BY REV. ROBBIE MORGANFIELD
ST. MARK’S UMC, LAUREL
I have to admit that I didn’t get much caught up in the debate that preceded the recent execution of Troy Davis in Georgia.
As a Christian I acknowledge that is not acceptable, especially since I see no way that one who takes seriously the teachings of Christ can find the death penalty tolerable.
In Matthew 5, Jesus decries the notion of an “eye for an eye” and teaches those listening that they should “turn the other cheek.” Indeed, Jesus sets the bar high, calling for us to react in ways that clash with the prevailing culture. But too many Christians today seem too comfortable with hatred and unforgiveness when love and forgiveness were clear mandates in Jesus’ message.
The principles Jesus articulated call us to a higher standard than what our society has embraced, and it’s time for Christians to be clear about whose side we’re on.
I don’t know the religious convictions of the family of Georgia police officer Mark MacPhail, whom Davis had been convicted of killing more than 20 years ago. In comments to the media, MacPhail’s widow used language that suggested that she is person of faith, but her sentiments fell short of what one could argue Christ taught.
“I will grieve for the Davis family because now they’re going to understand our pain and our hurt,” Joan MacPhail-Harris told the Associated Press in a telephone interview. “My prayers go out to them. I have been praying for them all these years. And I pray there will be some peace along the way for them.”
MacPhail’s widow, who apparently has remarried, called the execution a “time of healing for all families.” Her comments suggest that healing could begin because Mark MacPhail’s accused murderer had been executed. She apparently concluded that Davis’ family members were not suffering as they and many others fought to preserve Davis’ life. Davis maintained that he was innocent down to the very end and growing numbers of observers cited growing evidence that cast reasonable doubt on his conviction.
After the execution, MacPhail’s mother, Anneliese MacPhail, said in a telephone interview from her home that she placed no stock in Davis’ claims of innocence.
“He’s been telling himself that for 22 years,” she said. “You know how it is; he can talk himself into anything.”
I wonder who’s really talking themselves into something.
Whether Davis was innocent or guilty, I have a fundamental problem with the death penalty because the nation’s criminal justice system is too often uneven. One’s race or economic status can often shape the outcome of criminal proceedings, and too many people are convicted based on circumstantial evidence.
Davis had been convicted of killing MacPhail in a Burger King parking lot in Savannah, Georgia. MacPhail was working off-duty as a security guard and reportedly rushed to help a homeless man, whom prosecutors maintained was being beaten by Davis with a handgun. The gun was never found, but the prosecution said shell casings from that shooting were linked to an earlier shooting for which Davis had been convicted.
That hardly seems an acceptable standard for condemning a person to death.
Despite changes in the testimonies of some witnesses and claims that another man had boasted of shooting officer MacPhail, court officials and others upheld the execution.
It is even more troubling to think that many of those individuals would claim Christian identity. Yet their Christian faith somehow failed to distinguish itself.
My family has dealt with the issues that confront Christians when a loved one is murdered. My brother was shot five times by a man who once had been his friend. In court, the man never showed any remorse and was eventually only given a sentence of 10 years.
I still remember my father, who served as a church deacon for more than 50 years before recently stepping down, saying after my brother’s death that his heart was broken not only because he had lost his son, but because another life had taken a very wrong turn. He mourned for my brother and the shooter and prayed for the shooter’s redemption. The rest of the family followed my father’s lead.
When the man was released from prison, he returned to our small hometown briefly and requested a meeting with my father. My father met him, blessed him and sent him on his way.
To this day, we remember my brother fondly. One of my sisters remains best of friends with the sister of the man who shot my brother. We know now what we knew then: nothing that occurred in that court room would bring back our loved one. As Christians, we hinge our greatest hopes on the life we believe is yet to come.
That does not mean a society does not need a justice system, but it does mean that to be Christian within a society calls one to live by different standards.
Jesus asked for forgiveness for those who killed him and discouraged those who followed him from seeking revenge for his wrongful death.
I don’t believe anyone who has taken seriously the teachings of Christ can be totally comfortable with the idea of the death penalty, if for no other reason that there might even be the slightest chance that the one being executed is, in fact, innocent. Beyond that, there is no promise in Scripture that I am aware of that God will give us peace once we avenge a wrong that has been perpetrated against us.
Interestingly, Anneliese MacPhail told reporters that she felt “kind of numb” after word came that Davis had been executed.
“All the feelings of relief and peace I’ve been waiting for all these years, they will come later,” she said. “I certainly do want some peace.”
I somehow doubt she will find it in the death of Troy Davis.