As part of my sermon preparation each week, I like to wake up on Monday morning and read the scripture text assigned for the following Sunday. If I begin the week that way, the text stays in my mind and heart and travels with me everywhere I go during the week. Sometimes events happen during the week that shed light on the passage, or vice-versa. You just never know what the Spirit will reveal when the scriptures collide with daily life.
So last Monday I woke up and read these words from the Sermon on the Mount: “Love your enemies.” I spent all week pondering this teaching, reading commentaries and wrestling with it in Bible study groups. And last Tuesday when I went to a meeting of United Methodist clergy in the Nashville District, these words were still hanging around in my heart and head.
As coincidence (or the Holy Spirit?) would have it, a group of us pastors had already planned to gather over lunch after the meeting to talk about the news that the state of Tennessee plans to execute ten death row inmates in the next two years. We wanted to share ideas about what we could do to keep this from happening. What can we as pastors do? What voice do we have?
Now, I know that people have varying opinions on the issue of capital punishment, and as a pastor I never want to force my opinion on anyone or to imply that anyone who disagrees with me is somehow wrong with God. Not at all. One of the things I love about John Wesley and the Methodists is our commitment to “think and let think.” Our opinions on social issues may vary. We all love God and are seeking to serve God as best we can. Faithful Christians can come to different conclusions on a lot of different issues. And, if you disagree with me, I hope we can talk about this issue openly and disagree lovingly.
At the same time, I do have strong feelings about this issue and am doing what I can to act on them. There are lots of arguments for and against capital punishment—economic, moral, practical and religious arguments—and I don’t need to spell them all out here. But at the root of my opposition to the death penalty are the teachings of Jesus that we hear in the Sermon on the Mount.
Jesus never condoned violence, and neither can we condone the violent crime that someone has committed. People must be held accountable for their actions. At the same time, I can’t condone the violent response of the state. I believe that if we want a society that is murder-free, then we can’t use murder as a way to achieve it. As a follower of Jesus, I believe there has to be a “third way,” a way founded the strong love of God. I have to believe that God never gives up on anyone. And if God never gives up, then I can’t either.
Whether you agree with me on this one or not, I invite you to be in prayer for everyone affected by this news: for the victims and their families, for the death row inmates and their families, for the people called upon to carry out the executions, for the governor and legislators, for other inmates at Riverbend who are emotionally affected, for our church members who visit inmates on death row, for all whose lives have been broken by violent crime—and for wisdom for all of us to know how to respond in ways that are holy and loving. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayers.