News: A Matter of Life and Death

This month, the 400th person is scheduled to be executed by the state of Texas since it resumed the practice in 1982, six years after the Supreme Court lifted the ban on the death penalty. It’s by far the highest number of executions in any state in the country. (Virginia is second with 98, though it has five scheduled for August.) This Reuters article examines the “Religion and culture behind [the] Texas execution tally.” The story points to the state’s conservative evangelical Christian influence as one of the factors (along with a “Wild West” mentality of justice) that puts the number of executions so high. The state also has a devout Christian governor who supports the death penalty. The story quoted a political scientist at a Methodist university in Dallas who explained, "A lot of evangelical Protestants not only believe that capital punishment is permissible but that it is demanded by God. And they see sanction for that in the Old Testament especially." Though the view is shared by many Christians, there are also many who object to the practice. (This story looks at a former Virginia gubernatorial candidate who said his Roman Catholic faith led him to oppose the death penalty.) In recent years, opinions favoring the death penalty in the United States have begun to drop (from 80 percent in 1994 down to 66 percent in 2004, according to Gallup polls), and there are groups of Christians around the world who protest the use of capital punishment in the United States.


Of course, not all leaders support the death penalty, and the issue of Texas executions has caused some friction with international relations in the past. This feature in The Washington Post looks at how the debate surrounding capital punishment between German leaders and officials in the United States came to a head in 2005 when two German citizens were on death row in Arizona. At the time, the German media frequently criticized the practice that was prevalent in Texas. (The Supreme Court case involving the international rights of the Germans was later dismissed for technical reasons.) Though the two countries eventually came to an agreement, a debate over capital punishment also slowed Berlin’s cooperation in the prosecution of accused al Qaeda member Zacarias Moussaoui (who faced the possibility of the death penalty).

Though many countries in Europe disagree with the American stance on capital punishment, the practice is prevalent in other parts of the world. While the United States typically reserves the death penalty for convicted murderers, other nations that operate according to their own strict rules can pursue the death penalty in seemingly more minor offenses. This story, from March of last year, discusses the strict Islamic laws that called for the execution for those who converted from Islam in Afghanistan. The story centers around a man who broke Muslim law by becoming a Christian and the pressure put on American politicians to intervene when he was sentenced to death.

There is also much debate about one of the men scheduled to be executed this month in Texas, whom prosecutors fully acknowledge never killed anyone. (The man who murdered the victim in the case has already been executed.) Kenneth Foster was convicted of murder under a Texas law known as the “law of parties” after prosecutors proved that a passenger from Foster’s car left the vehicle, got into an altercation and ended up shooting someone. Texas is the only state where someone can be factually innocent of murder and still face death. Amnesty International has also investigated the case and found problems with the way the case was presented to jurors.

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Despite what some Christians may believe about the death penalty and its biblical application, cases such as Kenneth Foster’s make capital punishment an important issue for Christians to contemplate as Texas inches closer to the eve of their 400th execution.

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