false conclusions. Putting aside his assumption that the death penalty made sense previously, what strikes me about this argument is that it's precisely the one Murchison set out to attack. He began by sneering at the idea that pain should be "a central consideration in the legal equation"; here, he objects fastidiously to burning people alive. The debate over methods of execution, and the amount of suffering they cause, seems to be a legitimate one after all.

Murchison claims that we execute murderers in order to affirm the "human worth" of their victims, who have a "unique place in the created order." He uses some astonishingly weird examples to make this point:
It would have made sense to spare the lives of Goering and Himmler rather than visit on them personally and publicly the consequences of their war crimes? What of Hitler himself, had he survived the war?
Murchison doesn't seem to realize that all three of these men committed suicide as a final act of defiance. Would justice have been done if we'd prevented them from making that decision, and then executed them? More to the point, is justice even conceivable here, in human terms? What could those three corpses possibly signify, next to six million?

The thing that Hitler and Goering and Himmler - and Timothy McVeigh, to use a more recent example - demonstrate, once again, is the impotence of the death penalty; like the saint, the criminal can always call the state's bluff, as it were, and die in a state of acceptance. Or fulfillment. Or holy martyrdom. Some of 'em may even have this in mind right from the start.

All of which confirms me in my belief that what makes fundamentalist Christianity so ugly and dangerous isn't its otherworldliness, but its smug, stupid, rationalist materialism. From its obsession with the body - that vapor, that husk - to its cheerful quasi-Skinnerian belief in the power of pain and pleasure to produce "good" behavior (or to be experienced as pain and pleasure, for that matter); to its belief in that supreme denial of human worth and uniqueness that masquerades as "closure," this ideology is as worldly - in the proper Biblical sense of the term - as it's possible to be.


Anonymous said...

Sharp post, Phila. To me, the fetishization of the death penalty on the American right is a pretty naked manifestation of the authoritarian personality.

Do I have any proof for that assertion? I'm glad you asked. I'm researching capital punishment for a book project, which exposes me to plenty of capital punishment rhetoric at all levels of sophistication.

Let's cut to an excerpt from a book I recently came across, "Essays on the Death Penalty", published in 1963 by the St. Thomas Press (the organ of a denominational university in Houston). It's a collection of essays about the death penalty by "Christian men." The first essay, inexpertly deriding the "humanitarian theory" of punishment, was contributed by none other than C.S. Lewis.

The excerpt I have in mind, though, comes from one T. Robert Ingram, editor of the essay collection and Episcopal priest as of 1963. Ingram's piece is called "The Keystone of Our Penal System." Here's an excerpt that pretty much captures it:

"Temporal power, political power, civil government, kingdom of the world, call it what you will, is that human agency properly authorized to inflict penalties of death and all less [sic] penalties for the purpose of repairing broken laws [semantic sic]. If there are to be laws by which men are governed, those laws must be enforced.

If laws can be broken with impunity, that is, without punishment, then the laws cease to exist as laws. If the power of a ruler (as distinguished from a father) to punish does not exist to the top -- or head -- of capital punishment of death, then if vanishes before him who will resist punishment to the death. Failre to recognize that ultimate worldly power is the power to kill with impunity reflects an inability to comprehend the nature of power at all. Jesus told Pilate that if His kindgdom were of this world, "then would my servants fight."


The state is whoever or whatever has the right to take human life in punishment and war. Any effort to 'abolish' that right or power is an effort to abolish the state itself: it is the definition of anarchy."

Doesn't get much clearer than that, does it?

Phila said...

Failre to recognize that ultimate worldly power is the power to kill with impunity reflects an inability to comprehend the nature of power at all.

And if you do comprehend it...?

Oy. That really is an amazingly warped argument. Thanks for sharing!

olvlzl said...

Back in the short period when it was outlawed, I recall the conservatives going nuts in an effort to get it reinstated. The shady Ernest van den Haag was all over TV, mostly due to Wm. "yes soon you'll be able to say what he is" Buckley. I wondered why this issue was so important to conservatives. I could figure out two.
1. Brutality and fear as well as racism and bigotry are essential organizing tools of the right.
2. Fascism can't be installed without the threat of death at the hands of the state being involved.

There is nothing in the years that followed to make either of those motives seem outlandish.

Anonymous said...

"and every cop is a criminal, and all the sinners saints... after all, who killed the kennedys?

so if you meet me, have some sympathy, and have some pain...

pilate, washed his hands, and sealed his fate...