Jay Michaelson, founding director of Nehirim: GLBT Jewish Culture and Spirituality, on a recent piece he wrote in Religion Dispatches, in light of this week’s execution of Troy Davis in Georgia. He says the major religions are ambiguous in their support of capital punishment, despite death penalty advocates framing it as an absolute value. He is author of the soon to be published “God vs. Gay: The Religious Case for Equality.”
RUSH TRANSCRIPT: Jay Michaelson[WELTON GADDY, HOST]: Welcome back to State of Belief Radio, I’m Welton Gaddy.
On October 25th, a compelling new book will be published by our friends at Beacon Press. Titled God vs Gay: The Religious Case for Equality, it had us already working to schedule an interview with the author, Jay Michaelson, next month. And we’re still going to do that – but with all the worldwide attention given to the execution in Georgia of Troy Davis this past week, the same Jay Michaelson wrote so insightfully on the topic of religious justification for the death penalty on Religion Dispatches that we decided to invite him on the show today, to share some of the points he makes in his excellent article. So Jay Michaelson, welcome to State of Belief Radio![JAY MICHAELSON, GUEST]: Thanks so much for having me. [WG]: Would you please just summarize succinctly the piece you wrote for Religion Dispatches? [JM]: Absolutely. You know, I think there’s a really interesting and, in this case, tragic ambivalence that our religious traditions have about capital punishment and about the death penalty. On the one hand, in both the Christian traditions and in the Jewish traditions, there are all kinds of cases where the death penalty is required or mandated, or where we know through history it’s been carried out; and yet, at the same time, both traditions constantly remind us that there’s actually no way that we can ever do it fairly – and so, therefore, we shouldn’t do it at all. And I think as religious people – and I count myself in that group – we have to approach our texts recognizing that they themselves have problems with their own teaching, and that these are texts to struggle with; and that even if an individual might warrant the death penalty because they’ve done something truly heinous, you know, we should think not just twice but we should really re-continue to think and discern as to whether it’s ever possible to have a fair and just death penalty.
It’s interesting: at the same time, as you know, that Troy Davis was being executed, there was another execution for a, sort of a, white supremacist who dragged a man to death. And I think that’s an example of someone we would all agree deserves the death penalty; and yet for me, the lesson was, and I think it’s what’s reflected in scripture, you can’t have one without the other. You can’t mete out death to those who deserve it without the risk of it being administered to those who don’t deserve it, and it’s that cautionary lesson that I draw from the ambivalence in the scriptures.[WG]: Well, Jay, as you know, much of the focus this past week on the Troy Davis case revolved around the seven eye witnesses recanting their testimony and issues of evidence; but we’re talking about the death penalty in general here, even in cases where it’s impossible to garner empathy for the death row inmate, aren’t we? It’s a bigger issue than the Troy Davis execution. [JM]: Yeah, the Troy Davis execution was just the perfect example because it’s almost straight out of the religious traditions themselves. So, you know, there’s that famous line in the bible, “An eye for an eye, tooth for tooth,” you know, and life for life. And yet, in both the Jewish and the Christian tradition that rule is immediately amended; and one of the main ways they do it is talking about witness testimony. So, for example, in the Talmud, first of all it says “eye for eye” just means monetary compensation, it doesn’t mean capital punishment or corporal punishment; and then they took the bar so high, through the kinds of witnesses that you have to have… I mean, they have to be of totally unimpeachable character, and they have to be 100% sure what they saw; and the bar is set so high that the Talmud says that if the court sentences someone to death once every seven years, that that’s a bloody court.
And then, obviously, in the gospels we know that “An eye for an eye leaves everybody blind,” and “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone;” and, you know, that’s a way of saying that none of us is so free of imperfections that we could administer this ultimate penalty.[WG]: You know, I don’t want to be trite about this, I mean we’ve all heard that if we took that literally all the time we’d all be blind and toothless; but when you mention that incident from the gospels – I’ve often said to some of my friends – in the time, the context in which that was said it made perfect sense as a way to stop a rush to judgment and something that you couldn’t take back, but I’m afraid today, if Jesus said that in a crowd of people, the stones would fly. [JM]: Well, you know, it’s interesting. I hate to say it, I think you might be right, and I’m actually thinking of a different example that we’ve just seen in the last two Republican presidential debates. You know, once where the crowd kind of cheered “let a sick person die if he can’t afford health insurance,” and then just, I guess, this last night or yesterday booing a soldier who came out as gay – and this is somebody who had served our country with honor – and the crowd booed him. And, you know, we’re in this very angry moment, and it does feel like, kind of, a mob justice moment in some sectors of our society. [WG]: Jay, there is a sentence in your article that is particularly enlightening I think. It struck me that way. I want to read it: “Because, religiously, it is impossible to conceive of a misdeed from which repentance is impossible, it’s impossible to conceive of a just execution.” I mean, there is no room for error here. If we get a proof in the next few weeks that Troy Davis was executed unjustly, unfairly – it’s done! [JM]: That’s right. And you know, I wrote that line because I come from the Jewish tradition and we’re, right now, entering the season of repentance. The High Holidays, the New Year, and before that the day of atonement. And this is one of the main lessons of this season in the Jewish tradition, is there is no sin too great for repentance, except for when you’ve done something that can’t be undone. That’s what the death penalty is.
You know, there is nothing that our society could do, and that each of us could do, to give Troy Davis his life back if we found out that we’ve made a mistake. And, you know, we were so sure – how many people who were on death row before there was DNA evidence were later exonerated by physical evidence, by DNA evidence? and it’s just… It feels almost like a roll of the dice that, in this case, there was no DNA evidence one way or the other, but in others there was. And that should just terrify all of us if we have a religious conscience or just a moral conscience: to think that we could do something that we can’t repent of, that we can’t make whole; we can’t go back and do our best and say, “You know, there is nothing I can do to give you these twenty years of your life back but here is how I’ll try.” There is nothing we can do now. And that is, as I tried to say in that article, it’s religiously inconceivable. And that’s why having a just death penalty, in my opinion, is also religiously inconceivable.[WG]: Yeah, you didn’t just try to say it, you said it and you said it well. Another thing that occurred to me, I guess because I am so in agreement with you about the way scriptures get used in a situation like this, that your article on the death penalty makes me think the application of your principle in this article is applicable in so many different other areas of our lives, don’t you think? [JM]: I think that’s exactly right. I’m glad you picked up on that. You know, this is just a prime example of “the devil can cite scripture for his purpose” – we all can find the right text in scripture to justify whatever it is that we want to say and to do. And that, to me, means not that scripture is flawed, but that the human mind is imperfect, and what’s needed is a careful discernment process in the light of our deeply held moral principles.
And we really need to think closely because religion itself, so to speak, if that’s even a word, religion itself is not the answer – it’s the way in which we express the answer. It’s the vocabulary, is the language. It’s the way we think about these questions. But to think that you can just look up the answer in a book, well that… It just doesn’t work. The book has answers on both sides, and the death penalty, like you said, is one of many examples. But it’s one that, I think in this case, it was one that is so powerful because it’s not something – as you mentioned at the beginning, I’ve written this book about the issue of gay rights and you know, that’s one which we’re, sort of, arguing about a lot in the public square; but I feel like the death penalty is one where, because there’s not quite as much heat right now, there might be a bit more light. And I never want to say that an individual should be a martyr for a cause, but it’s possible, maybe, that this case could provoke the kind of conversations that we need to have about how our religious values and our moral values enter into our civic values – and that includes the death penalty in the states where it’s still applicable.[WG]: Jay, I only have about a minute left, but I wanted to ask ,because you obviously have thought about this so thoroughly and so profoundly – what started you down this path? [JM]: That’s a really interesting question. You know, I think for me, the journey of religious conscience is one of the most beautiful that we can go on as human beings; and as somebody who does identify as gay and who does identify as religious, that journey was forced on me. I had to really take a hard look at myself and my religious traditions, and see where I could find a place for myself. And if there’s a gift that I think folks like me can give to the rest of the world, it’s just our own witness and testimony of having been on that journey. And so it was the journey of self, I think, that first got me on this path of reflection and discernment. [WG]: Jay Michaelson’s thought-provoking piece on the death penalty as NOT justified by sacred texts, titled Does Religion Justify the Murder of Troy Davis? is available online at ReligionDispatches.org. His new book, God vs Gay: The Religious Case for Equality, is due out October 25th, and Jay, I insist, now, that you come back to talk with us about that book. [JM]: Well, I really look forward to doing so.
State of Belief is based on the proposition that religion has a positive and healing role to play in the life of the nation. The show explains and explores that role by illustrating the vast diversity of beliefs in America – the most religiously diverse country in the world – while exposing and critiquing both the political manipulation of religion for partisan purposes and the religious manipulation of government for sectarian purposes.
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Through interviews with celebrities and newsmakers and field reports from around the country, State of Belief explores the intersection of religion with politics, culture, media, and activism, and promotes diverse religious voices in a religiously pluralistic world.
The host of State of Belief, the Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy, leads the national nonpartisan grassroots and educational organizations, The Interfaith Alliance and The Interfaith Alliance Foundation and serves as the Pastor for Preaching and Worship at Northminster (Baptist) Church in Monroe, Louisiana. Welton is one of 20 international religious leaders on the Council of 100 Leaders, a group created by the World Economic Forum to improve dialogue and understanding between the Western and Islamic worlds.
While ministering to churches with a message of inclusion, Welton emerged as a leader among progressive and moderate Baptists. Among his many leadership roles, he is the immediate past President of the Alliance of Baptists and is a twenty-year member of the Commission of Christian Ethics of the Baptist World Alliance. His past leadership roles include serving as a member of the General Council of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, President of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and Chair of the Pastoral Leadership Commission of the Baptist World Alliance.
Prior to the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention, Welton served in many leadership roles in the SBC including membership on the convention’s Executive Committee from 1980-1984 and Director of Christian Citizenship Development of the Christian Life Commission from 1973-1977.
Welton received his undergraduate degree from Union University in Tennessee and his doctoral degree and divinity training from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.