The Rev. Bruce Reyes-Chow: Applauding Executions: Is That Christian?

I must admit I rarely comment in this manner about things that I did not see or hear firsthand, but like so many who might not have watched the GOP debate last night, my interest was piqued when I began to see tweets about the applause Governor Rick Perry (R-TX) received for his answer about Texas executions. Apparently when talking about the number of people who were executed in Texas under his watch, the audience expressed great approval in the form of applause and cheering.

Surely this could not be true.

To find out if it really happened, I posted a status update on FB asking if it was true. Now unless all the folks who responded watched a different debate or there was a serious conspiracy in play, the response was an overwhelming and consistent, "Yep, it happened."  Yes indeed, the crowd gathered in Simi Valley for the GOP presidential primary debate applauded for the number of executions that have taken place in Texas during Perry's time in office.

From Politico [ht: Leslie] - Rick Perry, who received tremendous applause from the in-house debate crowd at the mention by Brian Williams of the 234 people executed on his watch in Texas, defended his record:

"I never struggled with that at all. The state of Texas has a very thoughtful a very clear process in place," he said, describing why he's never second-guessed the guilt of any of the people executed on his watch.

"If you come into our state and you kill one of our children (or a police officer) will face the ultimate justice in the state of Texas and that is you will be executed."

Asked about the applause, he said, "I think Americans understand justice."

Not sure what emotion I feel most: anger, sadness, disappointment . . .

I have never taken on the topic of capitol punishment, but as most would expect, I am not in favor of it. But this is not really about the issue itself or even about Governor Perry, but about the applause and reaction.  I simply believe that no matter the circumstance, it is never justified to applaud at the death of another human being. Period.

Granted, maybe I wouldn't be so judgmental if the crowd was made up of murder victim families - though I know that not all families will/do respond with joy at the execution of even one who murdered a loved one - and while I would still disagree with the reaction, I could understand. But, unless someone forgot to tell the rest of the world, those who applauded were not such families, but people who were genuinely happy that 200+ convicted criminals were put to death in Texas.

One question that keeps swirling around in my head is, "What about those who burst into applause and also profess a Christian faith?" I can't speak for other faith traditions, but I would be hard pressed to see where Jesus creates a gray area for this one. Even towards our deepest enemies, we are to show love. In fact, it is in the very act of being different than those who would commit evil in the world that we express the purest form of our faith and our understanding of community.

Now I rarely do it, but but let me drop a little scripture: one of my favorites . . . and one of the most difficult to live.

Romans 12: 9-21 (Today's New International Version)

9 Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. 10 Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. 11Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. 12 Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. 13Share with the Lord's people who are in need. Practice hospitality.

14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not think you are superior.

17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19 Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: "It is mine to avenge; I will repay," says the Lord. 20 On the contrary:

"If your enemy is hungry, feed him;

if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.

In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head."

21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Back to the applauders.

Again . . . anger, sadness and disappointment.

I guess this incident wouldn't bother me so much if the Christian faith was not being so interwoven into the GOP primary race with a particular set of Christian values taking such a prominent place in today's political discourse. But it is, and some of us need to keep telling a different story of faith. Revenge, payback and ultimate justice may work for the movies and it may indeed fall right in line with "American" triumphalism, but these are not Christian values. In fact, in the Romans passage above and in others, ultimate judgment lies with God and we must do all that we can to avoid giving into the emotionally and physically violent ways of the world.  What makes this all the more difficult is that we are not merely called to avoid revenge and repaying evil with evil, but we are challenged to go even further and show compassion and care for those who we believe do not even deserve it . . . our enemies.

Regardless of where you may stand on the issue of the death penalty, politics and faith, if you call yourself a Christian and this bothered you, let this be a reminder that we must keep telling a different story and we must  live a different life.  It would certainly be easier to give in to deep yearnings for revenge, to applaud at the death of our enemies and to think that our faith justifies both, but it does not.  In the face of evil we must not respond with revenge, judgement and more evil, but with hospitality, goodness and love. This way of life is not easy for anyone, nor is it a politically prudent stance to take, but I believe at the core of my soul, this way of life is a faithful one and one we must all try to live.

[Taken with permission of the author from his blog Originally posted 9/7/11]