I've been busy trying to finish getting out all of my Christmas cards. Almost every card that I am sending this year wishes the recipient peace in the new year. However, while we call Jesus the Prince of Peace, we hardly ever explore in our churches what that might mean for us. During a time of war we may spend a little time expressing our wish that our troops will be safe, that innocent Iraqis won't be killed, and that we hope for the war to end soon. These are worthwhile wishes, but peace extends much further than a hope for the end of war. Peace is not the absence of war; it is the presence of a different way of living. Peace is a state of being of total welfare, security, and justice. There is no real peace without justice. There is no real peace without welfare for all. Peace is a relational word and it implies that we are concerned not only with our own security but the processes that we use in order to safeguard it. It implies concern and care for others. And it implies a state of rest and community with the Divine.
Christians - especially progressive Christians - have a special opportunity this time of year to reflect upon the power of the Prince of Peace being born into our world, into our communities, our nations, our earth...into our hearts and minds. The Prince of Peace would challenge much of how we live - including the wars that wage, yes, but so much more. One thing that has been on my mind is the cruelty of the death penalty. Regardless of the legal reasoning for it, the death penalty flies in the face of the Prince of Peace who himself was the victim of capital punishment. Capital punishment is based in an ethic of retribution and cannot be tolerated by a people who value peace. Capital punishment and peace are mutually exclusive.
Two articles about the death pentalty have caught my eyes this week. In a New York Times article called "Death Sentences Decline, and Experts Offer Reasons" Neil A Lewis takes a look at the death penalty in the United States. He writes, "At the Justice Department, the Bureau of Statistics reported last week that there were 128 death sentences in 2005, down from 138 the year before." There are many reasons why fewer convicted people have received the death penalty, but most of the reasons do not deal with the morality of the death penalty itself. The other article was an AP story that reported the decisions by Florida and California to temporarily halt executions. Just this week an execution by lethal injection in Florida took 34 minutes - twice the amount of time that most executions take. Apparently the needles were inserted too far and went through the veins, forcing the body to absorb the chemicals rather than allowing them to move through the body via the blood stream. California, as well, has had difficulties with its execution process. Both of these articles haunt me. They call me to confession. Every time that we look at a cross we should see not only a symbol of resurrection and new life but also the mechanism of torture and death brought to the Prince of Peace.
Why, during this season of the Prince of Peace, do we live in a nation where the church, especially the progressive church, is virtually silent about the death penalty? Why don't we engage in debate about the morality of the death penalty? Is the church too afraid to stand firmly against this practice? Have we forgotten the system of oppression into which the Christ child was born and in which he died...himself a victim of capital punishment? How can people of faith, especially those who profess an ethic called "pro-life" support the death penalty? I remain dumbfounded at the tolerance that we have for such cruel and anti-Christian acts like the death penalty. As I look at my Christmas cards I wonder if we really want "peace for all." What can progressive Christians do to speak out against the barbarity of the death penalty and proclaim the arrival of the Prince of Peace?
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