Sunday, April 27, 2008

Too risky for dogs but not for humans

I was surprised by something that Justice Stevens wrote in his opinion in the Supreme Court's recent decision to uphold the lethal injection execution procedure of the state of Kentucky. By way of background, you need to know that the ruling relates, again, to the state of Kentucky and that pancuronium bromide is one of the drugs used in executions there. Stevens wrote:
"Because it masks any outward sign of distress, pancuronium bromide creates a risk that the inmate will suffer excruciating pain before death
occurs. There is a general understanding among veterinarians that the risk of pain is sufficiently serious that the use of the drug should be proscribed when
an animal’s life is being terminated. As a result of this understanding among knowledgeable professionals, several States—including Kentucky—have enacted legislation prohibiting use of the drug in animal euthanasia. It is unseemly—to say the least—that Kentucky may well kill petitioners using a drug that it would not permit to be used on their pets."
A friend of mine asked a great question: "What happens if a pit bull gets put on death row?"

Friday, April 25, 2008

"Substantial risk of severe pain" not cruel?

I'm on vacation, so I am reading a long Supreme Court decision. Doesn't that sound relaxing?

Last week the Supreme Court upheld Kentucky's method of lethal injection used to execute death row inmates. I am reading the 97-page decision in Baze v. Rees. Of course I am reading it as a pastor and a citizen--not as a legal scholar. I did not start reading at the beginning of the decision and I may not read the whole thing. But my guess is there may be more than one blog entry in my musings over the high court's judgment.

For the time being I confess to experiencing some shock over the conclusions of Justice Clarence Thomas with Antonin Scalia concurring. Thomas agreed with the final judgment but disagreed with a particular legal standard that it set. Follow his logic with me.

Thomas is concerned that the "governing standard" of the decision holds that a method of execution violates the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment "if it poses a substantial risk of severe pain that could be significantly reduced by adopting readily available alternative procedures." Justice Thomas rejects this standard as finding "no support in the original understanding of the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause." He is convinced that "a method of execution violates the Eighth Amendment only if it is deliberately designed to inflict pain" (emphasis mine).

Did you follow that? If we think a method of execution "poses a substantial risk of severe pain" and we are aware of an alternative that is readily available that could greatly reduce that risk of pain and yet we choose not to adopt that alternative we are not being cruel. Indeed, for Thomas and Scalia, an execution mode is cruel only "if it is deliberately designed to inflict pain."

Again, I am no legal scholar. Yet the formulation of Thomas and Scalia seems to completely dismiss the cruelty of neglect by defining a punishment as "cruel" only if it "is deliberately designed to inflict pain." It seems to me that the neglect of any procedure that could significantly reduce "the risk of severe pain" is inherently cruel.

Thomas recites his version of the historical context of the adoption of the Eighth Amendment along with applicable case law to show that the clause related to cruel and unusual punishment should be applied only to "purposely tortuous punishments." He is concerned that getting into the business of comparing one mode of execution to another threatens to "transform courts into boards of inquiry charged with determining ‘best practices’ for executions.'" Thomas and Scalia think that going down this road will "require courts to resolve medical and scientific controversies that are largely beyond judicial ken."

It seems to me that a connection between medicine, science and law is unavoidable when taking up a discussion on whether or not injections into human bodies of certain chemicals are cruel behavior. The same would apply if we are discussing the effects of other modes of execution including inhaling poisonous gas or high voltage electricity pulsing through the body. How can the possibility of cruelty in such actions be pondered apart from some consideration of science and medicine?

Beyond this, Thomas' analysis of history and case law notwithstanding, it is difficult to view the failure to adopt a readily available procedure that could reduce the risk of severe pain as anything but cruel. I do not claim to know the law but this logic seems cruel by any reasonable standard.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Death Sentence

I saw a preview of Death Sentence, starring Kevin Bacon, months ago and I was intrigued. Not only did I end up missing this movie in the theater, but it has been out on DVD long enough for me to find a copy at a discount price on the "previously viewed" rack in a local movie rental store. I'm on vacation, so I decided to watch the DVD this evening.

Death Sentence got lousy reviews and maybe it deserved them. Based on the preview I watched the movie expecting a sort of reverse commentary on one of the teachings of the apostle Paul. I was not disappointed.

This is definitely not a film for the kids. It is violent and foul language flows freely. But, for all the ugliness, Death Sentence does illustrate the possible consequences of failing to heed the teaching of Romans 12:17-21.

Nick Hume (Kevin Bacon) is a good father and an executive for Starfish Capital. Tragically he and his oldest son were in the wrong gas station at the wrong time and Nick watched helplessly as the apple of his eye was slain in a gang initiation rite. When the courts failed to mete out justice to his liking, the grieving and angry father took matters into his own hands. What follows is an escalating cycle of revenge.

At the beginning of the movie a gang member/murderer was twice called an animal, once by a detective and once by Nick's wife. By the end of the movie Nick looked like an animal himself. At one point well into the cycle of revenge the gang leader told Nick: "You look like one of us. Look what I made you."

I won't spoil the story any more than that. However, I will tell you that the preview and the movie itself made me think of these words of the apostle Paul: "Do not repay anyone evil for evil ... Do not take revenge ... Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good" (Romans 12:17; 19; 21, TNIV). Death Sentence exposes the wisdom of this biblical teaching by showing the repulsiveness of ignoring it.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

A dark, worthy parable

I was on vacation in May of last year and I picked Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel entitled The Road. It is a wonderful story written by a man who is, according to one reviewer, “our greatest living author.”

The Road is a dark story. I recommended it to my brother and he said, “That is the most depressing book I ever read. I can’t believe you liked it.” In a sense it is a depressing book, but it makes a wonderful point that our society desperately needs to hear.

At the center of the story are a father and son trying to survive in the dark world that exists after an apparent nuclear holocaust. The father is fixated on keeping his son alive in a very dangerous and ugly world. From time to time they have opportunities to aid others along the road and the boy always wants for his father to extend a helping hand. The father never wants to. He avoids human contact fearing that others might be dangerous and they often are. The father sometimes allows limited contact with those in an obvious weaker position who do not represent a threat. The son always wants the father to help the weaker ones, but the father resists. Sometimes he does help a little, but not much. Often the father does not help others at all.

For much of the book I identified with the father and I understood his reluctance to help others. The others might be dangerous to himself and to his son. The can of food they share might be all that stands between themselves and starvation in a few days.

But as they continued down the road I realized that the strict path of self-preservation followed by the father reduces his life and that of his son to, literally, an animal existence. Those little chances that they have to help others, risky as they are, offer their only chances to experience a little light in a dark world.

Finally the son has an opportunity to take a tiny step of faith and he does. In that tiny step of faith, dangerous though it was, he has a chance to experience a different way than that revealed to him by his father. He got a chance to speak with someone who would talk to him about God instead of talking to him only about how to get by in the world.

The Road is a dark story, and it is supposed to be. In the tradition of the dark biblical book of Ecclesiastes, Cormac McCarthy reveals the way the world looks when goodness, faith and the spiritual are stripped away. The disturbing thing is that the life of the father and son in The Road is the life of many in our society. Indeed, too often the goals of that father are very much like our goals in life.

By stripping away all the extras McCarthy hopes to show us the ugliness and emptiness of the road that many walk. Because of all the stuff we have, because of all the distractions we enjoy, we cannot easily see that our lives often follow the same repulsive road that the father in the story tried to teach to his son.

One person who read the story told me that I was too hard on the father. After all, he was only trying to protect his son. My response was that the father went too far to try to protect his son. Look how far Jesus’ Father went to protect his Son. While he possessed the power to stop it, Jesus’ Father let him die a horrible, unfair death. But revealing a path of goodness and love and forgiveness and grace was more important than saving the life of his Son.

The parable that is Cormac McCarthy’s The Road helped me to see the ugliness of the ways we often cling to desperately and reminded me afresh of the superior path offered by Jesus: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the poor” (Luke 12:32-33, TNIV).

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Experiencing peace

Last week it was reported that a minister in Duesseldorf, Germany had what he thought was a great idea to bring church folks more peace of mind. Thorsten Nolting invited parishioners, one at a time, to lie in open graves which he then covered up with boards. This was meant to be an exercise in meditation. Nolting said, “I wanted people to think about what weighs on them down in the darkness and gather the energy to resist it.”

It did not work very well at all. Nolting said the exercise went “horribly wrong” because reporters did not allow silence. Journalists kept bothering the participants with questions ruining the whole meditative atmosphere. Nolting implored the reporters to be quiet or go away, but they would not.

Whether it was the noisy reporters or the disconcerting feeling generated by lying in a grave, Nolting’s attempt to improve peace of mind appeared to have the reverse effect in at least one case. One man was still trembling 20-minutes after spending a mere seven minutes laid to rest in the grave.

While it is admirable that this German minister sought a deeper experience of peace among church folks in Duesseldorf, I just don’t think that’s the way Jesus intended for us to experience his peace in this world. In the gospel reading for the second Sunday of Easter, the risen Jesus twice pronounced peace upon his followers and then he said, "As the Father has sent me, I am sending you” (John 20:21, TNIV).

Certainly meditation has an often overlooked place in the practice of our faith. But we should not miss the fact that Jesus, on the evening of the first Easter, connected the experience of peace to his mission of love and grace. Jesus never said that his peace would be with us in our own selfish pursuit of the pervasive consumerism of our culture. The wholeness we long for is linked to the Lord's way of sacrificial service.

"Jesus said, 'Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you'" (John 20:21, TNIV).