Last updated on 2013.06.27
A pox on Steve Hickey for getting me to listen to a 48-minute sermon. But when a conservative Republican pastor-legislator (hyphenate with caution!) reverses his position on capital punishment and declares his intent to float a bill in the 2014 Legislature to repeal South Dakota's death penalty, I have to listen.
Pastor Hickey told his congregation last Sunday that he can no longer support killing convicts. His argument primarily targets conservative Christians (human fallibility, substitutionary atonement, even a little icky Islamophobia), but here are the points he makes that atheists can grok as well:
Bad Company: Pastor Hickey showed his flock a chart of executions by country. The United States ranks fifth for killing criminals, behind China, Iran, North Korea, and Yemen. "We are the only developed predominantly Christian democracy in the world that still retains the death penalty," says Hickey. "Two thirds of the countries of the world have abolished it."
Deterrence and Monsters: Hickey says the death penalty has no proven deterrent effect. He thinks it would if we made it "swift, painful, ugly, and public." But then we'd be monsters... or at least violators of the the Eighth Amendment.
Old Testament and Cultural Context: Hickey says the Old Testament authorized the death penalty for all sorts of crimes (kidnapping, adultery, homosexuality, juvenile delinquency, false prophecy...). But those rules were for refugees wandering in the wilderness with no criminal justice system, no police, no prisons. They had to have swift and awful punishment to keep order. Hickey says death penalty rules from 3000+ years ago don't work in a modern, civilized society.
Close Down Closure Talk: I caught all sorts of heck last summer when I suggested that Tina Curl would not get a healthy emotional return on her investment of time and other people's money to watch the execution of her daughter's killer. Rev. Hickey now agrees that the "closure" of watching a killer die is illusory: many victims' families, he says, witness executions, only to find that they don't feel better when it's over.
Those are the main takeaways for my fellow non-believers. If you'd like the full treatment, you too can listen online to Pastor Hickey's June 23 sermon, "If God Relents, Why Can't We?" If you're more sensible than I and just can't stand a 48-minute sermon, I'll have a summary of Hickey's Christian case against the death penalty on South Dakota Magazine later today. (Update: here's my full SDMag article on Hickey's switch.)
Update 04:35 MDT: We the people of the State of South Dakota will kill South Dakota prison guard Ron Johnson's other murderer sometime between January 12 and 18, 2014, the same week that the 2014 Legislature convenes.