Troy Davis and cost-free compassion

September 22, 2011

The state of Georgia became the object of scorn this week by executing Troy Davis, who was convicted of murdering a cop in Savannah in 1989. Evidence since his conviction casts some doubt on whether Davis did it—how much doubt I have no idea. I have no reason to imagine that Georgia’s pardons and parole board was acting in anything other than good faith. Regardless, Davis insisted that he was innocent up to his death. Many public figures—from Jimmy Carter (predictably) to politicians with solidly conservative bona fides like former U.S. Representative Bob Barr—opposed the execution, as did a former FBI Director, William Sessions.

It was funny the way many news reports also included Pope Benedict XVI in this list of opponents. They might have explained that since the Roman Catholic Church opposes capital punishment in general, the pontiff’s stance would only be newsworthy if he did support the death penalty for Davis!

I hope that my heart hasn’t become numb to these types of stories. Unlike many of my colleagues in ministry, and other Facebook friends, I didn’t feel any deep emotional investment in the outcome of Davis’s last-minute appeals. After all, I’ve lived in a death-penalty state all my life (except for that brief period in the ’70s when the U.S. Supreme Court banned it because of its unfair application). It’s not like I needed the Davis case to wake me up to the sobering reality of it—or to the likelihood that innocent people have been and will continue to be executed, whether Davis, in this case, “did it” or not.

Yesterday, a Facebook friend posted, indignantly, that she can’t believe that people are getting more worked up about yesterday’s changes to the Facebook newsfeed than they are to the fact that the state is going to execute someone. I wasn’t sure what to do with that. As long as Georgia has the death penalty, they (or should I say we?) will continue to kill people with it. If not Davis, then somebody else really soon. If not in Georgia, then in some other state in our union.

If we had to wait for tragedies to cease before we could resume our normal life, who could get on with living? We all have 24/7 access to every kind of tragedy, evil, and injustice if we choose to avail ourselves of it.

The whole spectacle of the Troy Davis story reminds me of a 1975 Bob Dylan song called “Black Diamond Bay,” which describes the last fateful moments in the lives of several people living on a tiny resort island that literally explodes from a volcanic eruption. The last verse shifts abruptly to the perspective of someone (presumably Dylan himself) learning about the disaster on TV:

I was sitting home alone one night in LA
Watching old Cronkite on the seven o’clock news
It seems there was an earthquake that
Left nothing but a Panama hat
And a pair of old Greek shoes
Didn’t seem like much was happening
So I turned it off and went to grab another beer
Seems like every time you turn around
There’s another hard-luck story that you’re gonna hear
And there’s really nothing anyone can say
And I never did plan to go anyway
To Black Diamond Bay.

For me, TV (and the internet) flattened the whole tragic story of the murdered police officer, Mark MacPhail, and his family—not to mention Troy Davis and his family—to just “another hard-luck story” that I’m going to hear when I turn on the news.

The media make events like this one seem unreal to me—too abstract, too distant. I don’t know the facts of the events in question. I don’t know these people on my screen. I don’t know the truth. I could muster some compassion for them, but how do I know my compassion is real, and not simply manufactured by media producers who are trying to tell me a good story—which means better ratings and more ad revenue?

How do I know that my “compassion” isn’t instead a voyeuristic kind of entertainment?

I am, along with the United Methodist Church (see ¶ 164.f of the Book of Discipline), opposed to the death penalty in all cases. As long as we safely imprison murderers so that they are no longer a danger to others, we can afford to wait on God’s justice to be done. Besides, God implements his own death penalty at the end of our natural lives. No one escapes it. And no one escapes justice in the long run. God sees to it.

So here I am, opposing the death penalty. Big deal. Unless or until I can do something about it in a meaningful way, what am I supposed to do about Troy Davis? I trust that God placed compassionate people in his life to help him, and that compassionate people are helping his family now. I trust that God has placed compassionate people in the lives of Officer MacPhail’s family. I’m obviously not one of those people.

Posting angry words about it on Facebook or even on a blog(!) hardly counts as meaningful action. It’s cost-free compassion. I need costly compassion. And that starts with people I know and people who are within my sphere of influence—people I feel called to care for.

In the meantime, I’m turning off the news again.

7 Responses to “Troy Davis and cost-free compassion”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    Brent, I don’t mean to be repetitious, but — another good post. There are always tragedies out there, and there is usually nothing we can do about them, so we need to focus on those aspects of our lives that we CAN do something about.

    I was unaware that UMC was opposed to the death penalty as a matter of Church policy. Personally, I believe that the magistrate “bears not the sword in vain,” Romans 13. Also, God was pretty clear and adamant about the death penalty in the law of Moses. He even said that he would be upset if murderers were let off from execution. To Noah he said, “If a man sheds blood, by man shall his blood be shed.” (Something like that–too lazy to look up the exact words.) I really don’t recall Jesus or any New Testament writer “reversing” those OT rules. I recognize that we are supposed to “show mercy” rather than “seeking revenge,” but I personally believe that to be more a matter of our individual reactions as Christians to personal wrongs, as opposed to how the government is supposed to fulfill its role of protection of its citizenry. See Romans 13 again. Anyway, I recognize that in your case you have church hierarchy to deal with, but I thought I would put my two cents in on the question.

    • brentwhite Says:

      Thanks for the kind and thoughtful words, Tom. Romans 13 can’t be construed to mean that everything the state does is right. In Paul’s context, he was writing, after all, about none other than Nero’s Rome. When Caesar persecuted and killed Christians (not to mention Jesus!), this was still an evil action, even if God used it for good (or in Jesus’ case, the greatest good). He also wasn’t speaking about Christians in government or Christian rulers. Isn’t it possible that Christians should be held to a higher standard?

      The consensus opinion of the early Church thought so. The Church Fathers, in general, opposed capital punishment. (I don’t know this firsthand, but a very well-read theologian named David Bentley Hart says so, and he’s usually right.) In my view the Roman Catholic Church, not to mention the UMC (which no one listens to anyway, even Methodists), is right to oppose it.

      In the one instance (we know of) in which Jesus had an opportunity to condone the death penalty (the woman caught in adultery), he obviously passed. We might say, “Yes, but the woman didn’t murder anyone.” But according to the law of Moses, adultery was clearly a capital crime—along with many actions that fell far short of murder. The exception we make for murder isn’t a strictly biblical principle. So we’re going beyond a strict reading of the Bible in saying that execution is O.K. but only for murder.

      And you might say (I don’t know) that it’s fine for the state to implement it for other reasons as well—that the state has the authority given by God and the discretion to do make those decisions. But to say that the state has the discretion to make the choice to kill or not to kill concedes my point: The state is by no means obligated to do so. And as long as we have the power to confine murderers to prevent them from harming more people, as I say, isn’t time on our side? God will kill them in the long run. In the meantime, as the UMC says, they might make use of that time to repent, which is a good thing!


  2. I love your last paragraph.


  3. Brent-

    Good thoughts, as usual. I always appreciate your perspective.

    In many ways, I agree with you. The only thing I posted about Troy Davis was after it was over, and it was 2 Sam 12:19-23, and it really was for those that had been so passionate about it and not so much about the case itself.

    It’s when David hears about the death of the child that came due to his “incident” with Bathsheba, and I felt that David’s words at the end were appropriate for those that had anguished so much over this:
    “While the child was alive I fasted and wept because I thought, Who knows? The LORD may have mercy on me and let the child live. But he is dead now. Why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? No. I am going where he is, but he won’t come back to me” (vv. 22-23 CEB).

    Prayer and anguish and petition is appropriate in the face of injustice, and for many that was probably at the heart of their responses. That being said, if Davis was innocent, it’s not the first time injustice has been done, and (sadly) it’s not the last either.

    But your main point is dead on: “costly compassion” is what is needed for the world. You know, the kind of compassion that just might get you nailed to some wood by the powers-that-be. I think I read about that kind of thing somewhere…

    Miss all y’all back in the ATL.

    Shalom,
    Geoff

    • brentwhite Says:

      Thanks, Geoff. I miss you! Thoughtful words as always. I see you’re using the CEB. I got a free one a month ago and have been using it extensively. It’s my primary Bible now. I like it.

  4. Tom Harkins Says:

    Brent, very good points on the death penalty issue. I agree there were other violations that also called for the death penalty in the Mosaic law. In fact, in the early days of the founding fathers, the death penalty WAS imposed for some of those. However, merely because we don’t do “it all” is not necessarily a good logical ground not to do “any.” Also, I think God’s statement to Noah, and his statement in the Mosaic law that he would hold Israel accountable for not killing those who killed others, did somewhat put murder in a “special category” in that respect. Further, I don’t really think the woman-in-adultery incident was about the death penalty, but about the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. That was also a “lynch mob” setting as opposed to after a “trial.” Last, I don’t think “giving them more time” is a very good basis to avoid the death penalty. With capital punishment, the criminal knows when death is coming, and therefore has every motive to consider Christ seriously at that time; whereas, when we (all of us) think we have plenty of time, commitment to God can sometimes take a “back seat” until God does, as you put it, impose the “death penalty,” often “unexpectedly.” Anyway, thanks for your comments.


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