Black & White vs. Messy & Gray

I’m having lunch today with a hometown acquaintance to talk about the Robert Glen Coe case; he is writing about it. Robert Glen Coe was the first person in Tennessee to be executed in 40-some years back in April of 2000. It was very early in the morning of April 19th, as a matter of fact. I was there.

The case touched me in many ways. I was a freshman in high school when he kidnapped, raped, and murdered a little girl, Carrie Ann Medlin, who lived in the same county as I did. I heard about it at school, came home mad, and for the first time in my life used profanity in front of my mother: “They ought to find a tree and hang the [S.O.B.]” Instead of scolding me, she simply replied, “Is that the response of a Christian?” Ouch.

My opportunity for redemption came over 20 years later, when I served as pastor for the family of Robert Glen Coe during his many stays of execution and, finally, on that foggy cool morning when his life was ended. I’ve been with a lot of families when they have lost a loved one… but I’ve never been with a family while they sat and waited for their loved one to be intentionally put to death. It was, in a word, horrific. This wasn’t covered in pastoral care classes in seminary. It was a long ride home back with his two sisters that morning.

Don’t mishear me – murder is wrong. When I was on the county rescue squad later in life, I saw the murder scene pictures. They were awful. I know of no crime more horrific than what Coe was convicted of. But when asked about the death penalty, Jesus was fairly clear about what he thought about the matter. And God makes it clear that vengeance is His, not ours.

A lot of Christians are of the opinion that abortion is wrong; it’s a premeditated murder. I find myself agreeing with that. It is interesting to note that on Robert Glen Coe’s death certificate, the cause of death is “Homicide.” In short – capital punishment is a premeditated murder. I’m not sure Christians have any business being in the premeditated murder business.

There is no doubt that both of these issues are emotionally charged. If it had been my daughter who had been murdered, would I want revenge? Quite possibly. And if my wife’s life were possibly in danger because of the child she was carrying, would I want abortion to be a consideration? I imagine so. It may be that when our faith is thwarted by our passion, that’s when we need God and the Church the most to keep us honest.

These issues certainly fall into the messy and "gray." However, God can handle the messy and gray. More importantly, Jesus gives us the model to be with those who are in the midst of the messy and gray: that’s when people need us – and Jesus – the most.



Chris said…
Great post. I know that I too have struggled with the death penalty. I think you really put some flesh on the arguement today.

I once had to debate this (I was a criminolgy undergrad at a conservative college - and since I was against the death penalty I was the minority). From a strictly human side - it just doesn't work.

But as a pastor, I have to consider first and formost, what would Jesus do (yes, I know it sounds trite and is overused...but...)

Jesus was a forgiver. As just as he is, He is equally love. Oh, to have a heart like Jesus. Thanks for the post.
Sally said…
Thank you for this post, it echoes a conversation we had as a family yesterday... I am more certain of grey areas in life as time goes on and less certain of certainty
christopher said…
Yes, this was the best of the blogosphere. Thank you for your thoughts.
Glennsp said…
So what about Romans 13:1-5?

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4 for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God's wrath but also for the sake of conscience.

I take it that if the authorities asked one to do something unrighteous we could refuse to comply, but these verses to seem to be saying that the authorities have the right to implement punishment by the sword.
Philippa said…
I have opposed the death penalty all my life, on the grounds that there might be a miscarriage of justice.

If we still had the death penalty in Britain, then the Guildford Four would have been executed for an atrocity they did not commit. It doesn't bear thinking about.

I do not oppose the death penalty because I feel sorry for people who rape and murder children. Although I agree that the death penalty is horrific, so are certain crimes. Crimes like these do severely rattle my opposition to the dp.

Of course our Lord Jesus pardons 'the vilest offender who truly believes', but that doesn't stop justice being carried out. God in his great mercy forgave King David his adultery ... David still had to bear the consequences of it.

This is why I was never convinced about the late Myra Hindley pleading that she had done her time for her awful crimes. I can't help thinking that if she was truly repentant she would have realised the enormity of her crimes and been willing to serve her time.

Not an easy issue.
Michael said…
As a matter of justice, the death penalty may be appropriate in some cases. However, in the US the death penalty is not fairly meted out.

As a matter of "closure" for the grieving family of the victim, I cannot help but wonder how long it takes them to realize that their loved ones are still dead. More than this, I strongly oppose "victim impact statements" that are strictly emotional and completely lacking in evidential substance. No doubt our emotions can easily subdue our sense of true justice.

The forgiveness of Christ and criminal justice are not at odds; one has nothing to do with the other. Just as was earlier pointed out in the previous post, King David - though forgiven - still had to suffer the consequences of his actions.

Great post!
Anonymous said…
homicide n. the killing of a human being due to the act or omission of another. Included among homicides are murder and manslaughter, but not all homicides are a crime, particularly when there is a lack of criminal intent. Non-criminal homicides include killing in self-defense, a misadventure like a hunting accident or automobile wreck without a violation of law like reckless driving, or legal (government) execution. Suicide is a homicide, but in most cases there is no one to prosecute if the suicide is successful. Assisting or attempting suicide can be a crime.
No argument with the definition you quote; I just wonder if Christians have any business being part of premeditated homicides.