Convictions in Conflict
Leonard Pitts was unsettled with the news of John Allen Muhammad’s execution.
|Where the awesome power of life and death are concerned, ‘most’ of us are guilty of inconsistency.
Pitts is a Pulitzer Prize winning columnist who is, by his own admission, a “staunch opponent” of capital punishment. But what unsettled him was not the execution of the DC sniper; it was his lack of remorse over it, and even satisfaction with it. Pitts confesses that he had the same feelings when Timothy McVeigh was put to death.
Reflecting on his emotions, Pitts realizes they are deeply opposed to his convictions—convictions, he admits, that are also in conflict with his pro-choice sentiments. As to how he squares his loathe for the death penalty with his approval of abortion rights, he admits, “I can’t.” His only answer is that “‘most’ of us are guilty of inconsistency” in the “gray areas of life.”
He cites conservatives who oppose abortion because of their pro-life convictions, yet support capital punishment which takes life and, at times, takes innocent life. But contradictory positions are unavoidable, Pitts allows, because life is “messy and untidy.” We all ignore truths, he continues, “that indict our deep convictions, striking bargains with conscience in the name of a good night’s sleep.”
No argument here that life is messy. But ignoring moral truths for the sake of a good night’s sleep is a poor bargain.
Pitts says that his pro-choice stance stems from his aversion to laws that would “compel a woman to bear a child, for whatever reason.” Actually, those laws would forbid the killing of her child for whatever reason, or no reason.
If Pitts finds such “pre-partum” laws distasteful, why shouldn’t laws forbidding a woman to “terminate” her post-partum child be equally distasteful—one with, say, a severe physical or mental defect? Because he chooses to think of the pre-partum child as a “potential human...an oops without a name,” as he indelicately puts it.
It is the choice of willful ignorance—the shutting of eyes, the covering of ears, the closing of minds, and the hardening of hearts to:
- The truth of medical science that a real, not potential, human is created at conception.
- What we and, especially, mothers instinctively know. The woman who says, “I just can’t have this baby now,” acknowledges, by her own words, her decision to abort a child, not a fetus or an “oops.”
For Christians, it is the willful ignorance of:
- The plain teaching of Scripture. When the psalmist wrote, “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me,” he was three millennia ahead of medical science in acknowledging when human life begins.
- The teachings of the church. Contrary to the statements of pro-choice Christians like Nancy Pelosi, the official teaching of the church is, and has always been, that abortion is murder. In the second century alone, there are over 20 admonitions against abortion by early church fathers, like this from Tertullian: “In our case, murder being once for all forbidden, we may not destroy even the fetus in the womb...To hinder a birth is merely a speedier man - killing; nor does it matter whether you take away a life that is born, or destroy one that is coming to the birth.”
Pitts marshals three arguments to justify his censure of capital punishment: “It is far costlier than life imprisonment; it is biased by class, race and gender; it is irreversible in the event of error.”
As compelling as those arguments are, they are even more compelling in the case against abortion.
The cost of abortion is the loss of 46 million Americans, over four decades, who were denied the right to life and liberty. Pondering only the fiscal dimension, the loss of two generations of wage-earners and tax payers is a significant threat to the economic health of our country.
For example, consider the decline in the number of wage earners per retiree over the last few decades. In 1960, the number was 6.1; in 2008, it was 3.2; and by 2040, it is projected to be 2.1. Although legalized abortion is not solely to blame, it is certainly a significant contributor to the decline. If the trend continues, Social Security will go bankrupt, creating a ripple effect in the national, if not, international economy.
Abortion is also biased by race and class.
African-Americans comprise only 13 percent of the U.S. population, but they account for over 35 percent of the abortions performed. Every year over 300,000 African-Americans are aborted, a level that exceeds all other causes of death combined. As a black man, Leonard Pitts should be outraged that the most dangerous environment for an African-American is not a state prison, a Middle East battleground, or a gang-infested street of the inner city; but his mother’s womb.
The consequences of abortion are also irreversible, but at a much more horrific scale than capital punishment.
According to Amnesty International, about 1,000 people have been executed since 1973. While AI does not attempt to claim at how many innocents were executed, it reports that 135 death row inmates were released because of wrongful convictions. For that we can be thankful.
But let’s assume a high incidence of wrongful executions—say, 50 percent, as one anti-death penalty site advertises. At that appalling value, an upper limit on the number of innocent people put to death since 1973 would be 500. As tragic as that would be, it wouldn’t rise to a murmur amid the cries of 46,000,000 innocents killed over the same period.
A question of legitimacy
Leonard Pitts is comfortable that a physician and mother wield the power of life and death over the unborn. But in the case of capital punishment, he feels the power “is too awesome to be left in human hands.” He acknowledges the paradox and, with a note of irony, concludes that it is merely proof of his humanity. What it really reveals is his postmodern conditioning.
In an age when the existence of objective truth is dismissed out-of-hand, convictions are but products of personal feelings and life but a megalithic paradox that angst-weary folk must bear without serious reflection. It is sad because serious reflection on propositional truths would help unravel many of life’s paradoxes, including the one at issue here.
The legitimacy of the state’s powers does not depend on whether it exercises its powers cost-effectively, justly, or without error. Rather, it depends on the legitimacy of the authorizing entity. In the area of life and death, that would be God, who has granted the state very limited powers in that sphere.
The state’s God-given authority does not include the intentional killing of innocent persons, either in or ex utero (in fact, Scripture contains stern warnings for those who kill their children to appease the god of Self). But it does include the authority to restrain evil and execute justice up to, and including, capital punishment, as granted in the Old Testament (“Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed”) and confirmed in the New (“God’s servant... does not bear the sword for nothing”).
During His earthly ministry, Jesus never abrogated that authority, nor suggested that it had been modified. Instead, He taught that citizens owe “Caesar” his due, and that they should be more concerned about Him who has power over the soul, than him whose power is limited to destroying the body.
Perhaps more telling is the fact that the New Testament writers did not register opposition to capital punishment. The silence of negative opinion by individuals who had witnessed the unjust executions of their fellow Christians, including the execution of the most innocent Person in history, is strong evidence that the state retains its authority to “bear the sword” against evil-doers, even through a flawed and corrupt criminal justice system.
Christians exercise good citizenship, while honoring their life-affirming convictions, by reminding civil servants of their calling and the limits of their office. That includes holding elected officials accountable to high standards of justice and governance, with zero-tolerance for corruption and a strong commitment to both the public good and the welfare of least and last.
On the other hand, those who remain willfully ignorant about moral truth have struck a Faustian bargain that trades paradox for “good night’s sleep”—a bargain that, in the end, is guaranteed to default on its promissory note.
Regis Nicoll is a freelance writer and a BreakPoint Centurion. His "All Things Examined" column appears on BreakPoint every other Friday. Serving as a men’s ministry leader and worldview teacher in his community, Regis publishes a free weekly commentary to stimulate thought on current issues from a Christian perspective. To be placed on this free e-mail distribution list, e-mail him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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