by Kim Workman
October 10th is the 12th World Day against the Death Penalty, promoted by the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty, an alliance of more than 150 NGOs, bar associations, local authorities and unions, created in Rome on 13 May 2002.
The aim of the World Coalition is to strengthen the international dimension of the fight against the death penalty. Its ultimate objective is to obtain the universal abolition of the death penalty. To achieve its goal, the World Coalition advocates for a definitive end to death sentences and executions in those countries where the death penalty is in force. In some countries, it is seeking to obtain a reduction in the use of capital punishment as a first step towards abolition.
New Zealand abolished the death penalty in 1961, due largely to the efforts of the Hon RalphHanan, the National government’s Minister of Justice at the time. As mentioned in last week’s blog, the Labout Party had abolished the death penalty, but it was reintroduced by National in 1961. It was Hanan's role to introduce the legislation to Parliament, but he convinced enough of his party colleagues to vote with the opposition and thus abolished the death penalty in New Zealand. Hanan and nine other National MPs (Ernest Aderman, Gordon Grieve, Duncan MacIntyre, Robert Muldoon, Herbert Pickering, Logan Sloane, Brian Talboys, Mrs Esme Tombleson and Bert Walker) crossed the floor and voted with Labour to abolish the death penalty for murder. As Minister of Justice, it was his responsibility to introduce the law to Parliament, but he did so by saying that he disagreed with it. He convinced enough of his party colleagues to vote with the opposition and thus abolished the death penalty in New Zealand.
From time to time, there have been half-hearted efforts to reintroduce the death penalty. In 2002, Christian politician Brian Neeson, a leading advocate for tougher sentences, called for the re-introduction of the death penalty, saying “I had to put my dog down once and I found it almost impossible to do, but there are some people I wouldn’t have any trouble with”.
I am not overly surprised that a Christian would take such a stance. In 2001, as a newly appointed National Director of Prison Fellowship New Zealand, a chartered member of Prison Fellowship International, I became aware of a tension within the organisation over this issue. The founder and Chairperson of Prison Fellowship International (PFI), the late Charles Colson, a conservative Republican, had shifted his personal position from around 1995 onwards, and began advocating publicly for the death penalty in certain cases.
Colson later claimed that his position started to shift after visiting serial killer John WayneGacey, also known as the Killer Clown, was an American serial killer and rapist who was convicted of the sexual assault and murder of a minimum of 33 teenage boys and young men in a series of killings committed between 1972 and 1978 in Chicago, Illinois. As Colson later explained;
Perhaps the emotional event that pushed me over the (philosophical) edge was the John Wayne Gacy case some years ago. I visited him on death row. During our hour-long conversation he was totally unrepentant; in fact, he was arrogant. He insisted that he was a Christian, that he believed in Christ, yet he showed not a hint of remorse. The testimony in the trial, of course, was overwhelming. I don't think anybody could possibly believe that he did not commit those crimes, and the crimes were unspeakably barbaric. What I realized in the days prior to Gacy's execution was that there was simply no other appropriate response than execution if justice was to be served.
Charles Colson, in coming to that view, took no account of Gacey’s mental health. Three psychiatric experts appearing for the defense at Gacy's trial testified they found Gacy to be a paranoid schizophrenic who suffered from a multiple personality disorder. The World Coalition Against the Death Penalty is this year, drawing attention to people with mental health problems who are at risk of a death sentence or execution. While opposing the death penalty absolutely, they are also committed to see existing international human rights standards implemented. Among these is the requirement that persons with mental illness or intellectual disabilities should not face the death penalty.
Colson began advocating publicly in favour of the death penalty after the 1995 Oklahomabombing, when a truck-bomb explosion outside the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, left 168 people dead and hundreds more injured. The blast was set off by anti-government militant Timothy McVeigh, who in 2001 was executed for his crimes. His co-conspirator Terry Nichols received life in prison. Until September 11, 2001, the Oklahoma City bombing was the worst terrorist attack to take place on U.S. soil.
His position created a dilemma for the 100 plus nations that were chartered members of PFI. He later explained his support for the death penalty, and Colson's personal statement deserves close reading. This one paragraph summarises his position.
"I must say that my views have changed and that I now favor capital punishment, at least in principle, but only in extreme cases when no other punishment can satisfy the demands of justice. The reason for this is quite simple. Justice in God's eyes requires that the response to an offense - whether against God or against humanity - be proportionate. The lex talionis, the "law of the talion," served as a restraint, a limitation, that punishment would be no greater than the crime. Yet, implied therein is a standard that the punishment should be at least as great as the crime. One frequently finds among Christians the belief that Jesus' so-called "love-ethic" sets aside the "law of of the talion." To the contrary, Jesus affirms the divine basis of Old Testament ethics. Nowhere does Jesus set aside the requirements of civil law."
Ron Nikkel, the President of Prison Fellowship International, took a different view, and rose to the challenge by issuing a discussion paper on the topic, urging each of the PFI member nations to consider the issue, and to discuss it at a Prison Fellowship Council meeting to be held in Johannesburg, in September 2001. As can be seen from the following extract, Ron Nikkel’s position was very different from that of Charles Colson.
While the Old Testament law is often used to legitimize the use of the death penalty, the overarching purposes of God toward all offenders is often overlooked. From Cain to Moses to David and others, God’s redemptive justice is evidenced not in the execution of the criminal (murderer), but in mercy. In the person of Jesus the full nature of God’s redemptive justice is revealed through his incarnation, death and resurrection. The dignity of human beings created in the image of God—the justification given for execution in Genesis—is now firmly established as God (in the person of Jesus) takes on human nature and becomes one of us. The demands of victims for vindication are satisfied in the power of Jesus’ resurrection after his victimization and unjust execution. This power to triumph mercy over vengeance is the “Christian” victory over evil.
The Eight Biennial International Council meeting of Prison Fellowship International was held in Johannesburg, South Africa from the 17 – 19th September. It was there that Council members would discuss and debate an international position on the death penalty; and I was able to attend and present New Zealand’s position on the topic.
The Council meeting was memorable for two reasons. First, it took place a week before the terrorist attacks launched by the Islamic terrorist group al-Qaeda upon the United States in New York City and the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area on Tuesday, September 11, 2001. While it focused minds on the death penalty issue, it also meant that the US contingent did not attend – and it was in that group that we expected the greatest opposition to the abolition of the death penalty.
The second greatest memory was staying at a game park, which was populated by a colony of baboons. They engaged in their own terrorist activities; invading unlocked bedrooms, attacking staff carrying trays of food, and occupying the reception area.
We had prepared a paper supporting the abolition of the death penalty, relying heavily on the wisdom and theological reasoning of (now) Professor Chris Marshall, currently the Diane Unwin Chair of Restorative Justice at Victoria University. I had 60 copies printed for distribution, and had left them on the reception desk. To my disgust, the house baboon leapt on to the desk, positioned herself above the papers, and urinated over them. It seems that literary criticism is not confined to the human species.
Nikkel however, thought sufficiently well of New Zealand’s position on the death penalty to attach it as an appendix to PFI’s discussion paper. The concluding paragraphs of the submission sought to reconcile the competing Christian positions and move toward a theology of restoration.
We are aware that this position may challenge some Christians who would claim that abolitionism rests on nothing less than a fundamental misunderstanding of the holiness, righteousness and justice of God. For those, the Bible does not merely permit capital punishment; it enjoins it as a moral necessity. But one wonders what has become in all of this of the redemptive concerns of the Christian gospel, a gospel that proclaims God’s saving justice toward all, even the worst of criminal offenders, even those who murdered Jesus Christ , the image of God par excellence.
Capital punishment is incompatible with a gospel of redemption and reconciliation, . This is not to deny the seriousness of sin, the moral repugnance of homicide, the culpability of criminals or the validity of penal sanctions as such. But the moral order of God’s universe is grounded in and preserved by something more profound than the need to balance rewards and punishments on earth.
Put positively, Christians should be the first to clamour for true justice, for redemptive justice, a justice that fosters healing and renewal, a justice informed by the spirit of Christ and not the letter of the law. Restorative justice cannot, of course restore the life and relationships of murder victims. But nor can retributive justice, for only God can restore life to the dead.
Restorative justice can however, bring as much good out of evil as possible. It is the restoration of peace and renewal of hope that manifests God’s redemptive work of making all things new. That is the justice that is consistent with the core aims and intent of Prison Fellowship New Zealand.”
As the debate and discussion flowed back and forth, it became clear that those Christians from nations that had experienced major civil unrest , disorder, and major human tragedy, were those most vigourously opposed to the death penalty. Survivors of the RwandaGenocide, in which over the the course of 100 days from April 6 to July 16 1994, between 800,000 to 1 million Tutsis and some moderate Hutus were massacred. were actively advocating for the abolition of the death penalty in their country, and for the introduction of restorative justice processes nation-wide.
In 2006, an opinion piece on the abolition of the death penalty in Rwanda supported that government in its efforts to introduce community-led restorative justice processes.
“Restorative justice is a movement of non-violence. It provides a mature human response to complex situations of conflict and crimes like genocide. It does not necessarily provide a solution either. But it is a process that respects those involved and enhances the families and communities to which they belong. It recognises that violence is unacceptable and provides a non-violent but challenging and positive way of proceeding.
Restorative justice appeals to the better side of human nature and not the destructive, vengeful dark side. It is a movement of hope. The government is showing imagination and courage in promoting some restorative justice processes through Gacaca courts. It is vital the best people get to run these pilots. But this is not just another government project.
The success of the courts is dependent on community ownership and acceptance and a passion for better forms of justice. Without these three things, they will not succeed.”
As a result of the discussion, the 2001 International Council meeting of Prison Fellowship International unanimously passed a resolution opposing the death penalty.
This outcome was due in no small part to Ron Nikkel’s personal courage and astuteness in promoting the discussion across Prison Fellowship International, and providing the membership with the opportunity to debate the issues. That he was able to do so, and still retain a positive working relationship with Chairperson Charles Colson, is a testimony to his acumen. Ron has since retired, but is in Auckland next week, and has agreed to speak on the topic ‘Just Prison” at a public meeting hosted by Prison Fellowship and the Robson Hanan Trust (Rethinking Crime and Punishment/JustSpeak )to be held on Wednesday, 15th October, 7.30pm at the Holy Trinity Cathedral, Cnr St Stephens and Parnell Road, Auckland.
The New Zealand submission owed its success to the scholarship and insight of Professor Chris Marshall.. At the same time that Ron Nikkel is in New Zealand, Chris will be facilitating a forum to explore the future of restorative justice in Aotearoa; looking at issues in the Justice Sector , Education, Social Development and Youth Justice, and the development of Restorative Cities.
Let’s take time out today to remember the people of courage who have carried forward the fight against the death penalty, and have chosen instead to advocate for a justice that restores; the late Hon Ralph Hanan, Ron Nikkel, and Chris Marshall.