Death Penalties

Death Penalties

Karen Campbell-Nelson serves with the Evangelical Church of West Timor as a Professor. Her appointment is supported by your gifts to One Great Hour of Sharing, Disciple’s Mission Fund, Our Church’s Wider Mission and your special gifts.

In the middle of January on the island of Sumba (to the west of Timor), a young woman, 20 years old, was said to have fallen—or jumped—off the bus she was on and died. The Chief of Police in West Sumba, who learned from the woman’s parents that their daughter had sent them a cellphone message (SMS) saying she was uncomfortable as the only woman on the bus, was suspicious of bus driver’s claims and initiated an intense investigation. The woman had not jumped but had been raped by six young men—the bus driver, two conductors, the rest passengers—and then killed. The young men were all drunk; the woman was a first semester student at the Theology School in Lewa, West Sumba (STT Lewa), a kind of sister school to the Theology Faculty where John and I teach. We did not know this student, but we know the rector of STT Lewa and some of the professors and students there.

News sources reported that in a large demonstration at the police station following news of the crime, students and ministers joined to demand the death penalty for the perpetrators. In response to condolences I conveyed via email to the STT Lewa Rector, she responded, thanking me for my empathy and prayers. She explained that demonstrators had issued a moral call, demanding the perpetrators be subject to the full extent of the law, and that the same demands would be extended to those involved in prosecuting the case.  Following an autopsy of the woman’s body, the six culprits were arrested and await trial.

In Indonesia, the full extent of the law is the death penalty and it has been receiving a lot of press in recent months in relation to a case that has been dubbed the “Bali 9”. This term refers to nine Australians of various ethnic backgrounds who were arrested for drug trafficking in 2005.  It has come to stand for all those on death row in Indonesia. Despite international and domestic protests, Indonesia has implemented the death penalty despite risking its diplomatic relations with countries such as the Netherlands, Brazil, and Australia (five of six people on death row executed by firing squad in January were foreigners).

An Indonesian friend of ours recently wrote a rebuttal to a statement by a University of Indonesia law professor who gave three reasons why Indonesia should not cancel its death penalty. Sri pushes back, also with three reasons. First is recognition that the death penalty is a violation of human rights. The state has made a commitment to guarantee the life of its citizens, so cannot harm them. Consider, she urges her readers, the number of Indonesians on death row outside the country and Indonesia’s position to do all it can to save them.  In like manner, Indonesia’s commitment to the right to life should extend beyond that of its own citizens. The second reason is that the death penalty is not effective—no correlation has been found between levels of crime and implementation of the death penalty.  The third reason is that the death penalty may not be used as a reliable indicator of Indonesia’s success in fighting narcotics in the country.

As Christians, we also have theological reasons for opposing the death penalty. The right to life encoded in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has theological roots. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, we find these first of all in the stories of creation. Life is sacred and given by God; to impose the death penalty is to claim a role that belongs to the Creator, Spirit, and Sustainer of all life. This is why I condemn not only the contemporary death penalty in Indonesia, but also a theology that would seem to justify Jesus’ death by claiming he died as a blood sacrifice for our sins. “Jesus died for our sins” is a major theme of Lent, but acceptance of this age-old Christian doctrine makes it too easy to forget that Jesus died because he was falsely accused of blasphemy by the Sanhedrin and sentenced to the death penalty by bureaucrats of the Roman empire. This had nothing to do with my sins. A clearer theological meaning to derive from this crime is not only that God suffers with the despised and marginalized throughout history—a God of the oppressed—but that God resists evil without committing it. The empty cross and the early Christian movement (pre-Constantine, pre-empire) provide us with remnants of that hope which inspired the first Christians with a greater vision and higher authority than that attempted by the edicts of an empire. It is what gave them courage.

This Lent I pray for past and present sins—my own, my faith community’s, and those of Indonesia and the US, the two states of my life. I seek time and focused reflection to join with those who seek to do the same. I invite you to reach out your hands and join them with other hands so we can make bigger and stronger circles. May our individual and collective confessions grant us courage to interrupt habits of corruption; violence; disrespect of ourselves and others; lies big and small, to ourselves and to others; and misuses of power and influence.  Resistance of these evils is one more way we breathe life and light into hope.